Centerpin Fishing For Salmon: Guide Tips and Tricks

One of my guide buddies with a late fall salmon caught while centerpin fishing for salmon
One of my guide buddies with a late fall salmon caught while centerpin fishing for salmon

Even though I’ve been centerpin fishing for salmon for about 30 years, and I have been guiding and teaching people to centerpin fish for about 20 years, centerpin fishing for salmon has only recently become the go-to method for fishing salmon once they enter the rivers.

Centerpin fishing for salmon is so effective because it gives the angler the ability to present a bait under a float in a very controlled manner and allows you to cover a lot of water well. You can control the depth and speed of the bait better, make long drifts, and detect bites easily. All this equals more salmon in the net.

Fishing guides and experienced anglers will do certain things when centerpin fishing for salmon that increase the amount of salmon they catch. This article covers what you need to know to centerpin fish for salmon more effectively and discusses the tactics and tricks used by river guides.

Centerpin Fishing For Salmon

Centerpin fishing for salmon is not limited to just one species of salmon. In fact, despite traditional methods and ideas about how to catch salmon, all species of salmon can be caught using centerpin rods and reels.

For this reason, anglers are now catching east coast Atlantic salmon to West coast Kings, Cohos, and Sockeye salmon in rivers.

Once these salmon start to concentrate in pools and runs, a well-presented bait under a float will often get them to bite. And, since the centerpin presents baits so well, centerpin fishing for salmon is arguably the most effective method on most rivers and streams.

The key to catching salmon with any method is presentation, and that means presenting your bait or fly in the most natural manner possible!

It’s also imperative to get your bait into the strike zone and then keep it there for as long as possible.

Get those things correct and you have half the battle won. Making sure you also have the proper gear and the proper setup and you will seriously improve your odds.

These are the things that many guides will be meticulous about!

If you are new to centerpin fishing, you may still be a little confused about it, so here is a quick description.

When Centerpin fishing for salmon you are basically suspending your bait from a float, and you can set the depth by sliding the float up and down the line. The float allows you to keep your bait off the bottom and drift down the river for over 100 feet.

The float also allows you to control your speed so the bait moves as naturally as possible. You are also able to place your float in different areas of the spot you are fishing so that you cover the water effectively.

I’ll get more into this below because the difference between an angler controlling their speed and depth and covering the water well and an angler that doesn’t is about 10 salmon to 1.

Also, if you are new to centerpin, check out my page Centerpin Fishing For Beginners.

Centerpin Fishing Rivers

Anglers centerpin fishing for salmon on the salmon river NY
Medium sized rivers like the salmon river in New York are great rivers for centerpin fishing for salmon.

I have seen Salmon will run up creeks so small I could jump across them, or they will run up river hundreds of feet wide. Centerpin fishing is great in any river wider than 15 feet.

Under the right conditions, you could even fish for salmon in small creeks that are only 5 to 10 feet wide as long as there is some current to move the float and enough depth.

Centerpin fishing is very effective in slow-moving water as well as very fast water. Due to the leader setup and the float, the best rivers for Centerpin fishing are 3 feet deep up to about 12 feet deep.

It’s difficult to Centerpin fish for salmon in shallow water under 3 feet deep since the float will be too close to the bait and to the salmon. If you encounter a river that is very shallow, or the salmon are in very shallow sections, it’s best to use the advanced bottom bouncing method I discuss on my Bottom Bouncing page.

I prefer the bottom bouncing method when fishing or guiding my clients in sections of the river that are under 3 feet deep or when fishing short sections, or pockets, or around large boulders.

The cool thing is that you can also use your Centerpin reel to do bottom bouncing by removing your float and just using my bottom bouncing leader setup.

The Centerpin Reel

The Centerpin Reel is the most important part of Centerpin fishing.
The Centerpin Reel is the most important part of Centerpin fishing.

Centerpin fishing is basically float fishing, except that it is done with a reel called and Centerpin Reel. Some guys will also call it a float reel.

Float fishing can be done with spinning reels, bait casting reels, and centerpin reels. When it comes to Centerpin fishing for salmon, the Centerpin reel is the most important part of the entire setup, and it’s this reel that makes Centerpin fishing so much more productive than other reels.

