Centerpin Fishing For Beginners: 20 Steps From A Top Guide

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners

I have been one of the top Centerpin fishing guides for over 14 years and I have been Centerpin fishing for over 30 years. If you consider me your online river guide and I will teach you all about Centerpin fishing and discuss the 4 key fundamentals that will help any Centerpin angler catch more fish.

Centerpin fishing is one of the most productive ways to catch trout, steelhead, and salmon in rivers because the extra-long rod and the Centerpin reel allow the angler to present a bait under a float to the fish better than any other method. Using all the right gear and tactics will help you catch more trout and steelhead.

Centerpin fishing is only effective if you know how to do it well.

After reading this article you will have a good understanding of every aspect of Centerpin fishing because this is basically the same step-by-step process for learning Centerpin fishing that I teach in my popular Centerpin fishing classes.

I will even provide you with the 4 most important things that every Centerpin angler needs to know and learn when Centerpin fishing. Even anglers that have been fishing for years don’t do all of these things well and they end up struggling to catch fish. I know this because I have taught and guided thousands of anglers on how to Centerpin fish better.

I have also added some Bonus Guide Tips that most Centerpin anglers wished they knew, so watch for them below.

What Is Centerpin Fishing?

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners
The Centerpin reel and the reward of using it right.

Centerpin Fishing is the best way to present a bait below a float in a river to trout, steelhead, and salmon.

Centerpin fishing is also known as float fishing with the exception that you are using a specialized reel called a Centerpin reel and a very long and fairly light rod.

Centerpin fishing has become very popular with steelhead and salmon anglers around the great lakes region and on the west coast. Some guys are even fishing the bigger trout rivers using a Centerpin reel and they are having great success.

Where Did Centerpin Fishing Start?

Centerpin fishing is rumored to have actually started in Europe where carp anglers fishing lakes, lochs, and rivers designed a round reel with no drag so that the current or even the wind would allow their bait to move freely through the water once they set their rod down to wait for a bite. Once the reel started to spin faster they knew that a fish was on the line.

In the great lakes region, it is believed that the first anglers started fishing Centerpin reels for steelhead on Lake Ontario rivers on the Ontario Canada side around the 1980s and now it seems like 8 out of 10 anglers use Centerpin reels.

Shortly afterward reports of anglers catching lots of steelhead and salmon all around the lakes were heard but it really didn’t catch on until mid-1990s.

West coast anglers also started using Centerpin reels on the steelhead rivers there but it really didn’t take off until around the year 2000.

Why Centerpin Fish?

Centerpin Fishing Tips and Advice
Guide Graham with one of over a dozen steelhead caught this day.

If you are new to Centerpin fishing you might be asking yourself why Centerpin fish instead of just using a spinning reel or a baitcasting reel?

The simple truth is that Centerpin fishing allows you to get a better presentation than those other reels and that usually means more fish.

I guide for trout, steelhead, and salmon with both a Centerpin reel and with spinning reels and because I am proficient at both I can honestly say that when it comes to drifting a bait under a float in a river, you can not beat the Centerpin reel 95% of the time.

The reason Centerpin fishing is growing so fast is simply because of how effective and how fun it is.

The Centerpin Reel

My guide Centerpin rods all ready to go.
My guide Centerpin rods rigged and ready to go.

With a Centerpin reel, you can get a more controlled and smoother presentation, make much longer drifts, and have fewer line problems than with a spinning reel.

The Centerpin reel is a large rounded spool reel that is usually between 4″ and 5.5 inches in diameter and the spool sits on a single pin (or post) in the middle of the base.

The spool uses very high-quality bearings that allow it to spin freely around the pin both backward and forwards and there is normally no drag on a Centerpin reel.

Some Centerpin reels may also use bushings instead of bearings but I do not recommend them unless there is something wrong with your fingers that you cant control the speed of the reel.

