Something New and Very Effective
My timing and location were almost perfect.
It was the last weekend of April. The Saugeen had an attractive flow. The water around me was clear, deep, running fast and the river’s temperature was hovering just over 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was also the first weekend of the steelhead season in the mid-section of Ontario’s most famous trout highway.
The previous day’s scouting had revealed plenty of fish movement. The fishways downstream had been passing thousands of pre-spawners intent on reaching the mating grounds to propagate. Upstream, a few hundred yards above me at the Truax Dam I could even now witness silver images jumping and rocketing through a breach in the aging cement, intent on reaching the gravel beds above.
I’d fished this same stretch of the Saugeen previously. The pool in front of me was a staging point below the breach in the dam. Here fish would pause to rest, possibly feed and search out the easiest avenue of negotiating the passageway through and over the dam. Trout would definitely be holding in the slower current. The trick was, to turn on their taste buds.
I began a series of fan casts.
The first sent the float, shot, and accompanying roe bag far up, out and across my target area. With the reel’s gears disengaged and just a touch of pressure from my thumb, the float carried downstream in a perfect natural presentation for 30 yards.
Completing the drift, I engaged the reel and began the retrieve. A second cast, not quite as far as the first had the float following the suspended roe bag along in the current. Then came the telltale dimple and pause motion of the float. Holding my thumb down on the spool I leaned back hard on the long graphite and stabbed the barb home.
The reaction from the trout was also immediate.
Two and a half feet of chromed fury came bursting up out of the Saugeen’s surface, followed by a tail walk across the top of the water. You just have to experience the pent up anger of a fresh run Lake Huron rainbow trout that has just been tricked, to believe it.
For the next couple of minutes that overgrown steelhead seemed to spend more time out of the water than in it with a series head over tail tumbles, explosive eruptions, and monofilament meltdowns in an attempt to lose the hook.
In the end though, it was the combination of quality rod, reel, and line that wore down the beast. As a matter of fact, in the next two hours, I had the opportunity to bring and release three other respectable bows to the net….all thanks to the combination of quality rod, reel, and line, as well I guess a little bit of luck and a small degree of skill on my part.
Earlier, when I had first arrived, a half dozen fishermen were working both sides of the river around me. As could be expected all were utilizing long rods, light line, floats, and centerpin reels. That’s just the way the steelhead fishery had transformed over the past 40 years around the Great Lakes. A few anglers are content to toss spoons and spinners. A few anglers are still content to bounce bottom. The majority of Great Lakes steelheaders though are float fishing fanatics and the majority of those fanatics utilize centerpin reels.
Here I was on this early morning doing something entirely different. Oh, I was float fishing all right, but not with a centerpin. I had a small, low profile baitcasting reel attached to the top side of my long graphite and the results were paying dividends.
In fact, better dividends than most of the centerpin users around me were achieving.
A Little History
Time flies by.
It seems like only yesterday, but actually it was more than 45 years of yesterdays that I have been experimenting with rods and reels for catching steelhead. I can remember sitting in my car way back when alongside a warm water electric generating outflow and watching a young fellow by the name of Dave Towers catching brown trout after brown trout.
His expertise was obvious, but it was the rod and reel that he was using that really caught my eye. It was the very first custom-built graphite steelhead rod I’d ever seen.
After 30 minutes I had witnessed enough of watching his magic. I was out of the car, introducing myself and then asking if I could give his rod and reel combo a workout.
Five drifts and two trout later I was asking another question… if he would put a price on the rod? It was the first graphite I had ever had in hand and now wanted to buy it. It was the early 1970’s. Phil Clock and his staff at Fenwick had just introduced graphite fish rods to the angling world. This material was lighter, stiffer, stronger, and more sensitive than fiberglass. Dave Towers had just finished tying up this 9-foot, two-piece 8-weight Fenwick HMG that was actually built from an 8-weight Fenwick fly rod blank and I had to have it.
To make a long story short, it’s amazing what a little begging, a little crying and waving a handful of 20-dollar bills can do. More than four and half decades have come and gone and that little 9 footer is still one of my all-time favorites. Paired with an original, made in Sweden Cardinal 3, I believe even today I still have one of the finest bottom bouncing outfits ever tied. It’s also a great crossover combo for tossing spinners and baits for bass and other small game fish. It’s also a rod and reel that is only used exclusively by this owner and no one else.
That same summer I made my first trip to the west coast to sample the steelhead fishing with Herb Good and Buzz Ramsey in Washington State and Oregon. These two anglers were and still are a couple of the finest steelheaders I’ve shared water with.