The Centerpin reel looks like a large fly reel, but a Centerpin reel has no drag system, it free-spools both ways, and it is meant for regular fishing line that you might use on a spinning reel. Because centerpin reels have no drag system, this makes fighting big salmon and landing big salmon both challenging and a whole lot of fun.

Centerpin reels allow the anglers to get long smooth drifts when using a float to present the bait to the fish.

A Centerpin reel works better for float fishing than spinning reels or bait cast reels because the Centerpin reel allows you to feed line out effortlessly and smoothly and enables you to control the speed of the line so that you can control the speed of your float and the speed of the bait, and all that provides you with the best presentation possible.

I have used and guided with spinning reels and with baitcasting reels when float fishing and in most cases those reels just can not do the job as well as a Centerpin reel can.

Two great Centerpin reels for salmon are the Raven Matrix Fully Ported Centerpin reel and the Kingpin Zeppelin Centerpin Reel, but there are many other great reels to choose from. I discuss over 20 of the best Centerpin reels on my page 23 Best Float Fishing Reels Of 2022: Buyers Guide.

Also, I have a page All About Centerpin Reels where I discuss:

  • The 4 best Centerpin reels.
  • Bearings versus bushing
  • Centerpin Reel Sizes
  • Left hand or right hand – what’s best
  • Centerpin reel weight and build
  • Custom Centerpin reels versus brand name reels
  • What is reel start-up?
  • Best lines for Centerpin reels
  • how to set up your centerpin reel

The Centerpin Rod

Centerpin Rods are long and light

Long and light rods are the name of the game when it comes to Centerpin fishing for salmon. An average size Centerpin rod is around 13 feet with a line rating of 8 to 16lbs for great lakes fishing and around 12 to 20 pounds for very big rivers and for west coast salmon.

For smaller salmon streams, some guys will use 11 or 12-foot rods, and for much larger rivers 14 to 15 foot rods can be used.

Two good centerpin rods for great lakes salmon are the 12-foot Lamiglas Redline H HS12CS and the Raven IM8 Float Rod. I have used both of these rods when centerpin fishing for salmon all around the great lakes region and on the west coast. They are light, strong, and are excellent on salmon.

The reason we use such long rods when Centerpin fishing is that the longer rod allows us to keep the line up off the water on long drifts which allows us to have better line control and float control and an overall better presentation.

The long Centerpin rods act like a giant shock absorber so that we can use lighter leaders on big fish that might be line shy. The long rods also protect the leader on hook sets. Not to mention these long Centerpin rods are also fun to fish with.

But not all centerpin rods are equal with some rods being better much better than others. You also want a Centerpin rod that suits the rivers that you fish.

Be sure to check out my page 11 Best Rods For Salmon which is where I cover things like:

  • Best Centerpin rods
  • Centerpin rod length
  • Best rods for small rivers, medium rivers, and large rivers
  • Best Centerpin rod action
  • Rod sizing chart
  • 2 piece rods versus 3 piece Centerpin rods
  • Best Centerpin rod handle types
  • Best float rods for spin fishing

The Centerpin Line

Get the right Centerpin Reel Lines

The lines that guides use when centerpin fishing for salmon are ones that work well when float fishing. For the most part, the lines are made of Mono, Copolymer, or they can sometimes be a braided line.

One thing you need to make sure of when buying line for centerpin fishing is that the line is supple, is not too heavy, and that it floats. You also need to be sure the line is strong enough not to break, but light enough that it fishes well.

The best Centerpin line for great lakes salmon is the 10 pound Raven Mainline in yellow and I recommend it to all my clients who fish great lakes rivers that are 60 feet wide or less. If you fish in bigger rivers with heavy flows, going up to 12 pound line might be better.

You may be thinking 10 pound line is not very heavy, but 10 pound mainlines are often 50 % to 100% heavier than they claim on the label. Based only on my 20 years of experience and my experience in the fishing retail business, most 10 pound lines are closer to 14 to 18 pounds which is plenty on many great lakes rivers.

In fact, on my personal salmon rod, I use 8 pound line for small to mid-sized rivers because I like the way l that the light lines fish.

