Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead: 13 Tips From Expert Guides

Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Talks

Centerpin Fishing From A Guides Perspective

I have been Centerpin fishing for steelhead for over 30 years and I have been guiding with Centerpin reels for about 20 years. Like many anglers, it is one of my favorite and most productive ways to catch steelhead in rivers. Fishing for steelhead with a Centerpin is one of the fastest-growing methods for many reasons, and these are the guide tips and advice that I give to my clients.

Centerpin fishing for steelhead allows you to present a bait in a natural way using a special reel called a Centerpin reel combined with an extra-long rod. Centerpin fishing allows you to get long, accurate, and controlled drifts that keep your bait in the strike zone for longer which means more fish will see and bite it.

Having the right gear for steelhead fishing and knowing how to use the gear is very important. More important is knowing how to effectively present your float and your bait to the fish using a Centerpin reel which is what I teach anglers on guide trips and during my Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead classes.

Using a float to present your bait to steelhead is called float fishing but when you use a Centerpin reel to do it, to some anglers, it’s known as Centerpin fishing. Float fishing can be done with a Centerpin reel, a spinning reel, or even a bait cast reel.

There are four key fundamentals to Centerpin fishing and float fishing that you need to know. These four fundamentals are a must-do whether you float fish with a Centerpin reel or with a spinning reel. They are a must-do when you are fishing for trout and salmon too.

You will need to learn all four fundamentals before you are that one guy catching ten steelhead when everyone else around you is only catching 1 or 2.

I will discuss those four fundamentals in more detail below because if you miss even one of them you will struggle to catch fish with any consistency. I will also go over all 13 things you should know when Centerpin fishing for steelhead.

Centerpin Fishing Species

You can Centerpin fish for trout, steelhead, salmon, and even smallmouth bass and carp in rivers.

Many anglers will now only use Centerpin reels for steelhead fishing because these reels are perfect for presenting a bait on the larger steelhead rivers.

Centerpin fishing can work for any fish that is in the flow of the river and I have even caught walleye and carp while Centerpin fishing.

Centerpin Fishing Rivers

This a medium sized great lakes steelhead river.
This a medium sized great lakes steelhead river that is perfect for Centerpin fishing for steelhead on.

Centerpin fishing is great in any river wider than 20 feet but it is not limited to larger rivers.

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

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 12 feet deep.

It’s difficult to Centerpin fish in shallow water under 3 feet deep so if you encounter a river that is very shallow, it’s best to use the advanced bottom bouncing method I discuss on my Bottom Bouncing page.

I prefer the bottom bouncing method only for sections of the river under 3 feet deep or when fishing short sections, pockets, or around big boulders.

You could also use your Centerpin reel to do bottom bouncing by removing your float and using a bottom bouncing leader setup.

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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.

When it comes to Centerpin fishing for steelhead, the Centerpin reel is the most important part of the entire setup, and it’s the reel that makes Centerpin fishing so productive.

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 lines that you might use on a spinning reel.

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 bait cast reels when float fishing and in most cases those reels just can not do the job as well as a Centerpin reel can.

Two of the best Centerpin reels for steelhead 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 2021: Buyers Guide.

Centerpin reels are basically a spool that rotates around a center post with a very high-end and smooth bearing which allows it to spin freely with zero effort. Centerpin reels also have no drag system which makes fighting fish both challenging and a whole lot of fun.

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

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. An average size Centerpin rod is around 13 feet with a line rating of 4 to 10 lbs for great lakes fishing and around 8 to 16 pounds for very big rivers and west coast steelhead.

Two of the best great lakes Centerpin rods are the 13-foot Lamiglas Redline HS CenterSpin Float Rod and the Raven IM8 Float Rod. I have used both of these rods when fishing and guiding and there are light, strong, and are excellent on great lakes steelhead.

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 fun to fish with.

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

I have an entire page on Centerpin rods called 7 Best Centerpin Rods which is where I cover things like:

  • 7 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 we use for Centerpin fishing for steelhead are the same lines that we use on a spinning reel and are made of Mono, Copolymer, or they can sometimes be a braided line.

One thing you need to make sure of is that the line is supple, is not too heavy, and that it floats.

The best Centerpin line for great lakes steelhead is the 8-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 water or the river has a lot of steelhead over 10 pounds I would suggest the 10-pound Raven Mainline. Many anglers also like the Sufix Elite line.

