The Basics of the Centerpin System by Brian Kelly

The Basics of the Centerpin System by Brian Kelly

There was a time when the sight of a center pin reel used on a Great Lakes stream was a rarity, especially on the US side of the lakes.

Slowly but surely, more steelheaders in our region began to realize the effectiveness of this productive system, often up close and personal as a veteran “pinner” would put on a streamside clinic.

centerpin fishing fish fishon steelhead great lakes

The Author used a center pin float rig to fool this bright hen

Where it once was quite difficult to get centerpin gear, it is now commonplace to find reels, rods, and all the gear in most tackle retailers across the region. Now that you can get the gear, let’s review the basics to get started on this productive and highly addictive form of float fishing.

A Look at the System 

The center pin reel itself is very simple in design.

The spool of the reel rides on a shaft or “pin” (hence the name) that is connected to the body of the reel. The spool has two bearings mounted on each side of the inner diameter that enable it to rotate smoothly on the pin. The nature of this design causes the spool to rotate with the even the lightest amount of tension or resistance; this provides a great advantage to the river angler as the spool will rotate at the speed that your float is drifting down the river which enables the angler to produce a drag-free drift that presents the bait at current speed.

Steelhead are always facing upstream into the current and know exactly what a food item should look like as it drifts towards them.

Baits, such as egg sacs, that are dragging in the current are not as appealing as one that is drifting unimpeded with the current, especially in clear water. 

The use of a sensitive float with small split shot staggered down to the bait is another piece of this unique and efficient bait system. There are all sorts of styles and sizes of floats on the market today but those that have a longer “cigar” shape are most often preferred; Drennan Loafer and Raven Floats are examples of this design.

steelhead centerpin fishing fish

"The Author with a large Lake Erie buck - note the shot pattern"

The reason this style of float works so well is that it offers very little resistance to the fish when they take the bait. When the fish are under heavy pressure or in a non-aggressive mood due to weather or cold-water temps, the bite can be very light.

When these highly specialized floats are weighted properly just so the brightly colored top is sticking above the surface of the water, they will go under with the lightest of bites from a wary steelhead.

Weighting these floats properly is a very simple proposition. Start with the heaviest split shot directly beneath the float itself as this acts as a keel to help slow the float down in the faster surface flow. Gradually stagger smaller sized shot down the mainline; this is commonly referred to as the “shirt button” shot style.

The advantage to this setup is that the lighter bait and split shot will drift ahead of the float and the rest of the rigging. This can be critical in clear water as the fish can see a long way and will see the bait before anything else. 

Line control is the key to success in the center pin system and the proper rod is vital maintaining the control necessary throughout the drift. Rods that range in length from 11 to 15 feet are the perfect tool for this system as the long length enables the angler to keep line off the water, which is critical to controlling the drift.

Modern graphite materials have greatly reduced the weight of these long rods, causing less fatigue to the angler which means faster reaction times on the hookset, even at the end of a long day!

Learn to Cast 

Learning to use a center pin reel is much like learning to fly fish.

Both can be very frustrating at first but can be mastered with patience and practice. Casting the center pin reel is what keeps a lot of anglers from trying them. There are several ways to cast them but the easiest and most popular way is called the side cast.

Veteran steelhead guide Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters in suburban Cleveland takes us through this cast: “The premise to this cast is to use your off-hand as a “guide” to get the line coming off the spool sideways and shooting up through your off-hand and to the rod guides.

Start by holding the line with your off-hand between your thumb and index finger as you swing the rod back with your casting hand to load up the rod (in my case it’s holding the rod with my left hand and the line with the right). As you come forward with the rod to the release point of your cast, let the line go from between your thumb and index finger while keeping your hand to the side of the reel and let the line flow thru the opening between your thumb and index finger. Be sure not to completely let go of the line, this will stop the cast dead in its tracks! It takes a little practice to get the feel for this and the timing, but once you do it becomes second nature”.

Once you get the cast down pat, be sure to get comfortable palming the reel as it free spools. “I find that I like to palm the reel in such a manner so my pinky and/or ring finger can grab the spool at any time” says Craig. “Remember, the reel is always in free spool so it will spin like crazy if you don’t grab the spool when setting the hook! Once you get used to this, it is a big advantage as there is very little to no slack line when using a float reel so when the float goes down you are instantly connected to the fish”.

steelhead centerpin fish fishing

Chris Mulpagano uses Trout Beads with his Centerpin reel"

Practice Makes Perfect

While there is no substitute for time on the water, it pays to practice your casting in the offseason. An open field is a great place to get comfortable with your rig without the worry of catching a tree limb, or another angler! While the most difficult part of this system is the cast, it gets much easier once the gear is in the water as there is no bail to mess with or drag to adjust during a prolonged battle. As your casting skill improves, your focus will lie solely on the float and getting the drift just right to a waiting steelhead. 

- written by Brian Kelly 


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