The John Day is a dream in rugged calendar-quality scenery for non-technical drift boating. Shuttle services and well-spaced put-ins and take-outs are marked. There is also bank access in numerous stretches, despite a lot of private ranchlands.
Fossil knife maker Webb Hammond nailed this summer-steelhead on a March float with Sheely and John Day guide Steve Fleming. In 3 days of fishing we never saw another steelheader.
It’s going to be tough this morning, fishing for high-desert summer steelhead in the cold heart of late winter on central Oregon’s John Day River.
Water temperature is in the 30s, the air colder, sky frigid blue and clear, there is ice in the eddies and rod guides, and yesterday’s thaw has left this morning’s water mud brown. Six inches of visibility—maybe.
“There’s steelhead in here,” Steve Fleming says, “we’ll find ‘em. No one else will be fishing now, so we’ll have the river all to ourselves.”
I wonder, though. New ice, crunchy old snow in the shadows, bright blue sky, mocha slurry water. Not the best combination for steelheading. But we’ve got a couple of edges—Bruce Belles, his fancy English 13-foot technique, and the fact that summer steelhead are more aggressive than winter steelhead even in the winter.
Belles fishes with Fleming several times a year and he’s as confident as our boatman’s upbeat prediction which is based on decades of full-time guiding on one of the most overlooked steelhead rivers in the Northwest.
John Day River summer steelhead are 260 miles from saltwater, a migration that doesn’t reach the launch at Service Creek, where we’re dropping in Fleming’s drift-boat, until cold weather sets in. Down below, near the main Columbia, a mix of summer steelhead start arriving around Halloween that includes fin-clipped, legal to eat, hatchery steelhead taking a cold-water break before continuing up the Columbia to the Snake, Grande Ronde, Salmon, Methow, Wenatchee and others.
John Day’s wild bunch, however, split from the Columbia River pack, and migrate south upriver into the Oregon high desert through Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ground Hog Day, Lincoln’s birthday, and into March and maybe April Fools.
When they arrive at Cottonwood, Clarno, Twickenham, Service Creek and Spray these hard-fighting slender 5- to 12-pound ironheads offer perhaps the best late winter fishing for wild steelhead in the state. I can’t be sure of that superlative though, because ODFW’s reporting system logs success on catch-and-eat hatchery steelhead, and there are no hatchery steelhead in this middle section of river to keep track of.
Steve Fleming nets Manny’s first center-pin steelhead.
But Fleming keeps track. He’s fished this river since ’68 and operates Mah-Hah Outfitters (www. johndayriverfishing.com ) out of Fossil, a small desert town getting smaller.
Tells me he averages 7-steelhead a day, catch-and-release. All wild. I’ve fished these ghost steelhead three different years with Fleming and there’s not been a skunk in the boat yet. The last time was again in late March and we caught our fish long-lining large Styrofoam floats over leaders with dyed prawns, drifting seams and holding water. Our technique was a hybrid that stole parts from bobber dogging, drift fishing, and Belles European system—center pinning.
The John Day is a dream in rugged calendar-quality scenery for non-technical drift boating. Shuttle services and well-spaced put-ins and take-outs are marked. There is also bank access in numerous stretches, despite a lot of private ranchlands. Several miles of good water with public bank access is found at Cottonwood State Park on Highway 206. Check with BLM 541-416-6700 or USFS, 541-575-3000 for access, launch and camping maps. Another local contact is Service Creek Lodge, 541-468-3331 for shuttles, accommodations, guides and fishing information.
Today, we’re pinning our hopes on Belles’ center-pinning.
Sheely nailed this typical March steelhead with a long float, a shrimp and a very sharp hook.
Shoreline water actually clinks with new morning ice. The banks are frozen stiff and white, the water temperature is in the mid-30s, and a high-pressure system is hanging over us like a blazingly blue balloon.
Fleming is feathering the oars holding the drift boat in the skinny frog water off current, offering occasional instruction and bolts of encouragement while Manny Torez and I struggle for competency with medium action 11-foot 3-inch rods and stylish single-action, drag-less reels sporting line spools of 8-pound test floating monofilament that spin in perpetual free-spool and relentlessly threaten to overrun into a tangled horror.
Center-pinning, Belles assures us, is a setup that will let us float ultra-light bobber-jig rigs, more fly than jig actually, through the mocha along current seams that can run a good 135 yards long, partly overhung with brush and limbs. After a few dozen traumatic crashes on the learning curve, Steve assures us that we’ll “get the feel,” enough to thoroughly fish every inch of those 135 yards without making him reposition the boat. “Don’t worry about the cold water or the color,” the guide says, “center-pinning is made for cold water.”
I have doubts, big hurking doubts.
