Put a fresh spin on steelhead


Centerpin reels provide precision control over float presentations. Author photo

December 01, 2013

When fresh lake-run steelhead first enter Michigan tributaries in late fall, it can seem like they’ll bite almost anything. But after a few weeks of seeing the same egg-sucking leech imitations or back-drifted plugs, these “dumb” fish quickly become educated and difficult to catch.

That’s when it’s time to ditch conventional wisdom and try something unconventional.

But often, what passes for unconventional is merely the resurrection of some long forgotten approach.

Such is the case with centerpin reels whose origins date back centuries and are the basis of all modern reel designs. Unlike their crudely constructed ancestors, modern centerpin reels feature spools and bushings machined to tight tolerances which allow the spool to spin freely with minimal effort.

For all their precision, centerpin reels are still a very simplistic design. Most have no drag, relying on the angler to palm the spool to slow blistering steelhead runs. There are no gears to help the angler retrieve line faster – one turn of the handle equals one revolution of the spool – and unlike baitcast reels, there are no magnetic or centrifugal brakes to slow the rotation of the spool during a cast.

The reels are paired with 13 – 17 foot long rods which make casting easier, give the angler more control over the line during the drift and help fight large and powerful fish on relatively light line.

Their effectiveness has not escaped the attention of a small but growing number of steelhead anglers who ply the crowded streams of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

Chris “Uber” Raines guides for steelhead and salmon at the Pere Marquette River Lodge on the Pere Marquette River. Known mostly as a fly fishing guide, Raines is quick to point out that he likes to keep all options open – especially when conditions are tough and he needs to put clients on fish. “I consider myself a fishing guide, not a fly fishing guide,” says Raines. He became convinced of the effectiveness of centerpin reels after being humbled by a fellow angler several years ago. “He was making these monster casts and mile-long drifts and his float was going down way more often than mine,” says Raines, adding that it’s now his preferred method of fishing for steelhead in late fall and winter.

Once anglers master casting – which can be a bit tricky – the advantages of centerpin reels become obvious, especially for precision float fishing where the ultra-sensitive spool allows the float and lure to be pulled downstream by the slightest current with virtually no resistance. This enables the float to travel at the same speed as the current and provides anglers with the option to downsize their presentations, an advantage in highly pressured waters.

Another advantage is the ability to cover lots of water from a single position. This reduces the chances of spooking fish when moving – either wading or in a boat. In many cases, if the angler is properly positioned at the top of a run, the entire run can be fished from the same position.

Fish behave differently based on their location within a hole – something anglers need to take into account when covering an entire hole from one position. Steelhead located near the top of the hole – i.e. closest to the angler – are typically the most aggressive and respond best to a faster moving presentation, but as the drift continues through to the slower, deeper portion of the hole, slowing the speed of the drift or temporarily stopping it completely can trigger bites from neutral or negative fish.

Centerpin reels provide the ultimate control for float fishing, but it’s what’s under the float that ultimately determines when a float goes under. While options are nearly endless, Raines tends to rely on a couple of classic steelhead presentations. “For me it’s usually beads or bags,” says Raines, referring to either a single egg-colored glass bead pegged about three inches above the hook or a spawn bag. Raines will also occasionally use jigs tipped with one of various shaped Berkeley Gulp! plastics below his float. “I think jigs are highly underused” adds Raines.

For all their advantages, centerpin reels are still just one tool in the steelhead angler’s bag of tricks but given the popularity of steelhead fishing in Great Lakes tributaries it’s inevitable that at

some point this winter, the fishing’s going to get tough. When it happens, it’s good to have your bag of tricks well-stocked.