Ice Fishing Gear – Getting Your Combo On

By Ben Leal

When I first started ice fishing it was literally a foreign language to me. Moving to the mid-west and experiencing days of temperatures below zero was quite the eye-opener. Long before my first adventure out on the ice, I had visions of a guy wrapped up in a flannel shirt and coveralls, sitting on a bucket. Rod in hand and a thermos full of hot coffee, or at least it started off hot, sitting next to him. In my mind’s eye, I could see this poor sap out there all alone shivering as he hoped a fish would take his bait. Well…fortunately for me and you, that was far from reality. My second winter here in Iowa I was introduced to ice fishing, thankfully, and I found a way to get out of the house as well as finding a way to feed my fishing addiction. The challenge then was to learn what rod and reel combos to use as well as the type of line.

Choosing Your Equipment
Do a quick search for ice fishing rod and reel combos on Google and you’ll get about 800,000 results and that can overwhelm any angler, experienced or not. So let’s break this down and make it a tad easier. First close Google! While using modern technology to help in your search for the perfect match is a great idea maybe we can help simplify a bit.

There are quite a few great rod and reel combinations offered by some of the major manufacturers that are a great place to start. My first combo was a medium light 24-inch rod and reel by Berkley. Other notable manufacturers that I would consider are Frabill, Clam, Eagle Claw, St. Croix and Shakespeare. All of these offer what I would call entry level combo’s; rod and reels that are paired together making the decision process easy. These all come in a variety of lengths and action. Choosing the right combo really is based on the species of fish you’re going to target. Most common lengths are 24-inch to 28-inch and start with ultra-light action to medium action.

“It’s all about balance”, said Cold Water Guide Service owner and Ice Team Pro Rod Woten. “Pick a length that suits your style. Shorter if you fish inside a fish house or longer if you fish more outside.” Woten added that he likes to fish with the longest rod he can get away with.
Many of these will come with line preloaded. My recommendation is to remove that line and load it up with new. Typically for panfish applications, you’re looking at 2 to 4-pound line. For bass or walleye, you can go to 6 and 8-pound lines. Though honestly, I don’t have a reel with anything more than 6-pound test and I’ve landed plenty of nice size bass and walleye.

Obviously, there are going to be rod/reel and line combinations you’ll use for some of the larger predator and toothy fish we chase after, match your rod length and action to the species you are targeting.

Let’s talk about the line here for a minute, probably the most important factor when it comes to choosing the rod and reel combination you’re looking at. “Match the line to your jig”, advises Woten. “The line should be light enough that the jig pulls it taught, but not so heavy that you can’t feel the lure bounce when jigged.”

Matching your line to your jig and then rod to line will help in sorting out the right combo for your target species. “You’ll probably want slightly bigger and heavier jigs and spoons for bass and crappies than you would shallow bluegills,” continued Woten. “Walleyes will require something bigger and heavier yet. Matching the line to the bait and then the rod to the line ensures you have a correctly balanced setup for each of those situations….or any others.”

Now that we’ve broken the ice on line selection, (pun intended) let’s get a little deeper into the types of lines that are out there and when and where you might want to use them. I’d say that most of you if not all are familiar with monofilament. It’s the line that we all started using long before specialty lines came on the market. Okay, well maybe not all of us but a lot of us. Fluorocarbon fishing lines were originally invented in Japan in the mid-1970’s, however, it wasn’t until the 1990’s when it was introduced as leader material for saltwater applications due to its invisible properties, strength and abrasion resistance. Now fluorocarbon lines are common in both open and hardwater applications.

“Each of these lines has their place”, noted Woten. “Use thin monofilament for shallow fish where line stretch during the hookset isn’t critical. Mono also has less memory than fluorocarbon which means less jig spin, which is important when fishing bluegills or shallow crappies.” Fluorocarbon line is good for line-shy fish or for slightly deeper applications due to its low visibility and lower stretch properties. It also sinks better than monofilament because it absorbs water but that also means that it can cause more issues with freezing. “Fluorocarbon is also good for larger fish due to its strength or for slowing the fall rate of a lure due to its tendency to float rather than sink,” he added. Don’t overlook co-polymer lines either. They are a great combination of all the best properties of monofilament and fluorocarbon.

A recent trend in ice fishing and one that will improve your chances for shy fish is the use of level wind reels. Clam Outdoors improved on the level wind reel a bit with the Genz 200 Ice Spooler Reel. These are great reels, especially for sight fisherman. This reel was really designed with West Okoboji Lake’s finicky bluegills in mind. This reel has a longer reel foot allowing an angler to get a more efficient grip and detecting bites more effectively. When you’re sight fishing, a big West Okoboji gill will approach your bait, and as he does you’ll slow the jigging down and stop just before he takes it. As Woten noted, any spinning induced by line twist spells disaster for that type of fishing.

The Don’ts
We’ve punched a hole in the whole ice rod, reel and line combination scenario and provided you with some great recommendations on what to look for when you purchase your combo’s. How about a few tips on using the right gear at the right time for the right application. Let’s be honest, if you’re like me you have at least two rods…okay maybe just a few more for your open water applications, same holds true for ice fishing.

Well for starters and an easy one is using the wrong rod and reel for the type of fishing you’re getting ready to do. It goes without saying that if you’re chasing bluegill you don’t want to use a rod combo filled with a line that was designed for bass or walleye. Why? Your rod action will be too stiff to detect bites if you get any at all. Warry bluegill will see the line and the movement and reject any offering you may have.

“One of the things I see anglers’ doing is fishing too deep”, said Clear Lake Bait & Tackle Inc. owner and Ice Team Pro Kevan Paul. “Crappie feed up and I see anglers fishing near the bottom or below the school of fish and they wonder why others are catching fish and they aren’t.” One thing that Paul recommends when fishing for crappie is to use a rod with a fast tip. You’ll want to see the up bite; in other words, you’ll see your jig load the line and tip of the rod as your jigging. If you see the rod tip go back to neutral versus a downward pull, then a fish has taken your bait and is rising with it. “Definitely a big issue is fishing with a rod that is too stiff where you can’t detect the bite”, adds Paul. “You may not even feel the strike if it’s a tough bite”.

Pay attention! If you’re not looking at your line and rod tip you may miss bites that normally would go undetected. “I see it all the time where guys are out just shooting the breeze and jigging at the same time”, noted Paul. “They’re so focused on the conversation or what’s going on around them that they miss a bite or it goes undetected.”

There are also some advances to monofilament line, one, in particular, that is being offered by Clam Pro Tackle is the new Frost Ice Monofilament Line (Metered), designed for ice anglers by Sun Line Co. This metered line has a section of high visibility orange followed by clear monofilament section. “It’s a great way to watch your line since you can clearly see the orange section of the line as your making your presentation. The clear section is obviously where you’d tie your jig, but it offers anglers another way of keeping an eye on the line as they jig”, stated Paul.

Don’t Be Afraid
To ask questions…quite honestly this all but scratches the surface of possibilities when it comes to paring ice fishing rod combos. One of the great things about the sport that we all enjoy is that there are plenty of folks out there that are more than willing to share their knowledge, and in some cases whether you asked for it or not.
Ice fishing is a great way to spend a day outdoors during the cold winter months. Remember that first and foremost be safe on the ice. Share the passion with a friend or family member. Remember to pay it forward to our youth…they are the future of our sport. For more information about Cold Water Guide Service and Clear Lake Bait & Tackle Inc., visit their Facebook pages and give them a shout. Expert advise you can count on. Tight lines all!