If you fish west coast river or huge rivers, going up to 14 pound mainline is a good idea. remember, the long rods act like a big shock absorber, and there are times when light leaders are necessary, and therefore very heavy lines are not required.

I also like to use bright colored lines (like the line in the above picture) because these brightly colored lines can have a lot of advantages as long as you set up your leader properly.

Check out my page Best Centerpin Line: What The Guides Use for all the lines that I have used, tested, and recommend.

Terminal Tackle Used For Centerpin Fishing

When it comes to Centerpin fishing and float fishing with centerpin reels, we use all the same terminal tackle which includes floats, leaders, swivels, weights, hooks, and baits.

The Best Centerpin Floats

Centerpin float shapes and sizes
Different Centerpin float shapes and sizes for different situations

Some anglers will call them a bobber but the correct term when river fishing is a float. That is where the name float fishing comes from.

Floats are a key component of Centerpin fishing but not all floats are good for centerpin fishing for salmon in rivers.

You know those big round red and white bobbers, they suck! In fact, any float that does not have a pointed top should be avoided.

As a joke, I often say “the only time I would use a red and white bobber is if I wanted to fish without catching any fish. If I see guys on the river with red and white bobbers I know they are leaving all the fish for me, so thanks red and white bobber guys 😉”

Steelhead floats comparison
You can see a wider float on the left and a thinner float on the right. For bigger pools, I tend to go with wider floats.

For float fishing in rivers and creeks, you want a longer narrow float designed specifically for river fishing.

These floats have specific advantages and are much better for river fishing but only if you know how to utilize them properly.

You also want to match the size of the float to the size of the river and to the amount of weight that you will be fishing.

The amount of weight will depend on the depth and velocity of the river.

In a nutshell, when centerpin fishing for salmon on small to mid-sized rivers, a 5 to 8-gram float should be plenty. On very large rivers you may need to go up to a 16-gram float.

As you can see in the above picture, some floats are clear, and some are colored. There are times and situations when one will work better than the other.

I have an entire page on the Best Floats For Centerpin Fishing – HERE. I talk about which floats to use in different rivers and under different river conditions and some tips on how to maximize your success with them.

Leaders For Centerpin Fishing For Salmon

Best Steelhead Leader
A favorite all-around steelhead leader material is Drennan 4lb.

The leader attaches to the mainline which is where you attach your weights, your hooks, and your baits.

I highly suggest that you use the right leader and that you know what the right size leader is for the type of river and the type of fish that you fish for.

The mainlines that I recommended above both have a thickness or diameter of about 0.28mm to 0.30mm. The thickest part of the leader setup should be slightly less at about 0.26mm to 0.28mm in diameter on what is called the shot line. See below.

The bottom section of the leader where the bait goes is critical. 10 and 12-pound leaders of diameter 0.22mm for small streams, and 0.24mm to 0.26mm are usually perfect for great lakes salmon, there is not much need to go heavier.

For bigger rivers like the Niagara River or on the west coast rivers, 14 to 16-pound leaders are better.

There are all kinds of leaders to choose from but I narrow it down for you and explain the difference between the best leaders, the right sizes, as well as teach you how to set the leader up like a pro on my Best Leaders For Float Fishing page.

Centerpin Leader Setup For Salmon

The Salmon leader setup is a critical part of Centerpin fishing for salmon, and I am happy to share the leader that I use when I’m guiding for salmon and steelhead.

The right leader setup will help you get the proper leader angles and a better presentation of your bait.

The diagram above shows a 2 bait centerpin leader I use when centerpin fishing for salmon. However, you can easily remove one hook and stick to a single bait. In fact, laws in some areas only allow one bait.

For the leader setup, I use 2 swivels, 2 different lines diameters, spit shots, and a great hook ( or two) for my leader setup.

I also use something called shot line which is critical if you use thick mainlines or if you use colored mainlines. A shot line is a section at the top of the leader. This section can be 16″ to 36″ depending on the size and depth of the river I fish.

The shot line is basically a separate portion of the leader where all the weights go which you can see in the above diagram. If you set this up properly you will improve your success. For my leader, I have a swivel at the top and bottom of the shot line.