How To Use A Centerpin Reel

Centerpin reels allow the angler the free-spool the line off the reel which allows them to get long controlled drifts. Anglers can then use their hands to slow the reel to control the speed of their float and their bait which is critical to catching more fish. This is the primary reason a Centerpin reel works better than a spinning reel when float fishing.

Anglers also use their hands to stop the reel, set the hook, and as a drag when fighting the fish.

Many Centerpin reels are ported, which means they have holes cut or built into them to reduce their weight. I have used some pretty bad Centerpin reels but I have also used dozens of good ones.

You do not need a really expensive Centerpin reel to get good results.

There a number of good reels that I have used that range from $150 to over $1000.00 dollars and I discuss some of them on my page on the 5 Best Centerpin Reels.

How To Set Up A Centerpin Reel?

Left Hand or Right Hand – If you are going to do Centerpin fishing then you might as well start the right way.

Centerpin reels are made to go both forward and backward so you can use them for right-handed retrieve or left-handed retrieve without any adjustments or handle changes.

The problem is that many guys use the wrong hand.

In a nutshell, if you are right-handed, you need to use a left-hand reel and you need to put the line on the right way. If you are left-handed you need to use a right-handed reel.

I have taught thousands of anglers how to use a Centerpin reel and I know for certain that if you use the right hand you will be able to catch more fish.

I discuss proper hand retrieve, proper grip, as well as how to set up your Centerpin reel, and what lines to use on my page how to set up a Centerpin reel.

The Centerpin Rod

Centerpin fishing requires different rods than other fishing methods do and the Centerpin rod is an important part of the whole set up.

Most Centerpin rods are long and are between 11 and 14 feet long. The benefit to a long Centerpin rod is that it allows you to keep the line off the water for longer which improves your presentation. The longer rod also acts like a giant shock absorber to protect your light leader on the hook set and while playing the fish.

The type of river you fish will determine the best length of rod for you. The size of the fish will also determine the size or strength of the rod.

If you are planning on Centerpin fishing smaller rivers that are 10 to 20 feet wide or rivers with lots of trees and brush to walk through a shorter 11-foot rod might be best for you.

For Centerpin fishing on rivers that are from 20 to 60 feet wide, a 13-foot Centerpin rod is best. When I am Centerpin fishing and When I am guiding I use a 13-foot Centerpin rod for both small and large rivers. 13 feet long is a great all-around Centerpin rod length.

Some anglers will use longer Centerpin rods up to 16 feet on very large rivers.

It’s not recommended to use a regular fishing rod that is designed for casting in lakes using spinning reels since the reel seat may not be in the right spot or it may not be designed to hold the Centerpin reel properly.

Centerpin rods come in with two different types of handles, and some Centerpin rods are stiffer than others. Centerpin rods can range from $79.00 to over $1000 dollars. I have been fortunate enough to use about 30 different Centerpin rods in all price ranges and I know that the right Centerpin rod can help you catch more fish.

I will discuss everything you need to know about Centerpin rods on my page 7 Best Centerpin Rods Of 2021.

How To Put A Centerpin Reel On

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners
The Centerpin reel and the reward of using it right.

Putting the Centerpin Reel on a fixed reel seat is easy since it’s just a matter of slide it in a tighten it up just like you would on a general-purpose spinning rod.

With a built-in reel seat, you can not adjust the position of the Centerpin reel which is not always a good thing.

For a rod that has sliding rings that are used to secure your reel anywhere on the handle, many of my clients ask me where is the best spot to put the reel?

Some of my clients will even show up to the river with the reel in the wrong spot, and then I have to adjust it for them.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of rod handles I prefer and I only use Centerpin rods with sliding rings because I like to be able to place the reel on the handle in a spot that works best for me and balances out with the reel that I am using.

If you choose to go with a rod that has sliding rings you need to know how to secure it and where to place it which is why I recommend reading my page How To Put A Centerpin Reel On to make sure your rod and reel is balanced properly.

