Floats, Pins and Chrome
You'll find that center pin fishing is a cross between gear and fly fishing.
By Mike Perusse
It was after a long day on the Kenai and a few Advil later that I realized the previous 12 hours I spent fly fishing was in fact the reason my body was sore. Meanwhile, the three guys I fished with looked fresh as a daisy. They were fishing center pin rods and reels. Me? I was casting flies all day.
That morning we had launched the boat at 5 a.m. to beat the crowds at Rainbow Alley, and showed up ready to take pictures of the rainbows that were bulking up for an Alaskan Winter Wonderland. Guide Jake Zirkle said, "Ready, cast left." And with my fly rod and reel I did. Two back casts and one final forward cast with a hard double haul and my bead and indicator hit the water. I was in the bucket. Just about that time, Keith Graham, Mike McGovney and Jake all cast their center pin rods and their floats hit the same area and we started to cover the drift. Keith's float went down and then Jake's disappeared. Mike grabbed the motor and followed the fish.
By the end of the day I realized that I had made two, if not three casts, to their one; and they caught three times as many fish. Suffice it to say, that day I vowed to learn the art of center pin fishing. And while I still very much enjoy fly fishing, I gained a newfound respect and admiration for center pin fishing.
Center pin fishing has been around for decades having originally begun in Europe. It was later perfected in Canada, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. As if often the case, Alaska ‘Supersized' the technique. It is now slowly working its way into the fabric of the Pacific Northwest fishing scene and it won't be long before center pinning is as common as drift fishing and fly fishing.
When fishing with center pin rods and reels, the mission is to keep the lines straight and get the best drag-free float you can; then prepare yourself for the fight of a lifetime. With center pinning, we're talking about long rods and drag free reels. No indicators here, they're called floats. No fly line, it's either braided line or mono. And no flies either, just beads. And the reels don't have drags - not unless you consider your palm and fingers a drag system.
If you have ever float-fished or indicator-fished from the bank or a boat, then you're likely already well versed with the premise of center pin fishing: keep the line out of the water and watch the float track down river. The key component about center pin fishing is to track the float. You'll also discover how effortless the line comes off the reel. Because the reel provides zero resistance, it's easy to manipulate and it gives you a nicer presentation.
Center pin reels have no drag, but they do have a clicker for transportation. After the clicker is turned off, the line basically falls off the spool allowing smaller baits or floats to float drag free. Picture your favorite fishing hole and the ultimate cast to the top of the drift. Imagine the float tracking all the way through the hole undisturbed; it looks natural and you're not constantly correcting the float to compensate for the line drag.
Reels are like rims on your car - you can get by with just about any reel, but if you want some bling, and you also want some quality, then look for Islander, Ross, Kingpin and JW Young reels. They come in just about every wicked color that's out there. Reels can range from $149 upward to $800. (The cool thing about Islander reels is you can interchange the spools and create your own unique look).
Long rods with rings instead of reel seats work best. This allows you to move the reel anywhere on the cork, and helps balance the rod to your personal preference. Most of the rods sold today are longer and lighter than 10 years ago. Some rods are 2-piece and some custom built rods are 4 feet. The majority of the center pin rods run between 10 and 15 feet long with 13-foot rods dominating the market. If the length scares you and you get overwhelmed with the casting of the reel, you can always put your favorite spinning reel on the rod and have the ultimate float rod. There are plenty of rod manufacturers to choose from and like anything, there's a wide price range. Any reputable rod manufacturer will have a line of center pin rods and you can expect to spend anywhere from $169 to $700 for a good rod.
Your reel and rod investment can be used for all sorts of species, from small bass and trout, to kings, silvers, chums and giant rainbows (and don't forget the ever-endless fighting carp).
Tackle is very similar to what you carry now in your vest, backpack or bed of your pickup. To build leaders you'll need monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line. Use small, micro swivels to eliminate line twist and to connect your leader to the main line. Silicon tubing is recommended for attaching floats, and split shot to help seat the float in the water.
When expressing things that are important, I can't express enough on split shot. (If you fly fish please cover your ears for a bit). The split shot plays a key roll in seating the float. For example, take a float and toss it in the water. You will notice that it lies on its side. Now, take the same float and add weight to the bottom of it and you will see it ride up-like. Now add a little more and it will sit in the water even further. This is a key step in any float fishing, not just center pinning. Most of the time you start with your heavy split shot first, and scale down to smaller sizes; it also helps with the cast and prevents tangles. The better your float rides or tracks, the better the presentation. Just remember that the float is the vehicle to take your presentation to the fish.
RIGGING: There are all types of ways to get rigged for a day on the water. In my experience, I would say that the following are some of the more popular.
