Fishing the float-n-fly

Eddie Nuckols turned to look skyward, and a sleet pellet blew up his nose!

The white stuff was peppering Tennessee's Dale Hollow Lake in a stiff angling wind. Eddie began laughing, and rubbing with his glove-covered hand, distracted momentarily from jiggling his bobber on the water's surface. When he looked back, the bobber was gone.

"Where's my float?" he blurted in a mix of surprise and panic. Then he quickly regained his composure and snapped upward with his rod. Hook sets are free. Better safe than sorry.

"Safe" might not be the right word, however, for Eddie's rod bowed, then began throbbing as an unseen, heavy fish realized it was hooked. His 4-pound-test mono was getting stretched even thinner. "Man!" was the only word Eddie could muster. He quickly started backreeling line to the fish, trying to regain control over what had started like a scene from the Keystone Cops. Finally, after several minutes of give-and-take, Nuckols guided a 4-pound "brown bass" into a net manned by his boat partner, Larry Self.

Welcome to Float-N-Fly fishing: deep-freeze days, light tackle, frequent bites and all the excitement you can stand. Eddie Nuckols usually isn't so discombobulated. Instead, he's typically all concentration and efficiency as he casts and works his small "fly." Sometimes, though, the challenges of this light tackle, down-deep fishing method cause the best anglers to come unglued.

The irony is that the Float-N-Fly technique appears so simple, almost like crappie fishing. In truth, it is intricate to a high degree and carefully refined through years of testing. The result is a presentation that just may be the best ever devised for catching cold water bass.

Make that smallmouth bass! Yes, the Float-N-Fly will take largemouth and spots that are in the neighborhood. But it's designed specifically for smallies and waters that are rarely touched by anglers using other, more standard techniques. It sprang from the deep, clear reservoirs of east Tennessee, but now the Float-N-Fly is spreading to other regions, where word is leaking out about its effectiveness.

Here's the lowdown on the Float-N-Fly — why it works, what it requires and how to do it. Anglers who copy Eddie Nuckols' methods will have little problem warming up cold days with hot fishing action.

Overview of the float-n-fly

In early winter, as water temperature drops through the 50s, bass' metabolism slows. From then until the pre-spawn, these fish feed sparingly, and they spend much of their time holding out away from shoreline in a semidormant state. Bites are usually scarce during this period for anglers who are banging the banks with jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits.

This is where the Float-N-Fly comes in. "This presentation targets those inactive, suspended fish," Eddie Nuckols explains. "It offers the bait in a slow, subtle manner that is very tempting to bass, even when they're not feeding. It appeals to their predatory instincts. It's little and helpless-looking, just hanging in front of them. It's too easy a target for them to pass up."

The name Float-N-Fly is an accurate description of the two main elements of this presentation. The "float" is a simple plastic bobber, about as big around as a quarter. The "fly" is a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce leadhead jig dressed with "craft hair," a synthetic fur that has a pulsing, shimmering action in the water. Float-N-Fly anglers fish this combo with extra-long spinning rods, and reels spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament. The fly is tied onto the end of the line. The float is clipped on from 9 to 11 feet above it. (When rigging, the line is actually wrapped three times around the float's spring wire hook to prevent slipping.)

When fishing the Float-N-Fly, Nuckols keeps his boat 20 to 40 yards out from the bank. (He says most fishermen casting to the bank are actually sitting right over the fish.) The long rod enables him to roll-cast his float/fly combo toward shoreline, then he waits while the fly sinks. When the weight of the jig stands the float up, Nuckols holds his rod parallel to the water, and he begins shaking the rod tip to make the bobber and fly jiggle.

He shakes the bobber/fly 10 to 12 times in quick succession, simultaneously reeling slowly to "swim" the fly toward the boat. Then he pauses for three to four seconds to allow the bait to pendulum back down.

He repeats this process until the float is almost back to the boat, then he reels up for another cast.

"This presentation makes the fly look like a dying baitfish," Nuckols explains. "Bass are attracted by its flash and struggling action. The float holds the fly in the strike zone, and it looks like an easy meal. They can just ease up under the fly, suck it in and swim away with it. When they do, they pull the float down, and this is when the fun starts!"