You also need to be sure the reel is in a spot that provided the best performance and comfort.

Lastly, on my page How To Put A Centerpin Reel On, I tell you how to ensure that the sliding rings do not loosen and the reel doesn’t fall off, which is actually common with this type of reel seat.

Are Centerpin Combos Good?

I have searched the internet and have not found many pre-made Centerpin combos that I would recommend. However some stores make have put together good Centerpin combos but before you go and buy one checkout my page Centerpin Combo – 3 Best Centerpin Rod And Reel Combos

The Gear Used To Set Up Your Centerpin Rig

Before you can set up the rod you need a few things that you shouldn’t go without.

  • You are going to need a good float that is suitable for the type of water you will be fishing, some floats suck and some are perfect and do the job right.
  • You will need strong micro swivels for your leader setup.
  • You will need at least two different strengths of fluorocarbon leaders. Unfortunately, leader companies DO NOT rate their leader properly and that can seriously affect how many fish bit your line or how many you break off.
  • You will need a good hook or two. Not just any hook will do, some hooks bend, some are too thick, some don’t hold as well, I use proven hooks that are used by many guides. I discuss my favorite hooks on my Centerpin Fishing Gear page.

There is a lot more that I use so for a checklist on all the gear that I use just for Centerpin fishing go to my page Centerpin Fishing Gear – Everything You Need For More Fish.

Gear For Centerpin Fishing – Everything You Need

Fishing a Steelhead on a Centerpin rod and reel.
Fishing a Steelhead on a Centerpin rod and reel.

There’s a bunch of things you will need for Centerpin fishing that I consider general river fishing gear.

Stuff like waders, boots, vests, packs, wading jackets, forceps, nippers, nets, and much more.

This stuff will make your day more comfortable and even help you catch more, fish and even help you handle and release your fish better.

I will show you all the stuff that I use and recommend to my clients to keep me and them comfortable and fishing better on my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2021.

Centerpin Leader Set Up

Steelhead Leader Setup
This Leader Setup works for trout and steelhead by just adjusting weights of the leader lines.

If you are reading this Centerpin fishing for beginners page and are waiting for me to reveal the 4 fundamentals of Centerpin fishing then this is number 4 on my list.

Using the right leader type, size and the right leader set-up is critical to being an effective Centerpin angler.

Last year I watched an angler and his sons fish the river that I guided on and they were there 2 to 4 times a week drifting baits under floats and they never caught a single steelhead.

Being the nice guy that I am I offered advice to them when I saw them in hopes that the young boys would finally catch some steelhead. Day after day they caught nothing.

I started with recommending the right lines, baits, and leader setup but unfortunately what they purchased and used was close but not exactly what they needed and they caught nothing. This happens every single day on rivers all over North America. Guys are close but are just not perfect and just like golf, close gets you nowhere if you just can’t sink the ball.

Your leader setup needs to be perfect! Some years, my leader setup, combined with the other 3 fundamentals has put over 500 steelhead in the net for my clients.

If you want to know my leader setups, and how to set up your leader properly and avoid common mistakes check out my page Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leader And 2 Proven Setups.

The Best Baits To Use When Centerpin Fishing

Best Steelhead Bait
The best steelhead bait is sometimes the one you fish the best.

Believe it or not, I do not consider the bait as one of the 4 fundamental parts of the process for 1 simple reason.

The reason is that even if you have the best bait on your line but you don’t fish it properly you will still struggle to catch fish.

The way you fish the bait is critical and how you set up your leader is far more important than the bait is.

I’m not saying the bait is not important, because it is, but a great bait won’t catch you any fish if you don’t present it well and there are lots of baits that will work equally well if presented right.

Anglers focus too much on the bait and too little on the presentation and other factors and these guys struggle to catch fish even when Centerpin fishing.

The most common bait is roe, also known as roe bags, roe sacks, eggs, egg sacks, spawn, spawn sacks, or spawn bags. But just because it’s the most common doesn’t mean it’s the best and some years I use very little of it and I still catch a ton of fish.