For salmon fishing on small to mid-sized rivers, I would go up to 12-pound test, and for the very large rivers with fast current, I would go up to a 14-pound test.

For trout fishing, I would use the 8-pound line but you could also drop to 6 pounds.

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 For Float Fishing

When it comes to Centerpin fishing and float fishing with spinning 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. Floats are a key component of Centerpin fishing but not all floats are good for float fishing in rivers.

Although some websites will tell you those round red and white bobbers are just fine, they aren’t!

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 😉

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.

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.

Leader For Float Fishing

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, 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.

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.

Steelhead Leader Setup

The Steelhead leader setup is a critical part of Centerpin fishing for steelhead. The right leader setup will help you get the proper leader angles and a better presentation of your bait.

I use two swivels, two different lines diameters, spit shots, and a great hook for my leader setup.

There is a lot that goes into my leader set up and some years I will put over 500 steelhead in my net using my leader set up which is why I can confidently recommend it to anyone.

Swivels And Weights For Float Fishing

Weights for float fishing

I use micro swivels to attach the leader to the mainline.

I also use something called a shot line which is a separate portion of the leader where all the weights go. If you set this up properly you will improve your success.

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 this page is 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 float fishing for trout, steelhead, and salmon. Having the wrong hook can lead to all kinds of problems and even no fish.

A hook too big may be seen by the fish and ignored or it could cause problems with your presentation and even snag up more.

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

I mostly use Raven Specimen hooks and Raven Sedge hooks in sizes 8 to 10, however, there are a few other good hook options for float fishing.

The Best Baits For Float Fishing

Fishing with Plastic Worms
Fishing with plastic worms can be more effective than fishing with worms that are real.

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.

Lucky for those guys, trout and steelhead put all kinds of dumb stuff in their mouths sometimes. But why use a low percentage bait like corn, dough, or marshmallows when worms or eggs will consistently catch ten times more fish?

In most river situations, you can’t go wrong with live or plastic worms, spawn bags, and flies, but I use some other very effective baits when Centerpin fishing.

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.

Centerpin fishing for steelhead takes some skill and knowledge along with some practice and just because you have all the right gear and tackle doesn’t mean you are going to start catching fish like everyone else.

Many guys believe that how you float fish is to simply put bait on your hook and then cast it out into the river and then watch your float go and then wait for a fish to grab it. That is WRONG!

The guys that believe this is how you float fish are the guys that usually end up catching 1 or 2 fish when guys like my clients are catching 10 or more.

These are my four fundamentals of Centerpin fishing for steelhead 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

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 steelhead 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.

Using the wrong float, the wrong weights, or the wrong hooks can also prevent you from catching fish.

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

Everything from the rod and reel down to the bait needs to be just right if you want to consistently catch steelhead when Centerpin fishing. But even if you get all that perfectly set up, you still need to know the other 3 fundamentals.

GUIDE TIP: My best guide tip is that it’s not one thing that I do that helps me catch a ton of fishing, it’s many things that I do all working together. It’s a combination of all 4 fundamentals combined with the right bait and the right spot on the river at the right time, that will put you up there with the best anglers on the river.

Cover The Water Effectively When Centerpin Fishing

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. As float fishing anglers, we fish from the top down so we can cover the water effectively.

Positioning yourself at the top of the pool to fish and making long drifts from the top of the pool to the bottom of the pool is important if you want to catch the most fish. Once your drift is complete you want to systematically move each drift a little further, 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. 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 to stand.

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

The main thing is to cover the water in lines and don’t miss a spot. Unfortunately, many anglers do not 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

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.

The trout and steelhead 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.

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 find the fish. I guess the depth just by looking at the pool, then I adjust my float to what I think the depth might be, I usually start shallower than deeper and make a drift.

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

Once you find the bottom you can shorten up your leader by 6 to 12 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.

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 fundamental of all four when it comes to float fishing. I didn’t realize this 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, let me explain.

There are a lot of reasons why one guy might catch all the fish including maybe a little luck, but after seeing this happen over and over again with both float fishing anglers, spin fishing anglers, and even fly anglers, I realized that it almost always came down to speed.

If I watched both anglers closely enough I would eventually realize that one angler would hold his float back just a little and this would slow his bait down just enough that he would always catch more fish.

The other anglers would just cast out and watch the float go without controlling the speed, and often his bait would move faster, which meant less fishing.

