The Christmas holiday break is a good time to consider new options to enjoy the outdoors.
If you are lucky enough to get a few gift cards to your favorite sports shop, now is a good time to think about a centerpin setup for your next river fishing adventure.
Centerpin rod setups have been becoming popular in Pennsylvania over the last decade, and there are good reasons why. Those who centerpin fish say your bait travels in a much more natural flow rate and that leads to more fish on the end of your line.
Jeff Fink, of Girard in Erie County, has been involved in the fishing industry for more than 40 years working with the leading manufacturers of fish-finding and fish-mapping technologies over most of the United States. Now that he’s retired, he’s enjoying centerpin fishing for steelhead trout.
But the setup also works on any wide river, including those with warmwater species such as smallmouth bass or trout stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Rivers such as the Allegheny and Youghiogheny – and in other parts of the state – are seeing people fish with centerpin setups with bait, artificial flies and minnows.
“Pennsylvania has a pretty good offering for diversity,” he said about retiring and fishing for a variety of species in northwestern Pennsylvania. He grew up in Erie and has enjoyed the transformation of Lake Erie from the days of heavy pollution to becoming top spot for walleye fishing. This year’s water levels have also made a great year for steelhead coming out of the lake into the small tributaries, “Everybody is talking about how good the run has been (this fall.).” He said if the weather conditions continue, “There will be great fishing all winter.”
Fink learned about centerpin fishing about 20 years ago by watching two other fishermen having good luck on one of the lake’s tributaries, Elk Creek. While he was personally happy with catching a couple steelhead that day, he said he couldn’t believe how many they were catching, “Boom, stuck another one. Boom, he stuck another one,” Fink said about the duo continuously hooking up with these large fish. “What in heaven are they doing?,” he pondered to himself.
Soon he walked up to the men and started watching them catch one fish after another with a reel that looked like a fly reel but wasn’t a fly reel. The men, Leon and Karl Hanson from Michigan, were willing to explain to Fink how they were fishing with float reels known as centerpin reels.
“It allows the drift to maintain a long distance and keep your bait in the target zone,” he said. Fink learned that this type of fishing has been big in Canada and Michigan and is now becoming popular in states like Pennsylvania.
The reels don’t have a traditional drag setup that’s found on other reels, allowing the line to feely pull from the reel as the bait flows downstream. The angler’s fingers are placed on the side of the spool, creating a controlled resistance (drag) that gives the fisherman complete control over the line to maximize the time your bait stays in the presentation area in a very natural way.
“There’s a learning curve,” he explained about getting familiar with a spool of line that will just keep flowing out if you are not aware of what’s happening. “It’s not that bad when you get used to it,” he said about the casting action.
It turned out Fink was talking to someone who actually made his own centerpin reels. Leon Hanson had made 100 centerpin reels at that time and Fink was able to get one. The reels are now prized possessions, but there are many companies today that manufacture reels for this type of fishing.
The free-spooling line allows the float, sinkers and bait to all stay vertical while flowing through the current. With fly reels and spinning rods, the angler’s bait floats into the current and then angles back out of the current when you reach the end your line. With center pinning, your bait stays in the sweet spot of the stream flow as long and as far as you desire.
His line actually stays along the bank in the channel or undercut bank as long as permitted by the stream and the distance to other fishermen.
While the line set up is more complicated than more familiar fishing set ups, it pays off in the long run.
“It’s a blast, and it’s very, very effective,” he said about using the right bait in the proper depth and controlling the fish with a relatively light line. “You can really start catching a lot of fish.” A video of Fink explaining the reels, rods and line setups is included with the online version of this story.
Center pin setup
The fishing line is actually separated into three parts. You have 1) a main float line in 10- or 8-pound test, 2) a shot line, where you use microswivels to attach a piece of float line that has your float and graduated-in-reducing-size round sinkers on fluorocarbon 6-pound line and 3) finally, a light piece of fluorocarbon line that has your hook.
For steelhead this time of year, he fishes with steelhead eggs either as a single egg or several bundled together in fine mesh called egg sacs. Other times he uses emerald shiner minnows or maggots on his hook.
The float rods vary from 11 to 15 feet depending on the width of the stream you anticipate to fish and the size of the game you are targeting on the water. “The length is needed because you want to be able to hold the rod up high enough over the water to keep the line from getting into that fast drift current and pulling your line away from where you are trying to fish.”
“It’s just a different, fun way to fish,” he said about using these types of reels about 75% of the time he fishes.
Josh Feltenberger, pro shop manager at FishUSA in Fairview, said this type of fishing dates to the 1800s in Europe, but it’s only been becoming popular here now. “There are a lot of guys who’ve been spin (spinner reels) fishing who think this is fly fishing,” he said. “In the last 10 years, it just exploded,” he said as those who like to fish are finding videos about this technique online.
While he’s seeing a lot of younger anglers getting into the hobby, he said, “A lot of people in their 40s and 50s are converting from spin fishing.”
He points out it is different from other types of reels that are easier to learn to use. He said for those wanting to try center pinning should plan to invest some time into it. “The biggest learning curve is casting and learning the basics of it.”
He said some people practice the technique of pulling out line and casting at the same time on their lawns just to get the feel of it. Getting familiar with the casting techniques should be the focus of your first year with a centerpin.
Feltenberger said in year two, the anglers focus more on the different size of floats and the placement of their sinkers as it reacts to the current. If the float is leaning forward or backward instead of straight up and down, the weights and heights of the floats need to be moved around.
Usually in year three, he said it all comes together and you consistently learn to fine-tune your presentation. “They’re really fun to fish,” he said about centerpins being for the dedicated fisherman.
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For those wanting to get started, he said to expect to spend several hundred dollars for the basic setup. “Spend about three-quarters of your budget on the reel,” he said.
“The reel is more important than the rod will ever be,” he said about controlling the way your line floats through a fishing hole. The float rods come in varying lengths, and you can use noodle rods as well. He recommends 11-foot poles in Pennsylvania, but 13-foot and 15-foot lengths are popular on larger streams.
When thinking about why he grabs this setup when he heads out to his favorite stream, Feltenberger said, “You can match the current and control your setup,” adding that it’s a great feeling to fight a heavy fish on a rig without a drag. “It’s up to the fisherman to control the line from coming out and being reeled in.”
Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA Today Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Outdoors Newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Try centerpin fishing on your favorite river or stream in Pennsylvania