Float-n-fly history

Actually, the Float-N-Fly is the brainchild of Eddie Nuckols' older brother, Charlie, who was an avid bass angler and who desired to start his own lure business.

"Charlie's idea was to target winter smallmouth bass specifically," Eddie recounts. "He was a very good fisherman with jigs and blade baits, but he wanted to find a niche — some new lure and technique that nobody else had."

As youngsters, Charlie and Eddie used to fish small jigs for bass in the headwaters of east Tennessee reservoirs, where currents were strong. "We got tired of hanging up in the rocks, so we started suspending our jigs beneath floats and drifting them past ambush spots. We caught a lot of fish doing this, and this is where the idea for the Float-N-Fly came from."

Over the years, Charlie Nuckols experimented with this presentation in still, deep water. He discovered that it was deadly on suspended smallmouth. Then he began designing and producing "flies" with different color schemes. Charlie founded Bullet Lures in 1986. In the next 10 years, he built up a loyal — albeit mostly local — following of Float-N-Fly enthusiasts.

Then, tragically, Charlie Nuckols died in a boating accident in 1996. Eddie, a route driver for Federal Express, took over the operation of Bullet Lures to keep his brother's fishing legacy alive.

Since then, Eddie Nuckols has balanced his driving job with his efforts to promote the Float-N-Fly. "I tell people to take everything else out of their boat, to get rid of the temptation to lay it down, then to fish the Float-N-Fly all day long. If they'll give it a fair chance, they'll learn how effective it really is."

Nuckols and regular tourney partner Larry Self routinely show how effective the Float-N-Fly is in regional wintertime tournaments. These men — and this presentation — dominate buddy events they enter.

They have won two of the last three annual Billy Westmorland/Horse Creek Resort Invitational tournaments on Dale Hollow Lake. Whenever conditions are right and these anglers show up with their Float-N-Flies, they are odds-on favorites to win.

Float-n-fly specifics

Again, the Float-N-Fly presentation is highly refined, and anglers wishing to try it should follow Eddie Nuckols' instructions to the letter.

When to fish the Float-N-Fly — Nuckols starts fishing it in early winter, when the water temperature dips into the mid-50s. "Typically, we'll get a cold front the first week or two of December that'll drop the water temperature 4 to 5 degrees overnight. This sort of stuns the fish and causes them to move off the banks and suspend. This is when the Float-N-Fly takes over." Nuckols sticks with his presentation through winter into April, when the water temperature climbs back into the mid-50s.

Water conditions — The Float-N-Fly was designed for deep upland reservoirs with clear to semiclear water. However, Nuckols' testing has proved that this presentation also works in dingy water. "The fish feel the fly's vibrations, and they'll find it even if the water has some stain." In dingy water, Nuckols uses a brighter colored fly than he does in clear water.

Best weather conditions — "Bad weather makes smallmouth bite," Nuckols affirms. "Pretty bluebird days are the worst for fishing. I like cloud cover and wind. And it doesn't get too cold to use this presentation. If the lake's not frozen over, the Float-N-Fly will produce."

Tackle — Nuckols uses a St. Croix 8 1/2-foot Premier Series two-piece graphite rod, which this company makes specifically for fishing the Float-N-Fly. It has a fast tip for easier casting and more effective playing of big smallmouth. It also has oversized line guides, which facilitate easier casting. This rod should be matched with any good quality spinning reel spooled with premium 4-pound-test monofilament line.

Scent — Nuckols religiously adds a coating of Lure Doctor scent to his fly. He dabs a small amount of this gel on his index finger, rubs it around with his thumb, then applies it down both sides of the fly's hair dressing.

Casting technique — The long rod and the length of line between float and fly make casting the rig somewhat unwieldy, but first time users catch on quickly. The technique is similar to casting with a fly rod. Nuckols explains, "You start with your line lying on the water in front of you. Trip the bail, and hold the line with your forefinger. Next, pick the line up with the rod and make an extended back cast, like you're hauling a fly line. When the line plays out behind you and the rod loads, make a sharp forward cast and let the line go. This is like casting a Carolina rig with a long leader. It's not too precise a way to cast, but it doesn't have to be. You're casting to an area instead of a specific spot. You just lob it in toward the bank, wait until the float stands up, then start jiggling and swimming the fly back to the boat."