Now I make sure that my clients always know to control their speed and I emphasize the importance of this.

Trotting Your Float For Better Presentation

A float being trotted or checked

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

You can do this 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 when float fishing with spinning reels, trotting, or checking your float is simply holding your float back so it moves slower than the surface current.

Most anglers believe the reason they trot or check their floats is so the bait goes ahead of the float so that the fish see the bait first and so they won’t be spooked by the line, the weights, or the float going over their heads. But they are wrong! Having your bait go first is simply a good secondary side effect of trotting.

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. This is all I was doing when I hooked 13 fish to my client one fish.

You want to try and achieve the best angle as seen in the picture and 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 Steelhead Holding Water and Behavior

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

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

These holding spots will change throughout the seasons.

In the spring and fall, steelhead will hold or be in a different part of the river depending on water temps and what stage of the run they are in.

In the spring I discuss the 3 stages of the steelhead run and how to capitalize on each stage. You can see my tips and advice for spring steelhead on my page Spring Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics From The Guides.

In the fall, I find steelhead will be in certain areas in October but will be in other spots in October and then in other areas in early December. I also find that the times they feed and the types of effective baits will change too. You can see more on that on my page Fall Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Tips And Tactics.

Winter fishing is another story. Anglers can really struggle at this time of year but anglers that know how the guides keep catching steelhead all winter will do very well. I discuss the changes that guides make when fishing for steelhead in the winter on my page Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Expert Guides.

Another thing that you should know is how to time the steelhead runs. Anglers that do this well will be the lucky guys that will catch 30+ steelhead a day.

On many rivers, the steelhead will move in and be concentrated and they will be easy to catch. After a few days or weeks, they will spread out and big-number-days will be harder.

If you know when a river starts to clear after it rises very high and gets muddy you will be able to be on the river during the prime time. if you are too early and you will be fishing mud, and if you are too late and the fish might be gone.

I record the flow heights and use the online flow charts to help me predict the best times to fish. I know that one river might clear 16 hours after it rises 2 feet, but another river might take 5 days to clear after the same rise in water.

Knowing this will allow me 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 these levels on all the rivers I fish, and I know exactly how long it takes for each river to clear so that I can get my clients on the best river. I recommend keeping good notes too.

I record what color and clarity the river is based on the levels shown on the charts.

Got A Question About Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead?

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

Tight Lines,


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  1. Graham. I thank you so much for easy language and thorough descriptions and pictures. Read this several times. Just 68 and fished since I was able. Nevertheless heard of center pin. But I do try to drift present so now ill do it right thank you I can buy fishing gear and tie some balanced leeches. Yippee. Grandma barb

  2. Hi Graham. Thank you very much for this website, it really helped me out. As i am starting float fishing this year, and planning to drive from Quebec to Porthope next week for steelhead opening, i really learned a lot with all of your advise. I purchased a IM8 rod as you recommended, and got myself a okuma raw2 since it is conveniant for both new and experimented centerpin anglers. Also i am planning to use a Raven mainline 8lb test with a 5lb Drennan flurocarbon leader. The only unanswered question that i might have is, would you recommend putting backing line on my okuma raw 2 reel, and if yes, would you recommend a specific brand. Again thank you very very much for all your tips, you really made my life easier.

    1. Hi Azam,

      Great to hear that you like the website. A few things to consider.

      1st. be prepared for lots of anglers and crowds at port hope as the opening weekend there is extremely busy. I recommend having a backup plan like Wilmot, Graham Creek, Bowmanville Creek, or Duffins creek. The good thing with opening weekend is you can watch other good centerpin anglers fish and cast and see how they do it.

      2nd. Unless it is high and muddy don’t use 5 pouund drennan, I would recommend 4 pound drennan instead, or even 3-pound Drennan leader if the river is very low and clear and the fish are pressured. Better to hook some and lose them, than to hook none at all.. 5lb is too heavy for clear rivers and those rivers are very clear.

      3rd, Before you set up your reel, make sure you know which hand you are going to reel with or you will make it harder for yourself to learn.. I try to always recommend that if you are right handed you should reel with your left hand and hold the rod with your right hand and vice versa. I explain why in the link below.

      I always use backing whether it’s a heavy 12 to 20 pound mono line or fly line backing. I mostly use fly line backing on my reels. You can see my article on how to set up a centerpin reel at

      Best of luck,