How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Ice Rods and Reels

By: Gord Ellis

No ice-fishing thrill is as exciting as setting the hook on a big fish, feeling the sudden dead weight, the pause, and then the payoff as an unseen beast pulls your ice rod into a perfect arc. It gets your heart pumping - and fast-moving blood is a good thing on winter days in Ontario.

While willow gads and hand-lines remain popular for ice fishing, their days seem numbered. Since the mid-1980s there's been a gradual shift toward ice rods. The reasons are simple; ice rods allow you to present baits and lures with the kind of delicacy that's standard in open-water fishing, and they're a lot of fun to use. Hook a 10-pound (4.54 kg) lake trout on a nicely balanced winter rod and reel, and you'll never go back to a hand-line.

Ice rods average one-half to one-third shorter than open-water models. Shorter rods allow you to fish closer to the hole, and they fit easily into most ice tents and shacks. But a short rod means condensing the features of a long rod down to a couple of feet. It's not easy to find a 24-inch ice rod that has the backbone to stick a 15-pound (6.8 kg) pike and the flexibility to land it without breaking the line.

Before there were any decent stock ice-fishing rods in stores, anglers crafted their own. I collected tips of broken fly rods (mostly 8-weight graphite steelhead rods) and turned them into ice rods with cork handles. In the early 1990s, commercial graphite ice rods appeared. At the same time, local custom rod builders began to market quality ice rods to keeners. They had extra touches like hook-holders, oversized line guides, and plain metal tips to keep line from icing. Commercial ice rods have come a long way since then, and many offer custom touches as well.

If you only fish for one species, you can get away with just two ice rods; but if you chase everything from lake trout to perch, you'll need a half-dozen rods to cover most situations.

Winter walleye rods should measure 24 to 36 inches and have a medium- to light action. Graphite ice rods rated for 6- to 10-pound-test line can pull a 3/8-ounce Swedish Pimple and also be used to finesse a 1/8-ounce jig and a minnow. A fast tip will work better than a slow one for jigging. Use a larger reel and 10- to 12-pound line when pulling big spoons, but downsize to about 8-pound test when jigging large bait. In really deep water, or where walleye can top 10 pounds, consider a medium-action baitcasting ice rod with a fast-action tip and a reel loaded with 12- to 14-pound-test line. If you plan on using an ice rod as a still line or "dead stick," having a fast tip is less important. A softer tip can be a plus, as fish feel less resistance when they take the bait. Back off the reel's drag so fish can easily take line. I've seen more than one rod disappear down a hole due to tight drags.

Salmon and big trout can smoke out a lot of line in short order and put a tremendous load on rods. For this reason, 36- to 42-inch medium- to medium-heavy-action rods are best; they'll absorb the shock of a heavy hit while putting the brakes on a big pull. Spinning-style ice rods are fine for steelhead and small lakers, but if you're on 20-pound-plus (9 kg) fish, consider a medium- or heavy-action rod and a baitcasting reel with 12- to 17-pound line. I prefer fast-action tips, since lake trout are generally deep and respond well to flash lures. For brook trout, small rainbows, browns, and whitefish, medium-weight walleye rods will do fine.

Panfish rods are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Since most perch, crappie, and bluegill are caught on tackle weighing about the same as the split-ring on the average lake trout spoon, panfish rods have to be light and sensitive. A good one measures from 18 to 30 inches and is light enough to fish a 1/64-ounce jig on 2-pound-test line. When pulling tiny panfish like pumpkinseed, rod-tip speed is not crucial; however, larger perch, crappie, and cisco require a fast tip that can set a hook. Check that the tip on your panfish jigging rod doesn't flop around endlessly when you wave it. It should come back to centre within a few moments of being bounced. If it doesn't, relegate it to set-line duties. In situations where the occasional walleye or trout might show up, a 24-inch medium-light-action rod with a spinning reel and 4-pound line will allow you to handle baits to 3/8 ounce. In deeper water, a 30-inch rod with a fast tip will quickly whip slab crappie, perch, and average-sized walleye.

Drag quality is the biggest factor to consider when choosing a winter reel. If the drag on your reel coughs in cold weather, and you can't find a cure, buy a different one. Small-diameter micro reels are nice for light lining panfish, but are disasters when used with heavier lines. Cold causes monofilament to pour off tiny spools in coils. For walleye and trout, use a medium-sized spinning reel that holds at least 150 yards (137 m) of 10-pound line. Be mindful of where you put the reel when you're fishing. Dropping it in slush or snow will quickly put it out of commission.

The satisfaction of hooking a big fish, playing it to the surface, and then icing it increases greatly when you use an ice rod, but you'll also get more hits and catch more fish if you keep baits moving in winter. Jigging with an ice rod is the easiest way to accomplish this. -

Gord Ellis
Fishing Editor
Gord Ellis is fishing editor of Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine, and also the outdoor columnist for the Thunder Bay Chronicle/Times News and a radio commentator.


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