Rig 1: Use 10- to 12-pound mainline and attach to a small swivel (size 7 or smaller). Tie on a 16- to 20-inch section of 8- or 10-pound leader material. Attach two pieces of micro tubing and then another small swivel (size 7 or smaller). From there tie on a 16-inch section of leader material, which is then tied directly to whatever presentation you're fishing. When you use two swivels you'll get less line twist and it keeps the split shot off the last section of leader.
Because the depth and speed change constantly, not all water fishes the same. This is why using the micro tubing pieces as slide-ons allows you to move the float anywhere on your line, up or down, over the top of micro swivels, as well as react quick to the changes in water conditions.
Rig 2: This is similar to Rig 1, but does not use the second swivel. More of a straight bait theory, this rig allows for less knots and cleaner presentation overall.
Rig 3: By eliminating the micro tubing and float you've created a setup similar to the standard style drift setup that allows the drift not to get hung up and fish without the floats or indicators.
With rigged setups you can use all types of floats - big, small, fixed and slip. Personally, I prefer the fixed style float when fishing for steelhead and trout. I like a slip bobber or float when I'm fishing for salmon or if I'm fishing deep, slower holes.
PRESENTATION: The presentation can be an endless choice of weapons. The great thing about center pin fishing is you'll find that sand shrimp, eggs, nightcrawlers, flesh patterns, stoneflies, prawns, beads, yarn and scent, along with jigs and rubber worms are all effective offerings.
CASTING: Casting is what puts this all in motion and there is no perfect cast, nor are there points for style. If you can get the secret sauce to the spot, you win. If you hook a fish, that's even better. There are no bad casts unless you do it three times in a row. If you do it once just play it off like you meant to. If it happens twice don't look around. If it happens three times pull your hood over your head and quietly exit the fishing spot.
With the longer rods and the reels that spin freely you can make casts upwards of 100 feet across a river. But most of the casts you'll make will be shorter, and closer to you. My recommendation is to start close (15 feet is a good reference point) and then work your way out. Some of the best drifts are close to shore and often overlooked. Make the cast with confidence and cast straight. Avoid slapping the water with your line and float, and don't allow a big belly of line on the water. George Cook, one of the premier fly casters of our time who fishes and teaches with two-handed rods says, "A straight cast fishes the best." He is absolutely correct. Whether you're fly fishing or slinging bait, the straight cast fishes best because your rod tip is in perfect sight of your float, and there is no belly in the line and your ready for a quick take down,
Side-Cast/Spinning Side Cast: The most popular cast is the side cast/spinning side cast. This allows most anglers to get the idea of center pin fishing quickly, and it allows the line to come of the side of the reel just like a large open faced reel. Your hand acts as a guide allowing the line to come through your hands and then back to the first guide on your rod. If you're trying this for the first time I recommend using bigger floats and casting short distances. This practice allows you to feel the load of the rod and see what kind of effort it takes to make the cast.
As you progress with your casting you will realize that some of the casts are coming off the reel. That means you get the spool spinning as you come forward in your cast. A lot of the casts are side arm, and this keeps the spool from being shocked. Your worst nightmare is when you shock the reel. This is like the combination of a level-wind backlash and confronting a brown bear and her cub. The outcome is not pretty.
My recommendation is to start slow and watch your casting as you load the rod. It takes little effort to get the spool to spin. Start with walking down to the river and simply placing your float in the water. Raise your rod tip high and watch the spool start to spin. It flows freely and easily. Keep that thought in your mind when you make the first couple of casts. Don't overpower the rod; allow the rod to load up and then release the line. This would be the time to tell you I didn't invent the art of center pining, I just watched and learned from some of the best. This is also where I'll drop some names of those who helped me become a better center pin fisherman. Thanks to Chris Sepio, Mike McGovney, Jake Zirkle, Keith Graham, Billy Collette and Eric Neufeld.
If you ever get the chance to try center pining give it a shot. It's like mixing fly and gear together and having the best of both worlds. It's fish-tested and gear-approved. People have been fishing this way for a long time, and if you like taking your game to a new level, this might be ticket.
When I decided to learn to use center pins, I had to force myself to leave behind my favorite drift rods . Admittedly, it was tough. But after awhile it started to click. I liked the center pin drift and feel and I liked the casting off the reel and using my palm and fingers to fight the fish. It's cool and fun and addicting. And I got sick! But I am not looking for a cure - just looking to get through today and hope for tomorrow. It truly is the best of both worlds.
Mike Perruse is a manufacturer's rep for G.Loomis, Shimano, Power Pro and Simms, among others. He lives in Seattle, Wash. and spends as much time on the water as possible.