I had brought along my new custom graphite and the little Cardinal, but that first morning fishing Oregon’s Hood River I was surprised to find both Good and Ramsey utilizing their new graphite rods paired with Pflueger Supreme level-wind reels. These reels of 40 years ago could best be described as “direct” drives. There were no buttons or bars to press to release the drag. The boys just made their casts directly out and away with enough weight above their cut spawn offerings to hit their target water.
They would then gently lift and bounce their offering along and down with the current. All the time the reel’s handle would be turning as the bait covered possible holding water away from them. And boy did they catch fish!
It was the first time I had witnessed level wind reels incorporated in the sport of steelheading. I also realized immediately that there was more control over the drift of the bait with the level-wind reel than I was achieving with my open-faced spinning reel. With the level wind, the two Oregon anglers could lift their rods slightly, release pressure on the slow turning spool of the Pfluegers and drop their baits back with the current.
My spinning reel was more suited to shorter fan casts and drifts. I had no control over the bait once the bail was open. I came back to Ontario with a better understanding of level winds and steelhead fishing opportunities.
Not the ultimate solution, but more opportunities when the right situations arose.
Returning to the Great Lakes, I was introduced to and became good friends with another angling pioneer that same autumn. At 6 foot, 4 inches he was a big man and he also swung a big fishing rod. Dick Swan from Clare, Michigan, was an outspoken innovator and a fisherman.
He was the inventor of the noodle rod and the major proponent of light line fishing. Starting with fiberglass and graduating to graphite, Swan’s rods got longer and lighter as the years went by. Legend had it, that he actually utilized 15-foot long CB radio antennas to create some of his early models.
Swan’s noodle rods, in my opinion, actually arrived and gained in popularity on the Great Lakes a few years before the true float rod. Some will say that noodle rods and float rods are one in the same, but purists will differ with that notion and so will I.
Dick’s rods were long and limber. The longer they were, the more monofilament he could keep out of the water, which in turn gave him a better drift as well as a better feel and contact between himself and the fish. With the limber rod he was able to present a smaller diameter, lighter monofilament leader to the wary rainbow trout.
These soft rods also compensated for the lower strength lines being used by Swan and his crew.
Float Rods and Reels
A few years go by and it was suddenly apparent more changes were coming to the way we fished steelhead, especially on the Ontario side of the Great Lakes. Long graphite rods, big oversized odd-looking reels, and funny looking plastic and balsa floats seemed to be popping up everywhere on our rivers. The poor bottom bouncers and even the noodle rod fraternity were being crowded off the riverbanks by a new group of fishing fanatics.
The art of float fishing had arrived and was catching on like wildfire.
Now like I’ve already mentioned, noodle rods and float rods are not alike, except possibly for some comparison in length. Noodle rods are softer, lighter in power, and slower in action than true float rods. Noodle rods most often are rated for 2 to 6 and 4 to 8 pounds in line weight or test.
Float rods have power ranges from light to medium and have a more moderate and faster action than noodle rods. Line weight and test generally range from 6 to 8 and even 6 to 12 weight for fishing bigger and faster streams with larger fish. The further the float rod bends, the more action it takes proportionally.
Float rods are faster, stiffer, and have more backbone than noodle rods. Which relates to more hook-ups, faster outcomes, less stress on the fish and ultimately less mortality on fish that are released. And that’s a fact.
Where bottom bouncing and noodle rod fishing were mostly “feeling” and detecting a bite along your fingers, the new art of float fishing was more a style of “sight” fishing. Anglers also soon began to realize that float fishing was the most natural method of presenting roe bags, single eggs, beads or flies to finicky trout. All of these baits could be carried along naturally in the current with the aid of a delicate float that also acted as a sight indicator.
Fishing with long rods, big centerpin reels and floats grew in popularity. Today, it could be debated that float fishing is now the most popular method of fishing steelhead on most Great Lakes tributaries. Some still prefer the use of spinning reels under their float rods, but the majority of sportsmen have realized that open face reels, especially on big rivers cannot compete with the effectiveness of centerpin reels. A smooth multi-bearing centerpin reel allows float and bait presentation to carry along in the current naturally. An open-faced spinning reel just can’t achieve that same natural drift or allow the angler to have the same control over bobber and bait.
It takes a little practice to become a proficient float tosser, but practice makes perfect when using the centerpin. It’s just the fact that some first timers find that practice time to be a lot longer than they first expected. The easiest method is to fling a float with a side cast, but that still takes time learn and adapt to. Then if you really want to be classed a centerpin expert you can advance to the “overhead spin” style cast, the “loop,” the “double” loop and even the “Wallis.”