Running and gunning

Eddie Nuckols says the most common mistake anglers make with the Float-N-Fly is staying on a bank or point too long without bites. "It's just like using any other bait. You've got to keep moving until you find bass. I may try steep banks, main lake points, secondary points, big coves, little coves, humps. I'll keep searching until I put a pattern together, then I'll concentrate just on the structure that's paying off."

Nuckols keeps alert for such clues as presence of forage, wind direction, sunlight penetration and other factors that might cause bass to congregate in certain areas. "I theorize about 'why' more than I should, but it's the 'where' that really counts. Anglers have to learn the type of spots the fish prefer on that given day, then focus only on them."

One other point: Nuckols stresses presenting the jig at or above the bass' level — not below them. "I'll keep an eye on my depthfinder, and if I see fish below me, I'll make sure to set the float so the fly suspends above them. Smallmouth feed up, not down."

Playing big bass on "cobweb" line

A 6-pound smallmouth hooked on 4-pound line is a guarantee for heartburn! Still, the thin line is necessary for casting the Float-N-Fly and allowing the fly to drop quickly beneath the float. Thus, anglers must learn to be delicate when fighting big fish on this light tackle.

"Usually, smallmouth take the fly out in open water away from cover, so they won't hang up," Nuckols explains. "All you have to do is stay connected to them until they wear out. This may take awhile. You can't horse 'em. You give line when they want to run, then you take it back when you can. Otherwise, you just let the rod do its job. The main things are to be patient and keep the fish from wrapping around the trolling motor or the big motor."

When a bass makes a run, Nuckols backreels instead of relying on drag to play out line. "Backreeling is a lot safer than depending on drag," he says. "You can give line faster, and you don't have to worry about adjusting drag."

When a bass finally tires and is led to the boat, Nuckols prefers dipping it with a landing net instead of lipping it.

Does tiring fish out completely before landing them hurt chances of successful live release? "No," Nuckols answers. "They don't get too stressed in the cold water. When you release a fish, it might sulk for a few seconds, but then it'll come to life and swim away unharmed."

Fishing trip to remember

The date of our trip was March 3, 2002. Eddie Nuckols, Larry Self and this writer endured an extremely harsh day on Dale Hollow. The temperature was in the mid-20s, and the lake was wracked by bone-chilling winds, sleet and snow. We never saw another boat from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we caught smallmouth all day long!

Eddie kept the boat in the middle of coves over 30-plus feet of water, and we cast from 5 to 10 yards off the banks. Our floats were set 11 feet above our jigs.

Eddie had pre-fished the previous day and knew where smallmouth were holding. The main question when we started was whether they would bite after the wild weather swing that had occurred during the night.

The first spot dispelled any doubt. Larry Self missed a "pull-down" on his second cast. A few minutes later, I got a bite and boated a 1 ½-pound largemouth. Then Eddie Nuckols followed with a 3-pound brownie.

We had action on every bank we tried. One fish after another fell prey to the Float-N-Fly. In the course of the day, we caught some two dozen smallmouth, three spotted bass, my largemouth and a pair of rainbow trout. The largest smallmouth was Eddie's 4-pounder. Average size was 2 to 3 pounds.

I had little difficulty mastering the technique. What's hard about watching a float go down and setting the hook? Also, the percentage of hookups to bites was very high. The hardest part was being patient when playing fish and not trying to rush them to the boat.

Eddie Nuckols' biggest-ever smallmouth on a Float-N-Fly weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces, though he's caught numerous 4s and 5s. He had one sow on that he believes would have weighed over 10 pounds. "I had her on for several minutes," he recounts. "She came up three times. I've never seen another smallmouth that big. I was being real careful with her. I didn't do anything wrong. The hook just pulled out, and she was gone."

She was gone, but Nuckols' memory of her still lingers. So do those of other fish and fabulous days when the temperature was cold but the action was hot. Nothing will fire you up like a heavy smallmouth going wild on 4-pound-test line! This truly gives new meaning to the term "cold sweat."

Anglers wanting more information on the Float-N-Fly technique or Bullet Lures should contact Eddie Nuckols at P.O. Box 652, Jonesborough, TN 37659; 423-753-6151.