There is a lot that goes into my leader setup, but I have proven the effectiveness of this leader over the last 30 years of centerpin fishing for steelhead, salmon, and trout.

To see my other leader setups for shallow and deeper water, including shot line lengths, check out my page Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leader And Proven Setups. Although this is about my steelhead leaders, they work for salmon if you upsize all the lines by 2 to 4 pounds, or follow my line recommendations on this page.

Swivels And Weights For Centerpin Fishing

Weights for float fishing

I use small swivels to attach the leader to the mainline. These swivels are very small but strong, and it’s important to use good quality swivels like the size 8 Spro Power Swivel 50 pound. Cheap swivels will break on big hard fighting salmon.

You should be using split shots in sizes BB to AAA for most trout and steelhead situations.

Not all weights are good for river fishing so check out my page on the Best Weights For Fly Fishing and Float Fishing. Although you will see that this page is primarily about fly fishing weights I use the same weights for float fishing too.

Best Hooks For Float Fishing

The right hooks are really important when centerpin fishing for salmon. Having the wrong hook can lead to all kinds of problems and even no fish.

A hook that is too big may be seen by the salmon and then ignored, or a large hook could cause problems with your presentation by not allowing your baits to drift naturally, or cause the bait to sink and snag up more.

A hook that is too small can break, or bend or come out too easily and you could lose a fish of a lifetime.

Also, gap size of the hook is important. The right gap size or gap shape can help your hook stay lodged in the salmon’s mouth. I would say all that salmon guides are very particular about the hooks that they use.

I like and use the Raven Specimen hooks most of the time and so do many of the guides I work with. For large rivers, when fishing dirtier water, or when using larger baits, size 2 or 4 should be perfect.

But when fishing in smaller rivers, clear water, or slow water where stealth is required, a size 8 or 6 hook is a better option.

There is a lot that goes into how and why I choose certain hooks when fishing for salmon. Cheap hooks bend or break! Quality hooks could be thinner and stronger which is great.

The size of the bait will determine the hook size and the hook gap, water clarity and even the size of the salmon can all influence my decision on which hook to use.

I discuss all of this on my page on the 4 Best Hooks For Float Fishing for more details and my list of the best hooks to use in all situations.

The Best Baits For Float Fishing

Baits for salmon fishing
A large salmon caught using a pink plastic worm.

Using the right bait at the right time will greatly increase the amount of fish you catch.

I would think this makes sense, but I still see guys putting all kinds of dumb stuff on their hooks all the time and then hoping to catch a salmon.

In most river situations you can’t go wrong with live or plastic worms, spawn bags, and flies but there are other really good baits, some even better than these ones that you could try under your float.

For more on great salmon baits that are used by river guides, check out my page on the Best Baits For Salmon Fishing On Rivers And When To Use Them.

The 4 Fundamentals of Centerpin Fishing

A Centerpin angler hooking into another nice steelhead
One of my clients hooking into one of over 20 landed and all because he knows my four fundamentals of good Centerpin fishing.

Having the right gear, the right setup, and the right baits is only half of what is required to be a great centerpin angler.

Centerpin fishing for salmon effectively takes skill and knowledge along with practicing the right things. It has been said before that presentation is the key, but I don’t always agree.

I personally believe that everything needs to be right, and not just the presentation.

A great presentation done with the wrong bait, or the wrong hook, or the wrong setup, or a leader so thick that the salmon will see it from 5 feet away will only get you so far.

In fact, a great presentation, with the wrong sized leader or the wrong bait is often useless.

You have to get it all right. That’s what guides do and is the reason why they catch more salmon than the average angler.

Below are my four fundamentals of Centerpin fishing for salmon that you need to learn if you want to become one of those guys that catch all the fish.

Set Up For More Success When Centerpin Fishing For Salmon

Bad Centerpin lines can cause problems
Make sure you are using all the right stuff. Even using a bad line can cause all kinds of problems and affect your fishing success.

One of the fundamentals of good Centerpin fishing for salmon is how you set up your rod, reel line, leader, and even how you put on your bait.

Setting up your leader wrong can mean no fish at the end of the day even if you are good at the other 3 fundamentals.