Now I love centerpin float fishing. I own a couple of custom tied 13 ½ footers that are graced with the smoothest flowing Islander Steelheader reels imaginable. I’m also proficient enough to pass myself off as a fairly talented float tosser. But like I’ve said, practice makes perfect and I still need a lot more practice to gain the degree of excellence that I hope to achieve one day.
The Baitcaster Alternative
Over the past two and even three years, I kept thinking back to those days way back in the early ‘70s when I had been drifting cut spawn with Herb Good and Buzz Ramsey on the Hood. I also kept thinking about those ancient direct drive Pflueger Supreme baitcasters that they had used and even back then had successfully caught steelhead with.
Also as already noted I am not a fan of spinning reels positioned under a float rod.
The control factor just isn’t there. The question was why not a baitcaster up on top? A lot of changes have been made to level wind reels over the last 40 years.
Baitcaster reels for the most part are no longer direct drives. One push of a thumb bar, the gears disengage and the casting is made easy. So easy in fact, when the gears are left in the disengaged position a float can drift along with the current as well as if it was attached to a float reel.
Almost a year ago I walked in to Colville Outfitters and Custom Tackle in Hamburg, New York. Now, this isn’t just any tackle shop. It seems that every square inch of available space is dedicated to the steelhead fisherman. If you are searching for just about anything to do with steelhead fishing, you’ll find it at Colville’s. Located only a few miles from Lake Erie’s famed Cattaraugus Creek the constant traffic in and out of the doors keeps them more open than closed. More important, the owner Danny Colville is not only acclaimed as one finest steelheaders in the state, but also one of the best rod builders as well.
We got around to talking rods, reels, and his local steelhead fishery. What surprised me most was the fact that Danny was almost tying up as many baitcasting rods as he was center-pin creations. His percentages were hovering around the 40/60 percent mark. Now mind you the Cat isn’t as big a river as the Upper Niagara or Ontario’s Saugeen but his remarks and the fact that he was building those rods for serious anglers did stir up that old interest in me.
A couple of days later, I was on the phone to Gary Loomis out of Woodland, Washington. Most know the man personally or definitely recognize the name. Loomis is without a doubt the guru of rod design, rod technology, and rod building, whether fresh or saltwater. No, he didn’t discover fiberglass, graphite or boron. He just learned, tinkered, and developed and got the best results out of the materials, to produce the best wands on this globe of ours. The Gary Loomis or G. Loomis brand of blanks and finished rods seem to have been around for eons and have pretty much always been the benchmark for the rest of the industry to aim for.
Loomis didn’t invent graphite. He just perfected it. In the early days, graphite was definitely lighter than fiberglass and more sensitive to detect the feel, but it had one fault, lots of breakage. As much as six times lighter than fiberglass, first-generation graphite was brittle and broke easily under the power of a fish. Early in his career went searching for answers to improve on the breaking problem. By 1974 he found himself standing outside the Boeing Headquarters asking for answer from the experts who knew the most about the new wonder material. He ended up spending long talks with one of only four people in the world that really knew anything about carbon fiber and graphite. Knowledge gained, led Loomis to design and construct the best tubes, blanks and finished rods that anglers around the world had the opportunity to put their hands on.
Now, I’ve known Loomis for almost three decades and admire the guy partly for his personality and partly for his ingenuity. Over the years, I’ve gathered a collection of his factory finished rods and had some of the finest custom rod builders in the country work on his blanks. In a fit of middle age depression almost 20 years ago I even went through a painful afternoon having one of those famous Loomis line arts inked into my shoulder. Did I like my Loomis rods, designed and built by Gary Loomis…you bet!
During a conversation about fish and fishing I broached the subject of him assisting me on his ideas of designing a “special” float fishing rod geared on a baitcaster concept. And while I was at it, why not have the best in the industry not only design it but build it. I wanted a rod that was best suited for Great Lakes big water fishing.
It had to have just enough backbone and flex to handle our native steelhead that would average 5 to 20 pounds, capable of tossing a float and spawn sack out 30 or more yards and sensitive enough to send back the feel of a bite about the time a float dipped down in the water.
Most serious Great Lakes anglers favor the custom tied rods over the factory finished production models. We spent a fair amount of time discussing manufacturers, the blanks they were selling to the floating fraternity and most important the reason they were popular. After even more discussions, Gary decided on a blank that would supply me with light power, moderate action and 6-10 pound line weight. My personal preference has always been two-piece rods over a three piece series and I never go beyond a 13 ½ foot blank.