Other common baits and ones I use and guide with include, live worms, live or dead minnows, plastic worms, soft plastics, beads, flies, leeches, grubs, and jigs.

For more information on these baits, which ones I catch the most fish with, and how I fish them go to my 4 Best Steelhead Baits page.

How To Hold A Centerpin Reel

How to hold and centerpin reel
A common way to hold and centerpin reel

How you hold your reels is the first step in actually fishing and it can be important.

You will be holding the reel all day, as well as fighting some big fish with it, and also controlling the line as it comes out which is why your grip on the Centerpin reel needs to be comfortable and functional.

I have guided over 1000 Centerpin anglers and I have seen quite a few variations on how people hold their Centerpin reels.

The grip on the picture is the most common grip and is similar to what I use.

This grip allows the angler to have a good grip on the rod and on the reel while still being able to easily control the rim of the spool.

There are 4 things to consider when holding a Centerpin reel, comfort, casting, control of the spool, and fighting fish. I cover all of this and show you 4 ways to hold a Centerpin reel that work well, all on my page How To Hold A Centerpin Reel: 4 Ways That Work Well.

How To Cast A Centerpin Reel

There are 5 different casts that work when Centerpin fishing but I only teach 2 of them. I have witnessed anglers using the other ones with little success.

All the top Centerpin anglers and the top Centerpin guides that I know all use the Side Cast, the Spinning Side cast, or the Wallace Cast. Any of these 3 casts will work on most rivers up to 100 feet wide which is why I say these are the best cast to use when Centerpin fishing.

I cover these casts and even a 4th cast for those anglers that really struggle with casting all on my page How To Cast A Centerpin Reel: The 3 Best Casts.

Getting A Perfect Presentation

Good Float Angle
A good float angler for maintaining speed and strike detection.

You may have heard that presentation is the key, and when it comes to float fishing that is pretty accurate.

In fact, the Centerpin reel is better at providing a perfect presentation when float fishing than any other reel that I know of.

A Centerpin Fishing For beginners article would not be complete without going over how to properly present your float and the bait to the fish.

Presentation is so important that many times I have guided two clients and watched one of them present their bait perfectly and catch 5 to 10 fish while their buddy catches none.

I have watched thousands of anglers fish and within seconds I can tell you if they will catch fish or not because of how they present their bait.

I will discuss the important presentation factors below and will tell you now that if only one of them is not right, you will still struggle to catch fish.

Bonus Guide Tip – Keep your rod tip steady so your float is not bouncing down the river. A bouncing float means a bouncing bait and that rarely works, and in my experience makes the fish ignore your bait.

Centerpin Fishing – Finding The Bottom

Finding the bottom is the number 2 fundamental of good Centerpin fishing.

Finding the bottom is so important that when I teach anglers to Centerpin fish I often tell them that whenever they fish a new spot, the primary goal is to find the bottom.

You need to find the bottom every time because that is where the fish are mostly feeding and if they are down 9 feet and your bait is 3 feet over their heads they probably won’t eat it. Anglers make this mistake all the time and finding the bottom with just your bait can be a bit tricky.

You can find the bottom by using a really good sensitive float and my two simple methods for finding the bottom with that float.

To learn how to do this well and to see the two methods that I use to find the bottom and get my bait just off the bottom check out my page How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways

Centerpin Fishing – Fish From The Top Down

Another thing to consider when covering the water is to always fish down river from you or fish from the top of the pool down to the bottom of the pool.

Casting upriver will not allow you to get a proper leader angle and control your speed and speed is my #1 most critical thing which I will discuss below.

When you start fishing a new spot, get as far up the pool as you can and cast straight out, not upriver and not straight downriver, just straight out and work your float down the river from there.

You can see in the picture below where I parked my boat at the top of the pool to allow my two clients to fish the entire pool well.

