This article was originally published in Great Lakes Angler Magazine
The head shakes reverberated through the rod, into my arm and deep into my shoulder. It was a good fish and I was losing control of it. Too much pressure; not enough pressure; the reel slipped through my fingers as I struggled to find a happy medium. The long rod was a little awkward, but its power was incredible, a far cry from the noodle rods of old. I needed to get this fish under control, and quickly. I had toiled with casting, and it wasn’t easy to master, but I had no idea of what was in store for me once I actually hooked a fish.
The centerpin was nothing new to the fishing world, but at the time it was a rare site on Great Lake tributaries, and was entirely new to me. I had been told over and over by a small circle of fishing buddies just how effective this technique was but I’ll admit I was a little reluctant to give it a shot. I caught plenty of steelhead as it was, why should I do it any other way? My spinning reel could run a float just as good, right? Wrong.
Running a float with a spinning reel leaves a lack of line control. Too much line out leads to slack, slack to missed strikes and poor hooksets. Not feeding enough line out leads to awkward, inefficient, un-natural drifts.
A levelwind or bait caster is also a popular way to run a float set-up, but again it just isn’t as affective as a ‘pin. No matter how good the levelwind reel, they do not free spool like a centerpin. There must always be some sort of drag in order to start a spool spinning on a levelwind. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible to run the small floats and subsequent set-up often required for smaller Great Lakes tributaries.
When presenting a float the centerpin is superior to any other method. The free spool offers up an incredibly natural presentation, which we all know is essential to most river steelhead scenarios.
THE MECHANICS OF FISHING A ‘PIN
Many will shy away from centerpining because of the horror stories they have heard about casting. It was the number one reason I was hesitant to give it a shot. A seasoned centerpinner has the ability to make the cast look simple but in all honesty it’s not that simple. I’m not trying to scare anyone away, but even the most veteran steelheaders have a learning curve when it comes to running a centerpin. There are a few different ways to cast, but I suggest starting with the side cast. I know right now there are some reading this and disagreeing as the side cast does have its flaws, most notably line twist, but it really is the easiest cast to master. If you want to eliminate much of the frustration associated with casting stick with what is easy and progress from there.
The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ couldn’t be more relevant when it comes to casting. Whichever way you choose to cast stick with it and practice, practice, practice, eventually it becomes second nature.
Now you’ve mastered the cast and a few times on the water means you’re starting to run drifts like a pro. The float goes down and you’re into a fish; a big fish. Now what? When I first got into centerpinning I thought nothing could be more difficult than learning to cast, that was until I hooked my first big fish. As much as I hate to admit it that fish took me by surprise and beat me up pretty bad.
With nothing but your fingers as drag, it’s fisherman versus fish and the 1:1 pick up ratio makes it difficult to catch up to a fish as it screams towards you.
Fighting a fish is something that you will simply have to learn. Too much pressure can lead to equipment failure resulting in lost fish; too little pressure will lead to a long, dragged out fight and an exhausted fish that will have little chance of survival once released. Every fish will fight differently and only experience will help your fighting skills.
The lack of any mechanical drag as well as its ability to free spool with ease set the center-pin from any other type of fishing reel on the market today. The reels range from 3 ½ inches to 5 inches in diameter with anything between 4 ½ and 5 inches being the norm on Great Lakes tribs. I base my reel choice on the water I’ll be fishing or the size of fish I may be encountering. The larger the water or fish I’m after, the larger the reel I like to use for one simple reason: larger diameter reels pick up line quicker than their smaller counterparts, making it easier to catch up to big fish.
There is no doubt that the most important piece of equipment is the rod. Acting as a shock absorber, with no drag on the reel, the rod is what fights the fish. Typically a Great Lakes float rod will range from 11’ to 15’ in length. Just like the reel, the size of the rod is matched to the size of the river being fished. A 15’ rod will make it much easier to turn a fish in big heavy flows, but an 11’ can come in handy when fishing tight quarters on smaller streams. For most a 13’ rod will cover all basic floating needs, and is the most common length.
