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Advanced Spin tactics for Steelhead

By: Don Dfishinfool Mathews 

Article first published in Country Anglin Outdoor Guide

January - February 2005 issue  pg 12

Spin fishing is by far the preferred fishing method of American anglers. It’s as American as apple pie and Chevy trucks. Survey any group of adult males and you will seldom find one who has never used a spinning rod. Still many experienced spin fishermen find themselves struggling on the steelhead stream. The successful tactics they use on other species often leaves them empty handed at the steelhead game.

To have success with a spinning rod on the streams, you must first understand that your spin outfit must be looked at as a float rod. Simply put the preferred method of catching steelhead trout in our steelhead tributaries is float fishing. The use of floats or bobbers is the most effective way of making natural presentations to the fish. Float fishing allows us to suspend our presentation at the exact depth the fish are holding at, while maintaining a “dead drift” down the stream. Experience tells us that 90% of the time steelhead can be found holding tight to the bottom. With the use of a quick adjusting float the angler can quickly find the water depth and adjust his presentation accordingly. Sure there are other methods one can use to put their presentation in the strike zone. The beauty of float fishing is that much longer drifts are possible than other methods allow. More time in the strike zone equals more fish on the line.

Perhaps, one who is interested in mastering the spin rod for steelhead techniques should take note of the Canadian Center Pinning method. I am not real sure where the center pins roots go but I know our neighbors to the north have discovered how deadly they can be on steelhead. The center pinn reel is essentially a large spool, that revolves on ball bearings. Novices often mistake the center pinn reel for a large fly reel. In truth they are as different as night and day. The Center Pinn is a tool designed to free spool the float down the stream with very little resistance, thus making for a very natural presentation.  They use monofilament line instead of fly line. Typically the reel is mounted on a very long spin type rod. It seems as though their design revolves primarily in making precision drifts through long pools. They are most at home on big water. The center pin doesn’t have a drag like most conventional tackle and the user must palm the spool to apply the correct amount of pressure required to fight and land the fish. This plus the difficulty of learning to cast the center pinn outfit, makes it a less than practical choice for most fishermen not willing to spend the time required to become proficient at it’s use.

As a spin fisherman I found myself studying the center pinners, looking for ways to marry these highly effective techniques to my trusty spinning outfit. I have found that we can adapt the tactics and terminal rigs we use on our spin outfits to mimic the center pinn methods.

The first thing we need to learn is how to open bail fish with our spinning gear. By positioning ourselves at the top of the run and open bail fishing, we are able to let the current pull line from the spool as the float drifts down thru the pool. This results in little slack line as the current pulls the line from the spool at the same speed the float is drifting at, making for an ideal situation. I see way to many fishermen standing in the middle section of the pool struggling with the current, constantly being forced to mend their line to keep their presentation “dead drifting” straight downstream. It is far easier and more effective to stand at the upstream end of the pool and hold our long spinning rod high in the air, free spooling the float down thru the run. It does take a little practice to get the hang of open bail fishing with spinning gear. You must use your index finger to feather the line from the spool or you may have a bird’s nest on your hands. You must also pay close attention to your float because you have to close the bail before you can pull to set the hook. Any delay and you will be too late in getting the hook set.

In a steelheads world, things drift straight downstream. Objects that drift across the current look very unnatural and are ignored. By positioning ourselves at the top of the run we are able to take advantage of the steelheads tendency to hold along seams in the run. Steelhead do not like to hold in the main current because it requires too much effort. They also do not like to hold in places with swirling back currents constantly throwing them off balance. Instead they prefer the seams that have a light but steady flow to them. That’s why the logical choice is to fish these seams from upstream and drifting our presentations back to the fish. By fishing this way we do not have to cast across different sections of current traveling at different speeds. The center pinners have discovered by careful float and weight selection they can float their presentation down thru the run and match the current speed exactly. Highly specialized float fishing equipment is available to us through the magic of the Internet. Things you just can’t find at the mart stores are now available to the average fisherman who travels to the stream. In all honesty, most tackle shops don’t even carry what you need. A little time and research on the net and you can be armed with everything you need to be a successful float fisherman. One helpful website is they carry virtually all of the float fishing gear you will need.

Lets start with the spinning rod. Most long Steelhead fishing rods are called noodle or float rods. There are several characteristics necessary to make it a good float rod. First the rod should be long. This helps keep excess line off of the water and is the major advantage of a noodle style rod. It must be limber to protect the thin light lines we are forced to use to fool these line shy fish. It must balance well and be light enough to be held in ones hand all day long. I have had the fortune of trying a variety of rods by the best manufactures. My spinning rod of choice on “Steelhead Alley” is the Fenwick HMX series 10’6” light action rod. This rod has a Tennessee style handle that greatly reduces the weight of the rod as compared to rods using traditional style reel seats. The reel position can be adjusted so the rod balances well. This will be appreciated after a long day on the stream. It is long yet retains a good balance of stiffness that still allows for accurate casting. Perhaps the best feature is the guides. They are, a thin alloy type guide that resist icing better than any other I have tried. A testimate to the effectiveness of this rod, is the number of fisherman that I seen on the stream, with their center pinn reel mounted on this exact rod.