Also, using a reel that doesn’t work well or using an old line or a line that is too heavy will prevent you from catching fish.

Everything from the rod and reel down to the bait needs to be just right, but also being comfortable, dry, safe, and even having the right net can help.

Make sure you have all the stuff you need. Check out my page Centerpin Fishing Gear: A Guide Recommended List.

Cover The Water Effectively When Centerpin Fishing For Salmon

An anger covering the water well
I put this client at the top of the pool so he could fish it more effectively. You can see where the river goes from shallow where he is standing to deeper where his float is.

You can’t just stand anywhere when Centerpin fishing for steelhead. You need to be standing in the right spot. Most often, as float fishing anglers, we fish from the top down so we can cover the water effectively.

This means positioning yourself at the top of the pool, landing your float right where it goes from shallow to deeper and usually close to you, and then making long drifts from the top of the pool to the bottom of the pool is the best way to do it.

Once your drift is complete you want to systematically move each drift a little further over, about a foot at a time until the entire pool is completely covered.

You can see how this is done with the orange lines in the above picture.

Normally I would have had the angler in the above picture fish from the bank but it had too many hanging trees. Or, if he was standing in the middle of the river like in the picture, I would have had him stand back about 15 feet so his rod tip was about where the first line in the middle of the river is, but the water was too fast for him in the middle to stand safely, so he moved to the safest spot.

Sometimes you just need to make exceptions but try your best to be in the right spot.

Covering the water in lines
It’s usually best to cover the water in lines starting from one side and moving to the other side in 1 or 2 foot increments.

The main thing is to cover the water in lines and don’t miss a spot. Unfortunately, many anglers don’t do this very well and they miss a lot of fish. I discuss this in more detail on my page Effectively Covering The Water When Float Fishing.

Find The Bottom When Float Fishing For Salmon

Finding the bottom when float fishing
Finding the bottom when float fishing is not always easy. Don’t just guess, use the right float and the right bait to help you locate the bottom.

I just discussed covering the water from one side to the other, but covering the water can also mean from top to bottom, or surface to bottom.

Now for salmon fishing in rivers, they are usually very close to the bottom, and much of the time it’s very difficult to tell how deep they are. This means you need to get your bait down to the fish if you want to catch them.

However, at times I have seen them suspending 3 feet down in a 10-foot deep hole, and if your bait is on the bottom you won’t catch any fish.

Many guys make the mistake of either dragging their baits along the bottom or drifting their bait too far over the heads of the fish and they rarely make adjustments to their floats. I tell all my students that the first thing they want to do in every spot that the fish is to find the bottom.

Having the perfect leader set up and the best bait and then making a great drift is useless if your bait is 5 feet over their heads.

Find the bottom and you will often find the salmon. It’s actually rare to see the salmon suspended more than a few feet off the bottom and far more common for them to be a few inches off the bottom.

To find the bottom, I start by guessing the depth of the spot just by looking at the pool and trying to see if I can see the bottom or not, then I adjust my float to what I think the depth might be, I usually start shallower than deeper and make a drift.

If I can’t see the bottom I may start with a 6-foot leader and see what happens.

The first drift is to see if the bait catches the bottom or if the float keeps tilting downriver fast. If this happens I’m likely dragging my bait along the bottom.

If the float drifts freely without any tilting or bumping rocks I just make it a foot deeper and try again, then I keep repeating and making it 1 foot longer until I start hitting the bottom.

Once you find the bottom you can shorten up your leader by 12 to 16 inches and then make and good clean and controlled drift, and then start covering the water 1 foot at a time as I describe above.

Using the right float and using the right bait can really help you learn how to find the bottom better.

A sensitive float like the ones I recommend on my best floats page will help you find the bottom easier. Round floats suck for this!

A heavier bait that gets down fast and stays down and one that will drag and catch the bottom more often will also help you determine if you are on the bottom or not. A very light bait will not work so well.

There is more to finding the bottom effectively and some tricks you should know about. For more information check out my page How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways

Centerpin Fishing: Speed Control

2 anglers float fishing for steelhead
These two anglers are float fishing for steelhead and watching their float to control their speed and their leader angles. They are both fishing from the top of the pool.

