Center Pin Reels: The Key to Reeling in the Fish

Angler on a boat poses with fish caught using center pin reels
Chris Mulpagano shows nice steelhead taken with center pin reels

Center Pin Reels in Challenging Conditions

The river was like a cold dark ribbon flowing between snow covered banks as we launched the driftboat.  High above in the barren tree tops two bald eagles watched from their perches.  Although it was a chilly morning we did not notice the cold as we set out in search of steelhead.

Previously a series of very cold days with sub zero temperatures followed by lake effect snowfall had slowed the steelhead fishing action down.  Chris Mulpagano said that the best time for steelhead is when the weather conditions are stable and there is a steady barometer. 

But Chris Mulpagano is one of the top fishing guides on the Salmon River and we were not disappointed that day, catching several nice steelhead was possible while center pin reel fishing.  The key to reeling in the fish, is always knowing where to find them and adapting your tactics to the conditions on that day.  This particular day the fish were holding in relatively shallow pools or in narrow channels of swifter water.

Floats and Center Pin Reels

Man on a boat fishing with a center pin reel
Center pin reels allow you better control of the drift while float fishing.

Chris smiled and said that this day would be a bit of a challenge but using the right Salmon River fishing set up – floats and center pin reels – would give us the edge.  Having heard about center pin reels and people praising them, but admittedly never having used one, I was eager to learn.  I learned a lot that day, including the fact that center pin reels are extremely effective.  That day we caught and released several steelhead ranging from five to eight pounds, had a pleasant day on the Salmon River, and I learned a lot about the reels.

Difference Between Center Pin and Standard Fly Reels

For those who are not familiar with center pin reels, they are large reels about four and a half inches in diameter that look like giant fly reels from a distance.  However on closer examination of the reel you would see that the main spool of the reel is off set to the side of the rod handle, turns freely with no drag or bail, and is open on the side so line can freely flow off the spool like a spinning reel.  Whether casting or pulling out on a drift, the line flows freely without drag or resistance.

Bait and Lures

This Salmon River fishing setup is used mainly with drifting a float and bait or lure such as egg sack, jig, bead, or nightcrawler, etc. beneath the float.  The casting seems awkward but Chris was slinging the floats and beads we were using that day with the ease and precision that comes from practice.  His knowledge of the river and skill were soon evident as we hooked into some feisty steelhead.


As I found out, the most difficult part of using a center pin reel is learning to cast.  Chris smiled and admitted that it takes some practice to learn casting since you typically hold your hand out to the side in casting with it.  The normal tendency is to hold your hand in front or let the line go.

But since 90% of the river guides now use center pin reels when considering their Salmon River fishing setup and more and more serious anglers are using them it is likely that you can get someone to teach you how to cast.  The Wallis Cast where the line comes off the side similar to a spinning reel is the one you should learn since it gives superior distance and less line twist.

The Perfect Drifts

Chris Mulpagano explained that the center pin reel has become so popular and effective because it gives a perfect drift to your bait.  You do not have to bother with working the bail on the reel, mending your line, or other concerns in getting a natural drift with your line.  Although center pin reels have been around for years, their rise in popularity coincides with increased knowledge and use of float fishing for steelhead and other fish.

Float Fishing

Float fishing or using various types of floats above our bait or lure gives it a controlled drift through a fish-holding area has become increasing popular.  Among the many reasons for this is the fact that it allows you to cover a lot of water quickly.  By adjusting the distance your bait or lure is under the float the line is hanging over the fish, not drifting by them as in the old-style drifts, and you are able to use slightly heavier leaders. 

Salmon River Fishing Setup

Center pin reel being held by angler wearing gloves.
Center pin reels are increasing in popularity with serious steelhead anglers.

 With 6 lb. test fluorocarbon leaders you have a better chance of landing the fish than you did in previous years when anglers used 2 or 4 lb. test leaders in low clear water.  Although some anglers like the three way swivel for adding weight to a dropper line, Chris Mulpagano prefers split shot between the float and the lure since it gives you more precise control of the depth.

Large Diameter Fly Reel

Center pin reels commonly range in diameter from four to five inches.  Typically the reels are filled with 100 yards of 25 lb. backing and 200 – 300 yards of 8 – 10 lb. test monofilament.  Be careful not to overfill our reel.  That day Chris was using a two foot leader for steelhead although for different water conditions or areas he often shortens the length.

Finding the Salmon River Fishing Setup

There are a surprising amount of center pin reels out there in a wide range of prices.  Even though a lot of the owners are steelhead fishermen, an increasing number of people are finding them effective for salmon or other fish, even carp.  Although you can use almost any rod there are some specialized float rods such as the Bart rods that Chris uses.  Long rods of 13 – 15 foot length help in casting but the main advantage is acting as shock absorber in fighting acrobatic fish like steelhead.

Chris Mulpagano has been a long time guide on the Salmon River and other area streams for salmon and steelhead.  However he has always been on the cutting edge of new techniques and changing habits of the fishery.  For more information contact Chris at (315) 387-2623.

The Right Tool for the Job

Fisherman poses on a boat in winter with his catch
Float fishing is a productive way of fishing for steelhead as Chris Mulpagano shows.

Center pin reels may not be for everyone.  But if you are serious about fishing for steelhead and salmon you should look into them.  The next time you see someone reeling in the fish, fighting a steelhead or salmon take a closer look and you may well see them using these “funny looking reels”. 

Original Article By Leo Maloney and Chris Mulpagano

About The Authors

Leo Maloney was once the editor of Lake Ontario Outdoors Magazine. He enjoys many types of fishing, especially for steelhead. 

Chris Mulpagano is owner of Get The Net Guide Service (315) 387-2623 and is a veteran guide on the eastern end of Lake Ontario and its tributaries.

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