There are lots of spinning reels that will do a good job. I would look for a small light graphite frame reel that holds at least 100 yards of 8 lb mono. It must have a smooth drag and a bearing on the bail line roller is a big plus. I only use reels with an infinite anti reverse, this really seems to help on those hook sets. Bait fishermen should look for a reel that doesn’t have a rubber T-grip on the handle. Salmon and trout eggs seem to be corrosive and eat away rubber handles. A good reel at a discount price is the Okuma Avenger in the 20 Series. It has a rubber gasket that seals the drag washers from grit and dirt and helps keep water out of the drag in freezing temperatures. There are many other fine reels available to choose from.

Floating monofilament line is popular with the center pinn fishermen. It has a distinct advantage over standard mono. When float fishing line belly in the current is our worst enemy. It causes your float to pull sideways across the current, disrupting our “dead drift”. Floating line lifts easily from the water and is easy to mend without disturbing the float from drifting straight down current. I prefer Siglon F brand line in fluorescent pink color in 8 or 10 lb test. It has little stretch and is easy to see on the water.

We can’t use the high visibility line all the way to the hook because, steelhead are very line shy. Instead we use a two section, Fluorocarbon leader that is all but invisible to the fish. I have found that Seaguar Brand fluorocarbon Carbon Pro line is very abrasion resistant and holds knots well. First I run a four-foot section of 10 lb test off of the floating main line. I call this section the butt. This is where my float will go. Below this section of line I will tie in a 24” section of 4 or 6 lb fluorocarbon. We call this section the tippet. We then attach the hook or fly to the end. The advantage to the two-part leader is that when you snag and break off you just loose the tippet section and you retain your expensive float.

New stealth clear plastic floats designed for the Center Pinners are very effective. I prefer the Drennan or Blackbird Brand floats. Three models I use seem to cover steelhead fishing in the Lake Erie Tribs well. For 80% of my fishing I will use the Model 4-5g. This is a versatile float that works well in moderate to slow flows. All Drennan and Blackbird floats are secured to the line by two small pieces of neoprene tubing. This allows you to quickly adjust the depth by sliding the float up and down your line. A well-equipped steelheader should also carry a few floats in the 6-7 G size for the faster flows.

Another trick I have picked up from the Center Pinners is staggering your split shot on your line. It is a given that we will have to add weight to get the presentation down to the fish. You must add enough weight to stand the float up in a state of near neutral buoyancy. This staggered method of shot placement has less drag in the current and gets the bait down quicker with less weight thus requiring a smaller float. Starting with a micro shot on the bottom, the shot size gets progressively larger as they are spaced up the leader. Adding large shot close to the bait or fly will spook the fish. We must be very stealth in our use of shot. I prefer Blackbird brand shot. It is dull in color, holds the leader well without slipping and comes in a multi pack selector that covers all the sizes we use. I also like the value price of Blackbird brand shot.

When you put this whole system together on your spinning outfit, and adapt your drift techniques, to mirror those being used by the center pinners. I am confident your catch rate will go up. We are very fortunate, to have such a great Steelhead fishery close at hand here along the southern shoreline of Lake Erie. There is no better way to shorten the learning curve, than by spending a day with a qualified guide or attending a Steelhead School.  GOOD FISHIN…Don Mathews

Don Mathews is the owner of Dfishinfool’s Guide Service. They have three full-time, licensed, insured guides fishing Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Besides their popular “Steelhead School” They offer all inclusive, instructional trips with either spin or fly equipment. All rods, reels, flies, bait, leaders and a delicious streamside lunch are included in the trip price. There are no hidden costs. They are so confident of their ability to put you on the fish they offer the “You catch fish or you fish free guarantee” on their guided trips. You can check them out on the web at or or you can reach them by phone at 330-565-5457

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In addition to our guided Ohio and Pennsylvania trips we offer a select number of trips each Fall to Western, NY and the Cattaraugus Creek. Steel headers often refer to the Catt as the "Crown Jewel" of our Great Lakes tributaries. We fish the Catt during the month of October. It is a beautiful stream and the early fall fishing is great. Give me a call and we will discuss a trip to the Catt. Don Mathews NY License #4348

We also have a presentation "Finding Fish on Steelhead Alley" available to put on at your seminar, event, or club meeting. We have assembled a awesome slide show and have all of our own equipment. We offer this presentation at a very minimal cost, and your audience will learn from it. So Please contact us....

Many lodging options exist along "Steelhead Alley" and Interstate I-90.  Here are a few lodging options located near to the streams that we fish.

Comfort Inn Elyria Ohio;  440-324-7676
EconoLodge Elyria Ohio; 440-324-3911
Howard Johnson's Geneva Ohio Exit#218; 440-466-1168
State Park Lodge Geneva Ohio Exit #218; 866-806-8066
Hampton Inn Ashtabula Ohio Exit #223; Call   440-275-2000
Comfort Inn Ashtabula Ohio Exit #223; Call   440-275-2711
Days Inn Conneaut Ohio Exit #241440-593-1226
Best Western Erie Pa exit#18 814-838-7646

Clarion Inn Erie Pa Exit#18 814-833-1116

Comfort Inn Dunkirk NY Exit#59 716-672-4450

White Inn Fredonia NY Exit#59 716-672-2103

Best Western Dunkirk NY Exit#59 716-366-7100

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