A longer rod also helps with float control by allowing you to keep the line up off of the water and therefore reduce line ‘bow’. Line bow occurs when the line lays on the surface of the water and moves quicker than the set-up itself, resulting in too much line out that will eventually begin to pull the presentation instead of allowing it to float naturally. That excess line will always result in a less than favorable hook set. The long rod will not only help prevent line bow but on those long drift when bowing does occur the long rod makes it easy to ‘mend’ the line and correct the drift.
Gone are the days of the old noodle rod. Float rods now are powerful enough to handle big, hot fish yet light enough to protect light leader lines. When choosing a rod I look for something with a sensitive, fast tip and enough back bone to control big fish. Try and pick a nice light rod, even if it means spending a few extra bucks. Rods of this length can get heavy and a great day can turn miserable when your arm starts to tire from carrying a heavy rod all day.
Advances in fishing line have lead to the introduction of no stretch, floating lines designed specifically for float fishing. Personally I still prefer mono over anything on the market. A quality line must perform well in all conditions be it the heat of late summer or the dead of winter and should have low memory and good knot strength. Take into consideration that the softer, more limp the line the easier it will be to cast. 8-12 lb test is sufficient for most applications. Any heavier and the larger diameter will cause problems with casting, line binding up on the spool, and wind catching it and interfering with the drift.
The availability of high quality, super thin fluorocarbon leader material means there really is no need for the super light 2lb and 3lb test leaders of old. The thin diameter, near invisibility, and abrasion resistance of fluorocarbon has allowed steelheaders to run much higher pound test leaders. Even in gin clear water I don’t run anything smaller than 6lb test, and as visibility lessens I will bump up to 8lb or even 10lb. Be careful though and make sure that your rod can handle the heavier lines. If your rod is rated for 8lb test and you’re running 10lb you run the risk of blowing it up as well as voiding any warranty it may have had.
Ask a hundred different float fishermen what the perfect shot pattern is and you will get a hundred different answers. It is important to keep a couple of things in mind when placing shot and it starts with the float. Floats are available in multiple sizes and in most cases will have a number on them (4g, 5g, etc) which indicates the weight in grams needed to balance the float properly in the water. The size of the float is determined by the type of water being fished. The faster and deeper the water, the larger the float and in turn the more weight needed to balance. Experiment with your shot pattern. Shot should be staggered up the mainline between the leader and the float. Begin with the smallest shot closer to the leader and use progressively larger shot as you near the float. The idea is to have as natural presentation as possible. The water is at its fastest on the surface, and placing the heavier shot near the float will help to slow it down and ensure that your bait is traveling out in front of everything else and is therefore the first thing the fish sees.
The bait of choice for most Great Lakes steelheaders is fresh roe. Bags tied anywhere from dime to quarter size, in a variety of colors depending on water clarity, are a sure fire way to get into fish. Do not however limit yourself to just roe. Jigs tied in marabou or rabbit hair were designed to be fished under a float and pink plastic worms are deadly when presented this way. At the risk of offending the diehard fly guys that may be reading this, I have to say that there is no better way to present a fly than under a float. When done properly there is none of the line drag associated with fly fishing and the fly can be presented much further and much more precisely.
All of these baits can really come in handy during the late fall when the roe bite starts to die off. Keep an open mind to the bait that you use and you will put more fish on the bank.
My reluctance to try centerpinning was somewhat justified as the learning curve was incredible. I never did get that first fish under control, and it was the first of many that managed to escape before I finally mastered the art of ‘pinning (I say mastered but to this day my own errors still lose me fish). Patience paid off however, and I am now able to enjoy what is the most effective way to catch steelhead. Give it a shot. All it takes is one fish and you’ll be hooked, and there’s no turning back.