It seems that every season more river steelhead anglers are converting their gear to a center pin reel. With all the buzz surrounding this exciting technique, it’s no wonder the reels and tackle to fish with them have become available statewide. But as with any technique, there are some basic guidelines to follow in order to be successful on a consistent basis.

Craig Lewis has been involved in the center pin/float fishing craze the last decade. He guides, writes and runs a tackle shop in suburban Cleveland, and it all revolves around fishing float rigs with center pin reels! He was gracious enough to lend some time and tips to help beginners shorten the learning curve.

1) Control your Drift. Even though you are fishing with a system that lends itself to presenting a bait or fly at the perfect current speed MOST of the time, pay attention to your drift to make sure this is happening. “Too often I see beginning anglers cast way upstream of their position,” says Craig.

“You lose control of your drift when you do this. When you approach a hole or run, start at the top and fish down the entire length of the holding water. A center pin reel will spin and feed line as the float rig is being taken downstream, there is no slack in the line and you are getting your bait down in the fishes’ sight line for the entire drift.”

No matter how good your bait or fly is, it will not get bitten consistently if is moving too fast!

2) Fish where the fish are! Steelhead tend to hug the river bottom and usually don’t move far in the frigid waters of winter and early spring. “The key is to stay as close to bottom as possible,” offers Craig.

He adds, “When I approach a likely looking hole, I adjust my float depth until I touch bottom consistently. Once I accomplish this, I then move my float down a couple inches so I know my presentation is in the strike zone.”

Too often, new anglers are afraid of snagging bottom and re-tying – GET OVER IT! It’s only a hook and hooks are relatively cheap, compared to the other gear, gas and time spent to get to the river. Getting down to the fish means coughing up a few hooks, but it’s worth it when you are consistently connecting to chrome steelhead.

3) Use Fresh Line. This goes for the mainline and the leader. “I always strip off 20-30 yards of mainline after a couple outings, just to make sure there are no weak spots.” Craig adds, “Keeping fresh line on the reel also helps with your casting distance and keeps tangles to a minimum.” As for the leader, if you’re fishing deep enough you’ll by rubbing the river bottom from time to time. Craig suggests the following, “Check your leader after every fish and every time you hang up on bottom, I can’t emphasize this point enough. Most rivers are full of things like zebra mussels, rocks and timber that can chew up a leader. While modern fluorocarbon lines are very abrasion resistant, breaking off the fish of a lifetime can ruin a trip so it pays to check early and often.”

4) Fit the bait to the conditions. “This is a detail most anglers overlook,” says Craig. “River conditions can change daily and it helps to match your offering to the current water visibility. For example, you caught a bunch of fish a couple days ago on large, bright spawn bags when the water was dirty – say 6-8 inches of visibility. But as the water dropped and got clearer, those same bags you hammered them on are now getting ignored.”

Craig has a simple rule of thumb for matching your presentation to the water conditions: “Think small and pale for spawn bags or small and natural for flies or jigs when the water is clear (5 plus feet of visibility) and big and bright in the dirty water. It might seem simple, but is a point that gets overlooked far too often.”

5) Practice your casting. Center pins do take sometime to get the hang of, so maximize your time on the water by practicing a few casts before you get to the stream. “Practice in your back yard or an open field for as long as it takes for you to get comfortable with the casting.” suggests Craig. “There are some very useful resources on the internet that really help beginning anglers get the hang of the casting.” One such site is They offer free video downloads that show several different casts, try a few and go with one you feel comfortable with.

There is a bit of a learning curve with any new fishing system you try, float fishing with a center pin reel is no exception. But the rewards are worth it, most anglers that try the system hook more steelhead than ever before. Give it a try this steelhead season and you won’t be disappointed in the results.

Special thanks to Craig Lewis at Erie Outfitters. He can be reached at 440-949-8934 or on the web at

Looking for more information? Brian Kelly will be hosting a Center Pin Fishing seminar at the Jay’s in Clare on Saturday March 29th at 1pm.n