Which vanish a long 90 yards below the Clackacraft when a steelhead unloads on Manny. Before its abrupt sinking Torrez’ foam bobber is a barely visible fluorescent chartreuse dot in the distance. It drifted on a cold line of flowing mud into a tunnel of overhanging bank brush, almost a football field downriver. His rod is pounding. The little number 2 bronze wire hook digs in, solidly pinning the miniscule 1/16-ounce jig to 10 wild pounds of twisting trout. Way downriver, a chrome steelhead blows out of the water.
Steve grins. Sweet vindication!
High visibility floats, and laser-sharp hooks are necessary for extended center-pin drifts and solid hookups.
Downstream we hit more steelhead, Bruce takes a chromer out of a slough, Manny raises several and even I connect a couple of times. After I get the hang of the center-pin rig the water color and cold doesn’t seem to matter. There are steelhead here, we’re the only ones on the river and we’re fighting wild steelhead on little hooks and long rods.
Chalk up another impossible Northwest steelhead victory for classic European ingenuity and Bruce Belles one-way convictions. Center-pinning works when nothing else will!
It unlocks steelhead during the toughest fishing conditions, but is surprisingly rare on Northwest steelhead rivers, perhaps because of the high-end rods and reels, but more likely because of its European background.
The technique has been a how-to staple in England since Henry Coxon invented the reel more than a century ago, and along the same path that float fishing immigrated down, center-pinning is developing an enthusiastic fan base in British Columbia and is poised to migrate into the U.S.
This is where you fish when you’re ready to catch-and-release wild steelhead, in calendar perfect country without competition.
The technique has been producing tench and brown trout in England for centuries but only in the past couple of decades did it leapfrog into North America, landing first in Ontario, dipping into the Great Lakes steelhead boom then creeping west to the Pacific steelhead rivers of British Columbia.
Few steelheaders south of Peace Arch Park are aware of center-pinning and even fewer have tried it. Certainly not in the John Day’s high desert water.
Bruce Belles is the exception. Two decades ago the Oregon angler watched Michigan steelheaders rack up impressive catches center-pinning the Grand River, and noticeably outfishing conventional competition. He picked up one of the curious rod and reel setups, tried it and shortly became a center-pin loyalist. The owner of Clackacraft Drift Boats, Belles fishes hard and often and although he sidesteps the expert label he is indisputably one of the few Northwest authorities on center-pinning.
Watching Bruce organize a web of line loops into his off hand, then gently loft a cast 50 feet to a current seam while lightly palming the whirling spool and controlling line spill to meticulously glide his sliding bobber and jig precisely down a current seam is both humbling and motivating.
Center-pinning, as I can best describe the technique is a highly evolved hybrid that shares the mechanics of spinning, fly rodding, noodle-rodding jig-and-bobber drifting, fly swinging and a dab of sidedrifting.
The upside is that it’s a steelhead and salmon killer that can be worked from bank or boat, will cover a football field or more of water on a single cast without the angler repositioning, probes under overhanging trees and blackberries to reach secluded fish in hidey holes conventional tactics can’t reach.
Bruce Belles high-sticks to keep as much line off the water as possible at the start of the float.
Belles’ Pet Center-Pin System
- Rod: 13 ½ feet, medium action.
- Reel: Raven Classic or Raven Vectra SST, 4½ inch spool, 2 ball bearings. Re-move one of the spool handles to avoid fouling free-spooling line. Line: Buoyant monofilament, 8-pound test, .010 diameter.
- Jigs: Fossil, Oregon steelhead and smallmouth guide Steve Fleming recom-mends Punisher jigs, 1/16 to 1/32 ounce. Thin No. 2 hooks will set deep with a minimum of impact. Floats: Large with bright fluorescent colors that will be visible at great distanc-es-beyond 100 yards. Rig the float to slide and adjust the lure to ride 18 inches to two feet off the bottom to minimize snags and maximize steelhead contact.
It’s mechanically simple, and produces when water conditions are nearly impossible for conventional tackle. The system employs thin main lines (10 lb. test is good, 8 is better), and will deliver high-action mini jigs that cause lethargic cold-water steelhead to come unglued.
The rig I’m using will throw jigs as light as 1/32 ounce further than I can see them go, and 1/16-ounce jigs easily soar 60 feet. In practiced hands a center-pin outfit, even with its single action, moderate casting range limitations is more efficient and productive than conventional steelhead tackle.
Center-pin reel and John Day jig.
The downside is that gearing up for center-pinning requires specific somewhat pricey tackle. The offsetting factor is that center-pinning allows anglers to snake steelhead out of grown over hidey holes that conventional tackle would never reach under conditions most anglers would never fish.
In February and March, with conventional plugs, spinners, bait and jigs or swinging flies the John Day River is a good bet to pick a late season fight with wild steelhead. Now throw in center-pinning and you’ve got a righteous, break-through adventure.
