Centerpinning Alternatives by Tony Ensalaco

Boats salmon salmon fishing steelhead Steelhead Fishing trout trout fishing

Every so often, a new bait or technique will come bursting into the fishing world and becomes quickly declared as the ultimate way to catch steelhead.

steelhead fishing great lakes trout driftboat

I remember when Bruce Belles started shipping his Clackacraft boats out east to Michigan and hot-shotting from drift boats became incredibly popular in the Great Lakes tributaries back in the eighties.

I also recall the first time I fished from a drift boat and watched a rod almost get ripped off the gunwale by an early November steelhead. Seeing those violent take-downs convinced me at the time that using lures was the most effective way to fish for steelhead and nothing in the future would change my mind.

I was wrong.

Without question, the most significant innovation would be the introduction of bobber fishing into main-stream steelheading. In fact, without bobbers, jigs, pink worms, beads, and wax worms would probably not have found their way into a steelheader’s vest.

Since its initial rise in popularity, bobber fishing has become even more fine-tuned through the implementation of the center-pin system. Center-pin outfits have been around for a while and are more popular than ever. The center-pin system allows the bobber to float effortlessly down the river, pulling the main-line off the silky-smooth reel, while presenting the bait in the most natural way.

A “pinner” is aspiring to obtain a drag-free drift. There is no debate that the center-pin system works because thousands of fishermen using center-pin tackle swear by it.

While it is true that you can get an uninterrupted, drag-free drift, I do not believe a steelhead will scrutinize a bait to the point that if it is not tumbling down the river in a completely natural path, it will reject it. I’ve found that a small pause or change of direction can help trigger a biting response.

fishing fish river steelhead great lakes centerpin float bobber

For example, when I finish plugging a run, it’s a fairly common occurrence to have a steelhead smash a lure when being retrieved. Most likely, the fish was being pushed downstream from “the wall,” and when the plug reversed direction from the retrieval, the sudden change triggered the bite. The same thing also happens when fishing a bobber.

Have you ever started to retrieve your bobber after completing a drift and the fish hits?

Sometimes you will begin reeling, and all of a sudden you start feeling headshakes. That is not a coincidence. More than likely, the fish was gliding downstream behind the bait, and when you began to reel, the bait changed direction, causing the fish to hit.

For years, I’ve observed steelhead in clear water. I have watched fish back up for fairly long distances to examine the bait but without any interest in mouthing it. However, when the fisherman stalls the bait’s momentum or alter its course, the fish would oftentimes attack it.

Remember, until bobber fishing became popular, most steelhead were hooked on anything but a naturally drifted presentation. Plug pulling, casting hardware, swinging flies, and bottom bouncing were almost the only ways to fish for steelhead. All of these methods present a bait that, in some way, defies the logical path of the current.

These presentations are very unnatural and unrealistic movements that fish seem to love. This proves that fish will react to erratic bait presentations.

Then what makes center-pinning so effective?

I don’t believe it is because the bait is drifting in a perfect manner but it’s the way the bait is worked and controlled down river. The long rod and free spooling line helps the bobber to travel the seam of the current where the fish are thought to be lying. Unlike when you are using traditional gear, I think that center-pinning helps reduce unwanted line drag and also reduces the need to constantly mend your line. Line drag will pull your bobber off the seam that you are trying to fish. You might not even notice that your bait is being directed out of the fish zone. I have seen numerous instances when placing your bobber a few inches to either side of the seam meant hooking fish or getting skunked.

Years ago, my father and I were fishing Northwest Indiana for summer-run steelhead. It was the third week of June, and there were quite a number of fish in the stream. I decided to fish one of my favorite holes upstream, while my father chose to fish a spot downstream.

After landing several fish that morning, including one male that weighed 17 lbs., I decided to look for my dad. I found him on the other side of the creek putting the screws to a steelhead that had no intention of being landed. He informed me that he must have hooked 20-25 fish out of the tiny run that was directly in front of me. The hole itself was no wider than 10 feet long, and maybe 5 feet wide. I didn’t ask for permission. The next 45 minutes became the most mentally excruciating experience of my life! We fished across the creek from one another with our bobbers running right beside each other. We were fishing the same depth, and I even purposely snagged his line so I could examine his rig to copy it. The only difference was that he was getting a takedown on almost every drift while my bobber didn’t not even get a nudge.

fishing fish river steelhead great lakes centerpin float bobber

Through all of my frustration, the only thing that crossed my mind was, “What is Sage’s return policy when they receive a shattered blank that has bits of tree bark buried in the blank?”

