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How to Use Floats & Live Bait for Spotted Sea Trout

Choosing the right float and rig allows for targeted presentations that produce excellent catches of sea trout and other inshore saltwater species.

“It’s the old time way to fish for trout around here. What everyone use to do,” Chris Holleman said as we stood side by side on the back deck of his boat, watching pole floats drift slowly away from us.

“And it’s a great way to catch fish,” he added with a smile as his float shot under and he set the hook into a sea trout.

Float fishing with large slip-style floats like Thill Big Fish Sliders and Weighted Pole Floats, allows you present live bait just off the bottom, where trout like to feed, and to effectively work areas to locate schools of fish. It produces well year ‘round but is especially effective during winter, when spotted sea trout (also commonly called speckled trout) tend to congregate in deeper holes in tidal creeks, rivers and canals.

Drifting Approach

Saltwater Float RigSaltwater Float Rig
Thill Big Fish Slider rigged for drifting live bait.


Chris Holleman, who operates Blue Cyclone Inland Fishing Adventures, has been fishing the Jacksonville area since he was a young boy and learned float fishing from his dad and other veteran anglers. Holleman spends the largest share of his fishing time casting artificial lures, but he still commonly pulls out the float rigs to connect clients and friends with fun and reliable speckled trout action.

Holleman uses slip-knot-style bobber stop to set his depth and generally wants his bait suspended a foot or two off the bottom. He chooses times when the tide has decent movement, whether incoming or outgoing, and positions his boat upcurrent of where he expects the fish to be.

“There’s no reason to cast,” he said. “Just drop the float right behind the boat, let the bait sink until the float stands up, and then feed line as the float drifts away.”

Holleman likes deep runs along outside bends, water under bridges, and dropoffs in tidal creeks, rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway.  From the marsh grass edges, the bottom often slopes out gradually from a few feet to six or seven feet deep and then drops sharply to around 15 feet deep. The trout hold in the deep water, close to the drop. Holleman positions his boat directly over the first deep water so his baits stay over the same depth range and close to the drop throughout each drift.

This technique requires a large float because an ounce or two of weight is commonly needed to get the bait to stay at the right depth in the tidal current. Additionally, a large float provides needed visibility as the float drifts away, often with a bit of a chop, low light or backlighting adding challenges.

Holleman’s normal drifting rig, from top to bottom, includes a bobber stop, bead, float, bead, egg weight, bead, barrel swivel, 2- to 3-foot leader and wide-gap bait hook. For casting, the sliding elements all rest atop the barrel swivel. Once the rig lands, the weight carries business end down and the float slides up the line until it comes to the top bead and stopper, at which point the float stands up, with the bait suspended off the bottom.

Holleman’s primary live bait for spotted sea trout is a live shrimp. However, he noted that mud minnows, pogies and finger mullet also work well. He is more apt to use baitfish if he expects to find stripers or larger redfish in an area.

Target Casting

Spotted Sea Trout on FloatSpotted Sea Trout on Float
Largemouth bass on float rigLargemouth bass on float rig
In tidal waters, float fishing with shrimp produces multiple species, including speckled trout and largemouth bass.

Holleman also does a lighter weight version of slip float fishing with live bait, where he uses spinning tackle and smaller floats and weights for shallower water and he typically casts the rig around seawalls, dock supports and other specific pieces of cover.

The lighter rig is configured the same, but he use a Thill Wobble Bobber and ¼- to ½-ounce sinkers. Sometimes he uses bullet weights, designed for bass fishing with plastic worms. The weight shape doesn’t matter to Holleman. He just needs something that slides on the line and is the right weight to balance with the float and keep the bait in the zone.

Although this style of float fishing produces a lot of sea trout from certain spots, it is much more of a multi-species approach for Holleman. Many of the areas he most likes to fish with this technique are in brackish portions of the St John’s River and its tributaries, and Holleman catches a mix of trout, redfish, largemouth bass and flounder.

“People are surprised that I use live shrimp to catch bass, but I catch quite a few bass that way,” he said.

               For casting to cover, Holleman often sets the rig three of four feet deep. He wants it shallow enough to suspend around any cover he fishes and isn’t concerned about always keeping it close the bottom when the fish are relating to cover.

Float Fishing Tips

Float drifting techniqueFloat drifting technique
  • Weighted Pole Floats add casting ease for windy conditions or for reaching fish in the surf or other settings that call for long casts.
  • Unweighted floats make it easier to gauge the proper amount of weight.
  • Use slightly lighter leader material than your main line so you’ll lose only terminal end tackle if a snag won’t come undone.
  • Match the hook size to the bait size.
  • Use floats with bright colors so you can keep a good eye on them as they drift.
  • Snap the rod tip back periodically while the float rig is drifting. This is similar to mending a fly line and will keep extra line from looping ahead of the float, allowing for better hooksets.

Calling Fish

Shifting gears, we’d be remiss to talk about float fishing for spotted sea trout and other inshore gamefish without discussing the Bomber Paradise Popper X-treme. Along with suspending live bait or soft-plastics at a prescribed depth, Paradise Poppers call fish from afar with loud clacks and splashes.

A Paradise Popper is designed for shallow presentations and often fished around marsh edges or other cover or cast in open water to feeding fish that reveal themselves by busting the surface, running bait to the surface or creating “slicks.” It comes in popping and oval shapes, with the popping version being much splashier but both using brass and plastic beads that bang together to create loud clacks and draw fish’s attention.

Rigging is simple. Tie the top swivel eye to the terminal end of your line. Add 18 inches to 4 feet of leader to the other end, based on the depth you want to fish. Complete the rig with a jighead or with a bait hook and possibly a bit of weight above the hook. Live shrimp and finger mullet work wonderfully beneath Paradise Poppers. A 3.5-inch YUM Pulse on a jighead provides a great artificial lure option.

The technique is similarly simple. Cast to a spot. Let the rig settle and then snap the rod tip back firmly to engage the rattles and pop the float. Let the bait sink and then pop again. Experiment with single pops and series of pops and with pauses of different lengths and pay attention to the cadence that causes the cork to dart out of sight!

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