This is the start of covering the water like a pro.

Centerpin Fishing – Cover The Water Effectively

Covering the pool
The darker green water is deep and about 10 feet wide so it should take about 5 drifts to cover it completely.

Covering the water effectively is the #3 fundamental for great float fishing and one that you need to do well if you want to catch more fish.

I fish in lines up and down the river from the closest part of the run to the furthest part of the run.

The problem is that most anglers just cast their floats out and often cover the same water over and over again and they don’t cover all of the water very well. Most anglers miss a lot of good water that fish can be sitting in.

To cover the water effectively you need to stand near the top of the spot about 1 and half rods length from where the deep water starts. Then cast your float at the edge of the deep water and fish as far down as you can. Then cast about 1 foot further and repeat this until you have completely covered all the water without missing any of it.

To see this in more detail, visit my page Effectively Covering The Water When Float Fishing.

Centerpin Fishing – Speed Control

Speed control is the #1 most critical thing that you can do to catch more fish, period!

Even if you master the other 4 fundamentals of great float fishing, if you get this one wrong you will struggle to catch fish and I say this with confidence because I have watched thousands of anglers not catch fish when they should.

This is important when fishing for trout, steelhead and salmon.

Most anglers just throw their float in and watch it go and then hope at some point it will go down and a fish will be on the line. This is a big mistake.

Not working your float every second of the time during a drift greatly limits your chances of catching a fish! I have proven this over, and over, and over again.

To slow your speed you need to do something called trotting which you can easily do by controlling the speed of the line that is coming off the reel. You simply hold the line back just enough that your float tilts slightly upriver.

To learn more about this very critical part of float fishing check out my page Controlling Your Speed For More Fish When Float Fishing.

How To Set The Hook With A Centerpin

I don’t know how many guide trips I have done where my client’s floats went down from a fish and they missed over 50% of them due to bad hook sets. Centerpin Fishing for beginners needs to have a small section on setting the hook because without out it, you may not catch very many fish.

Set with your elbow, not with your body. The elbow is faster than a body twist type hook set. Some guys tend to throw their whole body into the hook-set and almost fall backward at times. On a good elbow-arm hook-set you should not be off-balance.

You want to run your drift with your rod at about a 35 to 45-degree angle up and you want to keep your rod tip pointed in the direction of the float most of the time. Follow the float with your rod tip. Then you want to set fast and you want to set up. Do not sweep the rod sideways along the water.

If the float is close to you, set the hook with a shorter and slightly softer hook set, or your float and the leader might come flying up out of the water creating a tangle or even hitting you or your rod tip.

If your float is far away you will need to set much harder. Your float should pop or jump out of the water only a few feet at most on a good hook set. If your float keeps flying 20 feet out of the water slow down your hook set otherwise you will be dealing with a lot of leader tangles.

How to Fight A Fish With A Centerpin

Fishing a Steelhead on a Centerpin rod and reel.
Fishing a Steelhead on a Centerpin rod and reel.

I tell all my clients that I believe 90% of anglers will lose their first good fish on a Centerpin Reel. There is no drag on most Centerpin reels so it’s you and the fish playing tug of war, it’s a give and take battle.

The simple truth is that new Centerpin anglers either give the fish to much line with not enough pressure on the reel and eventually they lose them after a long fight, or they clamp down too much and then break the fish off.

Most new Centerpin anglers struggle with applying steady even maximum pressure on the fish. One second it’s too much pressure and the next it’s too little. This will take some time to get used to but steady smooth pressure is a must. If one second you’re too loose and then you apply to much pressure to compensate you’re going to break off.

You also have to learn to let them run. If they bolt you lower your rod and apply steady pressure and as soon as the stop you take your fingers off the fighting rim and reel them in

Always maintain a tight line and a bend in the rod. Good Luck.

How To Land A Fish With A Centerpin

One of the things I see new anglers do wrong when they are about to land a fish is that they reel the fish almost to the tip of the rod.