I was livid. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me?

After taking a deep breath to regain my composure, I reassessed the situation.

The only difference between success and failure seemed to be on which side of the stream you were standing on. It would have made sense for me to cross over and fish from the other side of the creek. Instead, I challenged myself to figure out why this was happening. I even experimented with different angles by moving upstream from where I was originally fishing so that I was able to present my bait in different ways until I finally started hooking some fish.

Although I couldn’t see a significant difference, the fish sure did! An immense weight had been lifted and a lesson was learned.

That day taught me that even though the drift appears to be passing through the fish zone, it’s possible that it might be taking an ever so slight detour, probably due to unwanted line drag. I feel this is why centerpinning is so successful. The centerpin fishermen will have more control of the bobber’s path using their specialized equipment. They do not have to be constantly concerned about how their mainline is affecting their drift.

When using shorter rods and conventional reels, there is a greater chance to have some sort of tension on the mainline. This will redirect the bobber’s route away from where you think the fish are holding.

What I have done to compensate for this problem is to change my position in relation to where I would normally fish. Instead of fishing across the current, I would anchor the boat directly above the water that I intend to fish and let the current take my bobber downstream. I will feather the spool with my fingers so there isn’t any slack in the line and to reduce any unwanted line drag. I would control the speed and direction of my bobber by making minor adjustments. When a fish hits, I would still be in direct contact with my bobber and be able to get a solid hook set.

This works better than setting up off to the side of the run and drifting from left to right, or vise-versa. By positioning the boat directly above the run and letting the bobber run straight downstream, it enables the float to travel a perfect, drag-free route through the water you are trying to fish. It also lets you to read different current seams more effectively.

You will get a different perspective reading the water than you would if you are seeing it off to the side. Try experimenting by repositioning the boat until you find the correct drift lanes. There can be several current seams flowing through the same run. Be sure to cover all of them. Also, you can offset the boat at different angles to fish around structure more thoroughly. This gives you the ability to drop your rig into pockets that have formed around some obstructions. I enjoy fishing log jams and other spots that are almost impossible to fish by casting from a distance. Fishing directly downstream allows you superior control of your bobber’s route. This provides you with the most accurate, effective way to present a bait.

If there is one drawback to this method, it occurs when a fish is hooked. I do not enjoy fighting a fish that is directly downstream from my boat. The current pushing on a thrashing steelhead increases your chances of a pulled hook. To help compensate against the unwanted torque placed on the fish, it is a good idea to use heavier equipment as well as larger hooks. If light line and small hooks are the only option to fool fish into biting, then you might have to pull up anchor and do some chasing. It will be worth the extra effort if that’s what it takes to get the fish to cooperate.

fishing fish river steelhead great lakes centerpin float bobber

This same strategy can be applied when side-drifting. It doesn’t matter if you are fishing from a drift boat or a jet sled. Instead of the anglers casting across the current, the boat should be positioned to run almost directly over the holding water. It is the fisherman’s duty to keep his bobber far enough ahead of the boat so he doesn’t spook the fish Also, at a slight angle, so the bobber is visible to whomever is piloting the boat. The person maneuvering the boat should match the speed of the drifting bobber. This way, the guys who are fishing can let their baits float freely, without having to make too many corrections.

If you are limited to bank fishing, try to stand at the head of the run and, if possible, a couple steps farther out in the river. You can also try fishing the opposite side of the river that you would normally fish. Fishing the “wrong side” has worked well for me on several occasions. I found that when you fish the same side where the holding water is, you can get your presentation in those hard to reach places much easier than if you had to rely on making a long, accurate cast from the other side of the river.

Besides, it’s a blast when you walk up across the river from your buddies, wave to them, and then proceed to hook a fish directly in front of them.

When you are positioned at the top of the run, instead of casting perpendicularly to the current, it is easier to fish the currents true path, preventing any unwanted detours to your presentation. It also lets you fish greater distances through the holding lanes without having to constantly make adjustments to your line. You will now be able to read the water in a new way, which allows you to dissect a run more thoroughly.

fishing fish river steelhead great lakes centerpin float bobber

Finally, you can enjoy the same effectiveness of a center-pin set- up with standard drift gear. Try it, and I’m sure you’ll experience greater success!

- written by Tony Ensalaco



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