Speed control is the most important of all the Centerpin fundamentals. I didn’t realize how important it actually was until I started guiding and had the opportunity to watch hundreds of anglers fish and not catch any fish.

When I started guiding I would wonder why one angler would catch all the fish even though both of them used the same setup and even the same bait. Was it just luck? Eventually, I figured it out and realized that one angler was simply controlling his speed better.

Now I make sure that my clients always know to control their speed and I emphasize the importance of this. To control your speed when float fishing we do something called trotting.

Trotting Your Float For Better Presentation

A float being trotted or checked

There is a thing in centerpin fishing and float fishing called trotting, or some call it checking your float, and it is a very important concept to learn.

Trotting is how you control your speed to get your bait moving at a natural speed as it travels through the strike zone.

You can trott much better with a Centerpin reel than any other reel which is why I believe that the Centerpin reel is superior to any other reel used in float fishing.

Some anglers reading this already know what trotting or checking your float is but I would bet 9 out of 10 didn’t know the real reason why trotting actually works so well. Did you?

When Centerpin fishing and in float fishing with spinning reels, trotting, or checking your float is simply holding your float back so it moves slower than the surface current.

It’s not so you present your bait first and before the float.

The real reason why trotting works so well is that if you hold your float back just enough you can match the bottom speed better.

Matching the bottom speed means that your bait moves in the lower water column at a speed that matches everything else that is drifting through that area and therefore your bait looks more natural to the fish. It also gives the fish more time to see your bait and react to it.

Float Angles
The right angle of your leader and float makes all the difference.

To do this well, you want to hold your float back just a little to get the right angle. You can do this by applying pressure or tapping the spool of the Centerpin reel.

Once you get that proper angle, you work your reel and control the speed of the line coming off the reel to maintain that angle throughout the entire drift.

You want to try and achieve the best angle as seen in the diagram above. Without going into full details on why this angle is the best, just trust me on this one and do it.

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

Understanding Salmon Holding Water and Behavior

There are a few other bonus tips I will provide that are really important if you want to be successful when centerpin fishing for salmon.

Knowing how to read the water is important when fishing for salmon in a river. Knowing about travel routes and salmon holding water will also greatly increase the amount of salmon you will catch.

These holding spots will change throughout the fall season depending on conditions such as water levels, water clarity, time of day, and light.

I also find that at times the baits they eat can be different. As an example, whenthe water is low and clear, often, salmon will all be holding the deepest pools during high sun and might only eat a tiny little bait like a stonefly nymph. But, as is gets close to dusk, and through the night, they will start to move under the low light and they can be found in pool, pockets, and riffles sections.

But under high water conditions, the salmon can literally be anywhere, or they may even be seeking out the seems and slower edges closer to the banks.

I also find that when they are in the river for only a few hours they don;t like to stop and eat and they just blast through the lower sections of the river. But after a day or 2 in the river, they slow down and hold longer in the pools. These holding salmon are much easier to catch.

Timing Runs

Another thing that you should know is how to time the salmon runs. Anglers that do this well will be the lucky guys that will catch 10+ salmon a day simply because they are on the water when the fish come in or when the salmon are most abundant.

Knowing how to time the runs can make a huge difference.

Knowing this will allow me as a guide to be on the right river on the right day. I can fish a quick clearing river one day and catch a ton of fish and then 2 days later be on another river that has just cleared and hammer them.

I record what color and clarity the river is based on the levels shown on the charts. i discuss all of this on my page How To Catch Salmon In A River: Guides Explain Methods And More….

New To Centerpin Fishing

There are times when there will be steelhead and trout mixed in with the salmon so you might want to check out my page Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead as well.

Got A Question About Centerpin Fishing For Salmon?

If you have a question or comment or some advice for me and others about Centerpin fishing for salmon let me know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines,

Author

  • Graham - River Guide / Instructor

    I am a full-time river fishing guide with over 20 years of guiding experience and I run one of the top river guide services with a team of great river guides. I have guided about 3000 anglers and this website is a compilation of the tips and methods that I teach my clients and other guides. Check the About Us page in the bottom menu for more about me and our river guide contributors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *