Centerpin Fishing For Beginners: 20 Steps From A Top Guide

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners

I have been Centerpin fishing for over 30 years and guiding and teaching anglers how to Centerpin fish for over 15 years. In this article, 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.

Although Centerpinning can be the most effective method, I can tell you from 30 years of experience that it’s 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 still 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.

This article is part of a series that starts with our Steelhead Fishing: A Complete Guide,

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 instead of a spinning reel or a baitcasting reel. Either way, you are using 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 which is why more and more anglers want to know how to Centerpin fish.. Some guys are even fishing the bigger trout rivers using a Centerpin reel and they are having great success.

Where Did Centerpin Fishing Start?

Late winter steelhead fishing can product some of the biggest steelhead on the year.
Photographer Dylan with a late winter steelhead. Late winter steelhead fishing can produce some of the biggest steelhead of the year. Click the image to see more from Dylan.

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 can’t control the speed of the reel.

Which Centerpin Reel Should You Buy?

A fancy centerpin reel and a steelhead on the deck of a boat.
Image Provided by SBS Outdoor Actio; Click the link to check out their videos

There are many great Centerpin reels and some crappy ones too.

New anglers to Centerpin fishing tend to go for the super cheap reels and this is often a big mistake, but, you don’t need to go super expensive either.

Due to the many questions about other Centerpin reels, I have added a page discussing many popular Centerpin reels that you should consider.

See my page 23 Best Float Fishing Reels: Buyers Guide.

There are dozens more Centerpin reels that are not on that page. There are reels from big brands that do not specialize in Centerpin or float fishing and I rarely recommend these reels. I think it’s best to stick with brands that specialize in Centerpin fishing.

There are also a bunch of small Centerpin companies making custom reels that are can be great reels.

Steelhead and Centerpin reel lying together at rivers edge.
Image by Matthew @wisco_castin – see more by clicking on the picture.

However, I don’t usually recommend these Centerpin reels because they are often harder to find and most stores do not sell them so getting them fixed or replaced can be difficult.

I also don’t recommend custom reels for new Centerpin anglers because in my experience, most custom reels are often much more expensive even though they are rarely much better than many of the mass-produced reels.

For advanced Centerpin guys or guys that just want unique reels, custom reels are a good option.

How To Use A Centerpin Reel

Photographer Dylan with a Centerpin caught steelhead.
Photographer Dylan with a Centerpin caught steelhead. Click here to see more from Dylan.

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 are 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, and 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 setup.

Float Rods - Image By Dylan @mr_sandy_pond
Float Rods – Image By our team photographer Dylan @mr_sandy_pond

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 sliding it in and then tightening 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 and it’s the reason I don’t recommend them or use them.

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 at the river with the reel in the wrong spot, and then I have to adjust it for them.

Sliding rings handle on a Centerpin rod
Sliding rings handle on a Centerpin rod

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 are 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?

A nice steelhead lying beside Raven Matrix Centerpin reel
Image by our Team Photographer Matthew @wisco_castin – Click on the image to see more.

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, and 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 of 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 are 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 to what I recommended but was not exactly what they needed and even though it was close they still caught nothing.

This happens every single day on rivers all over North America. Guys are close with thier setups 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 or at least effective! 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.

If you plan on float fishing for salmon, I cover the best leaders, best sized, best gear, and the best float fishing tactics for salmon on my page Float Fishing For Salmon.

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 one 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 bait doesn’t mean it’s the best bait, or the one you should use. Some years I don’t use a lot of spawn and I still catch a ton of fish.

Rainbow trout baits

This is because I test baits and I often find other baits will work equally as well or even better.

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 Best Steelhead Baits page.

So if anything, I would say that your bait choice would be #5 on my list of most important things you need to know to be a successful Centerpin angler.

Centerpin Fishing Through The Seasons

My clients with a double header of winter steelhead
My clients with a double header of winter steelhead which was made possible because I understand how to catch steelhead even in the coldest water.

Centerpin fishing is an effective method for steelhead and trout 12 months of the year but anglers that do not know how to adapt to the changing river and weather conditions will struggle to catch fish at different times of the year.

If you are like many anglers that do Centerpin fishing in the fall, winter, and spring it’s important that you know how to adapt to the changing conditions and know what baits work best and when, and where the steelhead will hold at different times of the year.

Did you know that I catch most of my steelhead in a different spot in the river and in the pool in the winter than I do in the spring and fall?

I’ve had to adapt to the changing river conditions to be sure that I keep my clients on fish even in the coldest weather and I tell you how I do this on my page Winter Fishing For Steelhead.

Did you know I split the spring steelhead fishing into three stages and will fish them differently? It’s almost like they are three different fish because their behaviors change throughout the spawning run. If you fish for the wrong fish or in the wrong spots at the wrong times you could be missing a lot of fish.

I discuss my spring fishing tactics on my page Fishing For Spring Steelhead.

Fall fishing for steelhead also has three stages of steelhead fishing and it’s important to adapt or you will be like many anglers and you will struggle to catch fish at times. I discuss the fall stages and how to fish each stage on my page Fall Fishing For Steelhead.

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 five 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.

Presentation is the #1 fundamental you need to master but there are different parts to your presentation that you need to know.

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 #2 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 a 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! Speed control is part of a great presentation that I mentioned above!

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

John from Get Bent Guide Service with a big fall steelhead
John from Get Bent Guide Service with a big fall steelhead – Click on the image to see more from John or too book a trip.

You might be thinking I don’t need to read about how to set the hook, but the reality is that setting the hook with a 13-foot rod and a Centerpin reel is a lot different than setting the hook with your 7-foot bass rod.

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 poor hook sets.

It’s important that an article on Centerpin Fishing for beginners has a small section on setting the hook because without it, you may not catch very many fish.

Not having this section would be like me standing in the river teaching someone how to catch fish with a Centerpin and not teaching them how to set the hook properly.

The results of poor hook sets mean missed fish or lots of nasty tangles.

I tell my clients to set with their elbow, and not with their body. The elbow is faster than a body twist-type hook set that some guys do. Some guys tend to throw their whole body into the hook-set and some almost fall over backward because of the momentum. This is wrong.

On a good elbow-arm hook-set you should not be off-balance, you should have plenty of speed and follow-through and have good control of your follow-through. Follow through basically means from where your hand starts on the hookset to where it ends. Follow-through can be extremely important.

If your float is in close to you, say maybe 15 feet off the end of your rod tip your follow-through needs to be short. I tell guys when the float is close to you and you set the hook your hand should end up almost straight up and not go past your ear. Your arm/elbow should be about 90 degrees.

The guys that set the hook too hard when their float is in close and they follow through past their ear end up having floats come flying out of the water which can end up wrapping your float and entire leader around your rod which can be a 15-minute tangle or re-tie.

Or you could end up hitting yourself with all your leader and hook, or you could end up launching your float into the bush behind you.

If the float is close to you, set the hook with a shorter stroke and a slightly softer hook set.

On the other hand, if your float is far away you will need to set the hook much harder and follow through to ensure penetration and the hook stays hooked.

When you hook set at any time, your float should pop or jump out of the water only a few feet at most. If your float keeps flying 20 feet out of the water, shorten your hook set and don’t follow through as much, otherwise, you will be dealing with a lot of leader tangles.

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 upwards and to the side should you hold your rod.

Do not sweep the rod sideways along the water, do not twist your body, and control your follow-through, and something that is very common is do not do what I call the pop and drop hook-set. I’ll explain below.

A reader just asked about setting the hook and missing fish, yet the roe bags his guide tied were torn with each hookset which is an indication that a fish had the bait in its mouth. There are reasons for this if it happens often. If this is happening to you, read my answer here:

Hook sets are as important as everything else you do in fishing. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what you are doing wrong unless I observe how you are setting the hook, but….

I have seen and corrected a lot of guys’ hooksets so I will give you my thoughts based on what you just said.

I have also made a note for myself to do an article on Hook Sets because there are a lot of things I see guys doing wrong.

The one thing that stands out about what you said was that you are getting float drops and then torn bags after your hook set and that could be due to a bunch of things.

Torn bags to me could be the result of the following:

  • your guide doesn’t know how to tie bags properly
  • or your guide is using some type of crappy netting material to tie his eggs
  • or your bag is ripping on rocks or wood and not on fish
  • or the fish are grabbing the bait but not getting hooked on the hook set which could be the result of a few things.

Missing fish when a fish grabs your bait is often a result of a slow hook set, a half hook set, meaning you’re not following through on your hook set far enough, a pop and drop hook set ( I see this all the time and will explain below), a late hook set, or the wrong shape and size of hook.

A pop-and-drop hook set is when you set fast, your rod comes up fast for the hookset but then you immediately drop your rod down. I don’t know why guys do this but I see it all the time.

When you drop your rod you are giving that fish instant slack at a time when the fish is likely head shaking to get whatever is in its mouth out, this slack allows them to spit the hook out easier. Your spawn bag may be torn but the fish is gone.

In my experience in hooking and seeing tens of thousands of steelhead hooked, when you set the hook on a steelhead, the steelhead will almost always give you two or three head shakes before they run. If you give them slack during a head shake, you are going to lose some fish.

Therefore, never not pop-and-drop on a hookset. Instead set the hook only as far as you need to get hook penetration and to bend the rod and then hold the rod in that slightly bent position to maintain constant tension between you and the fish.

Never drop the rod on a hook set. There are other times when I will drop the rod, but never on a hook set or on a head-shaking fish.

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 too 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 too 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 they 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 run perfectly for over 10 years with no maintenance.

Team photographer Matthew with a good pose with the rod leaning and safe
Team photographer Matthew with a good pose with the rod leaning and safe. See more of his images HERE.

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.

Lean your rod and reel instead of lying it flat on the ground.

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.