Loomis insisted on building it with custom carbon woven handle, especially lengthened for ease of casting and long hours of working the drifts. The carbon is not slippery or cold feeling as some would expect. He mentioned the material was equal or better than grade A cork and was self-insulated and had the ability to warm as I fished. The reel would sit on a Weibe seat, but with a special 15 degree offset to the seat that Gary had designed a few years back for ease of use and comfort for a low profile thumb bar reel of my choice. As for the guides, the Black Pearl Titanium Recoils were a must and the tip-top guide was constructed of Titanium SiC for the wear and tear generated by a big fish. Not surprising, he demanded the guides would be positioned in the spiral tied positioning to alleviate overall rod weight, line rubbing and increased castability and distance.
As I’ve already noted, there have been a lot of changes and upgrades to level-wind reels since that day four decades ago when I got my first introduction from Ramsey and Good.
No more direct drives, hello multi-bearing smooth flowing thumb bars, and low profile designs. The innovations added to today’s level winds can almost be compared to automobiles. Standard transmissions with their clutching and shifting are almost a thing of the past. The low profile reels of today are our automatic transmissions and one step wonders.
One push of the thumb bar and you are ready to drive. Again, in my opinion, a properly handled lower profile baitcaster is just as smooth and simple to use as any center-pin I’ve come across. As with the over-sized float reels, baitcaster quality as you can expect is dependent on what you pay. Top of the line and superior performing level-wind fishing reels are hard to beat for this application.
After talking with Loomis and deciding on the blank and design, my next call was to another good friend Cam Thompson at Pure Fishing. Cam is one of the brass at Pure Fishing. He’s been involved in the fishing industry for what seems like forever, but let’s just use the word ‘eons’. He knows his rods, he knows his baits, but he also knows his reels and that’s an understatement. When it came to reels, I’ve always been an Abu Garcia sort of guy and that’s going back more than fifty years. Lately, I’ve also been using Pfluegers to get baits out to my fish. We discussed drags, brakes, gears, and line capacity. All of which should be important concerns for float fishermen.
In the end, dedication to a brand had me sticking with Abu Garcia. My choice was a little red, eleven bearing Revo Rocket. The low profile baby weighs in at 6.75 ounces that has an unbelievable gear ration of 9,0:1 and can retrieve thirty-seven inches of monofilament with the turn of a handle. The little guy holds 145 yards of monofilament, meaning I can spool up more than double that amount if I chose Fireline. Either choice of line is more than enough for my steelheading purposes. The Revo Rocket has more than enough stainless steel bearings, a great magnetic/centrifugal braking system, simple and exactly designed thumb bar and an ease of operation star drag that is second to none.
Already owning a pair of Revo Rockets I was more than confident the combination of gears, star drag, thumb bar release and braking system would more than handle the task I had chosen it for. When the thumb bar was engaged and the spool set free, a float and bait would carry in the current as naturally as any standard centerpin reel. There would be no need for palming or bottom hand pressure. When fighting a steelie, I could just let the well-adjusted star drag take over and do what it was designed for. It was even lighter than my collection of centerpins and did not require extra line back to fill out the spool.
Judgment day came with the arrival of the FedX truck pulling in my driveway. I had the rod tube opened and the float rod out and waving before the driver could get out on the highway. Within minutes the Revo was mounted and a glass Redwing float and a lead positioned leader was attached to the rod and I was on the lakeshore out in front of the house.
Remember, I’ve already mentioned practice makes perfect…or almost perfect.
The next morning the true test came when I was under the Peace Bridge that separates Fort Erie from the city of Buffalo, New York on the mighty Niagara. On probably the fifth drift the new rod was fighting and defeating a 9-pound rainbow. An hour went by and a 7-pound lake trout fell to the same rod, reel, and presentation.
Within the week, I took a businessman’s holiday and tested the baitcasting float rod combo on both the upper and lower Niagara, one smaller south shore American trib on Lake Ontario, as well as a mid-stretch of Ontario’s Grand River at Caledonia. At every location the floats ran true, the little baitcaster worked perfectly and the North Fork graphite met all the challenges going head to head with steelhead everywhere. Interesting to note was the attention the baitcasting float rod was attracting from anglers with spinning gear and also dedicated centerpin drifters. Many of the curious even asked if they could give it a couple of test casts. Others asked where I had bought it or who had built it.
The little Revo with its multi-gear system allowed a float to drift as naturally as a centerpin and the North Fork blank was bowing and bucking to the whims of any big fish and holding them tight. For my needs the outfit was all I could ever ask for and more.
Anglers are a dedicated lot.
Fly fisherman seldom revert back to spinning gear. Float fishers with centerpins will most likely always stay with single-action float reels. Still, there those that are taking up the sport and looking for other methods of properly presenting a float and bait.
Modern-day advancements in rod and reel technology are improving by the day. I own three centerpin combos that will always be used, but the new baitcasting quickly became my favorite.
- written by Darryl Choronzey