That tip is 13 feet away on the long rod which means the fish is going to be too far for the net.

Always leave just over a rod’s length of the line from the tip to the fish and that fish should come right to the net.

And always use a net. Not only does a net help you net that fish of a lifetime, but studies show that fish bashing their head off the bank can kill them after you release them, even if they swim away looking fine. For the best Steelhead nets for the river check out my page Steelhead Net: 5 Best Steelhead Nets For River Fishing.

How To Take Care Of Your Centerpin

Most of my Centerpin reels last for over 10 years with no maintenance.

My best advice for taking good care of your new and shiny Centerpin reel is simple. Don’t drop it, don’t lie it down on the rocks or in the mud or on the sand, and never put it in the river.

If it rains on it that’s OK, and a little river water is fine every now and then, but remember that there are specs of dirt and sand in the river that can cause problems so avoid putting it in the river if you want it to last for 10 years with no maintenance.

Almost every person that has come into my tackle store needed new bearings was one of those guys that lies the rod down in the water as they handle and release their fish.

When traveling I highly recommend getting a Centerpin reel case for it like this one from Raven.

Guide Tip: It is very important not to bang your reel or drop it. Doing so may damage the outer fighting rim which you will feel constantly when fighting a fish and it may even hurt your fingers. Damaging that rim usually means replacing the rim or the whole reel.

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners Education

I highly recommend seeking out the Best Centerpin Fishing Guide in your area to help you improve your success with a Centerpin Rod and reel.

If the guide is good you should be able to learn more in one day than you could in years of trying yourself.

A good guide is not in everyone’s budget, so another great idea is to find a mentor, not just any old Centerpin guy, but one who is already skilled and can teach. The reason I say this is because I honestly believe 7 out of 10 Centerpin anglers do it poorly and I have proven this over and over again so be careful who you learn from.

Another option is to be observant and open-minded. Try to find that one guy that catches 10 fish when everyone else is only catching one or two and don’t be like everyone else that believes he must just have the best bait. Look at how he sets up his leader, how he makes his drifts, how he adjusts his float, and how is he covering the water.

If you know someone that struggles to catch fish when float fishing, be a good friend and help me and them out by sharing this website with them too.

Got A Question About Centerpin Fishing For Beginners

If you have a question, a tip, or a comment about Centerpin fishing for beginners, let me and the other readers know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines,

Graham,

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2 Comments

  1. I’m successful with spinners and spoons for steelhead but want to learn and add float fishing to my offerings. Tons of info on line but found your site more specific to help me get started in my preferred small and mid sized rivers off Lake Huron – so thank you Graham. A question for you… in your experience do you recommend reducing the shot size as you work towards the leader?

    1. Hi Larry, I do not decrease my shot sizes from large to smaller near the bait because I find it impractical, unnecessary, and it’s more work to set it up this way with no significant benefit. I also find it more expensive since doing so means I always have to buy and have 4 to 7 different sizes of split shots with me at all times. If I opened up my terminal tackle box you would see only 1 or maybe 2 sizes of split shots because I use the same size shots throughout the leader line set-up, I just increase the spacing nearer to the bait which works the same as decreasing shot size when going from big to small shots. Whether you use the big shot down to small shot pattern method, or the same size shot method with larger spacing like I do it will work the same. The only time I might use a slightly smaller split shot is if I want an extra weight within 12 inches of my bottom bait and I will only add the smaller shot so the fish won’t see it or so that shot doesn’t drag the bottom too much and get hung up. Many of my clients have witnessed me placing an, AA, AB, or BB-sized split shot within 4 inches of a fly or bait and I still catch a ton of fish in gin-clear waters so I don’t believe that a single spit shot that close to the bait will spook the fish. Just make sure you use black or dark gray shots and not shiny split shots. I am working on a page about float fishing that should have all the leader patterns that I use, so keep an eye out for that coming in Jan 2021.

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