Steelhead and Centerpin reel lying on ground side-by-side
Image provided by Matthew from @Wisco_castin

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

Yes, the reel on the rocks beside the fish looks great in a picture, but it’s risky, especially if the fish flops and hits the reel which could damage the reel.

Also, to extend the life and look of your Centerpin reel, when traveling, I highly recommend getting a Centerpin reel case for it.

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.

Summary Of The 4 Fundamentals: Plus Bonus

Here they are in order of importance:

#1. Presentation / Speed Control: Your presentation is the most important thing if you want o catch more steelhead, but, you need to recognize that speed control of your bait is the most important part of that presentation.

#2. Finding The Bottom: It won’t matter if you have a great presentation, and the best bait, and the best setup if you are presenting your bait out of the strike zone. For many fish like pacific salmon and steelhead, and for big trout, their strike zone is often 12 to 24 inches off the bottom and this is where your bait needs to be. Learning how to find the bottom can be critical.

#3. Covering The Water: Covering the water is essential to catching more steelhead, salmon, and trout when Centerpin fishing. Covering the water to me means putting the bait in every area of a spot where a fish might be holding and not missing a spot. I use a systematic approach that helps me land more fish.

#4. Setup: Your setup is number four of my top four fundamentals, and this is an easy one if you use a proven setup like the ones I show you on this website. You need to adjust that setup based on the conditions of the river, fish, or spot that you want to fish.

#5 Bait Selection: The bait you use is very important especially if you doing the other four fundamentals well but bait selection, meaning how you choose your bait based on the conditions and what the fish wants is very important.

Don’t get stuck using the same bait all the time and learn to rotate baits to see if there is something the fish wants more.

BONUS: #6 Fundamental: DO IT ALL TOGETHER: This is equally important to understand. If you have a great presentation and great speed control but your setup is wrong, YOU WILL STRUGGLE!!

If your setup is perfect and you have the best bait on, which is always the case with my clients, but your speed control or presentation is off, YOU WILL STRUGGLE!!

If you have a great bait, a great setup, and a great presentation, but you cover the water poorly, you will miss fish and YOU WILL STRUGGLE!!

You must be at least somewhat good at each of the 4 fundamentals and then do them all well simultaneously if you ever want to catch fish like the top 10% of anglers do.. It’s as simple as that!!

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,


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  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.

  2. I am interested in center pin fishing for trout and salmon. I have always seen guys pounding the fish this way and want to LEARN how to do it. I have read a bunch of your advice and thinking it’s time to book a trip for a day or two what ever you recommend to learn how to float fish this way. You seem like the most knowledgeable I have meet so far. Please let me know what I need to book a lesson/trip. Thanks John

  3. This article is awesome! I have been pinning for about 2 seasons now, and never realized that most of the time, I’m probably not presenting correctly.

    What kind of leader set up would you suggest for real shallow runs (about 2ft or less)?

    1. Hey Mike, to be honest, I don’t float fish in 2 feet of water or or less. When float fishing in 2 feet or less water the fish are likely going to see your float and weights and get spooked, unless it’s dirty water. For water that is 2 feet or less, I will switch to bottom bouncing, which can be done with a Centerpin reel or a spinning reel.

      If you want to see my best leader set-ups for shallow, mid-depth, and deep water fishing, see my page 5 Best Float fishing Leader Setups

      Hope that helps

  4. Hey Graham,

    Love your website, full of great info and has helped me tremendously.

    I went out with a guide a week ago (early Jan 2022) to learn how to properly fish for steelhead with a center pin. I had always fished spinning or baitcaster setups (for 20+ years), center pinning was new to me. We postponed to the following day we had set in the calendar due to cold temps and ice floating on the creek…highs were in the teens that day, but the next day up near 40F. After learning to properly cast, I immediately had my float drop. It seemed like every time I attempted to set the hook on the float drop I’d end up missing entirely, never felt the fish on. I’d reel my float back in to see the roe bag was torn, clearly from a fish biting it. I had watched hundreds of videos of floats dropping and hook sets…I was on hair trigger alert, and my reaction time is quicker than most. Nothing, never got a fish on, it was always a miss, and my float dropped at least a dozen or so times that day. At first I was definitely putting too much energy into the hook set, but later on I refined things a bit and was just “flicking” the rod tip using just my elbow/arm, still couldn’t hook one. Any additional words of wisdom you could provide for honing in on that proper hook set?

    Thanks again for all of the invaluable info you provide on your website!

    – Chris

  5. Hi, Graham I was wondering if you can use a fly rod with a float fishing reel to float fish?

  6. I have read your article 4-5 times and can only pick up the first 3 fundamentals, would you explain #4, #5 I must have read and re read but can’t pick them out.

    1. Hey John,

      My bad, I did not state these fundamentals clearly so, I have updated the post, highlighted and added some things or made them more clear, and I have added a summary of each fundamental at the bottom, which also includes 2 bonus things you should know. I hope that helps.

      Best of luck,