The free-spooling reel is the heart of the center-pin system.
The frightening heart. A British writer described them as “the Rolls Royce of reels. A delight to look at, wonderful to hold, and just a nightmare to use.”
Center-pin reels resemble thin very narrow fly reels that hold 300 yards of 8-pound test on a 4½ inch diameter spool. These reels are essentially single-action precision crafted line-arbors that revolve freely on embedded micro bearings around a polished spindle—the nearly friction-free namesake “center-pin.”
Prominent reel manufacturers are Raven, Ross, Islander and Okuma. Because of the nearly friction free zero drag and infinite free-spool the reels will smoothly self-feed line downstream, a plus for classic bobber drifting long distances. It take practice, however, to develop the coordinated delicate finger pressure needed to control and stop the spinning spool without disastrous line overruns and tangles. Loose coils tend to jump the spool and wrap-up on the rod handles. During a mindless retrieve it’s possible—believe me—to wrap 20 yards of line around the reel handles instead of onto the spool. Belles’ solution is remove one of the handles.
Manny (right) and Steve Fleming release another John Day steelhead. In 3 days of steelheading we never saw another steelheader.
Center-pinning rods resemble stiff renditions of the wimpy noodle rods that were in vogue in the 1970s. CPs are 11 to 14 feet long with medium backbones, fast tips, and 6- to 9-inch butts with underslung reel seats. The extreme length and closely-spaced row of 10 to 14 line guides help loft the bantam lures and control the fine lines inherent in the center-pinning system. The extra rod length allows a lot of slack to be lifted off the water in a hurry and can be a plus-factor when fighting a hard-charging steelhead with the maddeningly slow single-action center-pin reel.
Lamiglas Rods in Woodland, WA developed the X113MC-P center-pin model designed with a moderate action. It’s 11 feet 3 inches long, two piece, rated for 8-15 pound line and 3/8-3/4 ounce lures.
Raven Tackle, a Canadian manufacturer based in Ontario, is one of the longest established makers of center-pin rods and reels, marketing a line of rods from 11’ 6” to 14’. According to Raven, 13-foot 6-inch float rods handle most river conditions like the John Day in March, and the 14 footer is for large rivers. Raven manufactures an 11-foot 6-inch model, comparable to the Lamiglas introduction, specifically for steelheading
Center pin steelheading lines are specialized. It’s ultrathin monofilament and buoyant to float on the surface during long drift.
For Northwest steelheading Belles has settled on Raven mainline, 8-pound test, .010 diameter. “This line is supple and it’s amazingly buoyant,” Belles said, “I’ve tried most of the lines out there and for me this is the best for center-pin steelheading.”
The standard center-pin cast involves a convoluted casting style that is beautiful to watch and intimidating to master. Casting requires mastering a two-handed technique with pat-your-head, rub-your-belly coordination.
Belles is crunching ice heaves in the gravel and pulling line off the reel.
He pulls 18 inches of line and holds it at a 90-degree angle away from the spool, forming a V between reel spool and first guide.
With finger pressure on his rod hand he secures the free-spinning spool. Holding the line 90 degrees out, he draws back the rod and flips it toward the targeted current seam, simultaneously releasing the line. Holding the line at a 90-degree angle is critical to presentation and smooth line feed.
Center-pin master Bruce Belles is able to work a near-shore eddy with his float/fly rig.
The cast is smooth, effortless and controlled. It lands precisely where it should, on the seam between fast and slow water.
Belles technique is one several casting styles, most prominently the Wallis, Nottingham and side cast which is the basic 90-degree system.
For steelheaders, there are several large advantages to center-pinning. Ultra-light jigs (down to 1/32nd oz.), single eggs or even flies can be presented without adding supplemental sinkers, Slinkys, or pencil leads. Free swinging lure action is especially critical for provoking strikes when water temperatures are just short of ice and when visibility is measured in inches.
The JD’s stout winter flows, however, sometimes require a split or two of shot positioned above the jig or fly to prevent the lures from kiting to the surface.
Bobber and jig rigs can be finessed from pocket to pocket along current seams that run well over 100 yards which means that every cast covers a lot of holding water, including reaching into the holding water protected by shielding overhangs. The ability to reach fish that conventional fishermen can’t, is a huge bonus.
When all the pieces fit center-pinning is a deadly combination that lifts bobber and jig drifting into an even more productive art form, and produces steelhead everybody knows steelhead can’t be caught.
After a couple of center-pin devotion, Belles doesn’t see the technique ever displacing open-faced spinning reels or fixed spool casting systems, no matter how productive it is. “It’s a challenge to learn. A little upscale. It probably has more in common with fly fishing than conventional steelhead techniques,” he says.
But then again, there’s good reason this long-time Oregon steelheader is now a long-time center-pin loyalist and a late winter John Day wild steelhead disciple.