A 28-inch long, medium-action jigging rod is a standard piece of gear for most ice anglers. Other options do exist, but today's rods are so sophisticated and plentiful that selecting the right ice-fishing rod can be a dilemma. Eliminating the unwanted is easy if you keep target species, rod power, and lure application in mind. Once you've narrowed down your choices, you can decide on rod materials, length and construction.
Start Based on Species and Power
"When I pick out an ice fishing rod, it comes down to the species I'm after," says Davis Viehbeck, an avid ice angler from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Unfortunately, few manufacturers categorize rods based on target species, so you may have to prescreen using rod power.
Power refers to the amount of force needed to bend the blank. Ultra-light, light, medium, and heavy are the common classifications. When choosing an ice rod, match the power to the target species you're after in the same manner you would when picking a rod for open water.
Match rod power to your target species when choosing an ice rod.
Choose ultra-light rods for panfish. Light rods are good for perch, and light to medium rods are good for walleye, whitefish and most trout. Heavy rods are best for pike or lake trout.
Wil Wegman, an accomplished ice angler from Bradford, Ontario, cautions exceeding the necessary power. "I would say the most common mistake ice anglers make is to buy rods that are far too stiff. Bigger fish do require more beef, but you don't need one that'll haul in the whole cow!" Wegman says, "Lighten up on those rods. You should be able to feel the flutter of your spoon through the rod, regardless of what you're fishing for."
The next step to choosing an ice rod is determining its application. That is, what lures or baits do you want to fish with, and how do you want to fish them? Finesse-jigging bluegills, swim-baiting walleye, or spooning lake trout all require different rods.
Wegman welcomes variety. "My approach to choosing an ice rod over the last several years has been based on the same approach I use for my bass fishing, both tournament and recreational," he says. "I bring along several rods rigged and ready to go, whether it's open water or hard water. Just like one golf club cannot do everything on the course, neither can one rod on the lake. So, not only do I carry (in a pail) about half a dozen rods with various actions, pound tests, and rigs for perch (my main target species in the winter), I also carry three or four ice-fishing combos rigged for bigger fish. Is this extreme? Of course it is. But even if ice anglers cut these numbers in half, they'll still realize the benefits of a multi ice-rod approach."
As Wegman's approach illustrates, not one rod is suitable for all of winter's game fish. Keeping this in mind, let's overview the details of rod components and design, as these are the next factors to be considered when choosing a rod.
Action describes where the rod flexes along its blank. Action is an important consideration because it impacts how you can present lures and play a fish.
Most ice anglers won't use slow-action blanks. These blanks lack the sensitivity to detect light strikes or the strength to play a feisty fish through an ice hole. Fast-action rods flex mainly at the tip, medium action rods tend to flex to the middle of the blank, and slow action rods bend to the bottom of the handle. Fast- and medium-action rods are preferred by most ice anglers for sensitivity and strength.
Ultra-fast and fast-action rods have limber tips to signal light hits, while the rest of the blank bends little, providing strength (or backbone). This results in solid hooksets. Plus, backbone lets you muscle a trophy fish. Fast-action graphite rods are top choices for most species when jigging or using artificials.
Medium-action rods perform well if using minnows when deadsticking or finesse jigging. The rod's forgiving bend softens the jarring movements if jigs are worked aggressively to help keep minnows on hooks. They also absorb the shock from over-exuberant hooksets.
Testing rod action and power is easy. Take a handle in one hand and the tip in the other, and then lightly bend the rod to test its action. So, if you know what you're looking for, you can quickly try several rods to narrow down your choices. Once you've short listed models, you can now scrutinize the finer details of rod design.
Blank Materials: Graphite vs. Fiberglass
Choosing blank material is a big decision. Graphite, fiberglass, and composite blends are the main options. Graphite is more expensive than fiberglass, but it is also lighter and more sensitive. Solid graphite blanks offer more sensitivity than tubular or composite blanks.
Properly engineered graphite blanks feature fast, sensitive tips and the backbone needed to set hooks and play large fish. A fast-action graphite rod provides the stiffness and the limber tip needed to let anglers quiver jigs-a critical presentation on ice to master if enticing shy biters.
In absolute terms, fiberglass blanks are not as sensitive as graphite, but high-end glass blanks give graphite a run for its money. Fiberglass bends more along the blank than graphite, which equates to smooth hooksets, and premium blanks will have the backbone to play big fish. Fiberglass is more durable than graphite, which gets fragile in freezing temperatures, making glass the preferred choice for anglers uninterested in coddling gear.
Whether you want to feel or see fish strikes is another factor to consider when selecting blank materials. If using a spring bobber or strike indicator to signal hits, you don't need graphite's extreme sensitivity and a fiberglass rod will suffice. Solid fiberglass blanks are also preferred for deadsticking rods. The limber tip lets anglers see the minnow's action and signals light hits. Plus, the blank's forgiving bend gives little resistance during the take. Anglers interested in feeling hits should go graphite because of its superior sensitivity.
Lure and Line Balance
Choosing a rod matched for the lures you want to use is critical to proper presentations. Sensitivity is also paramount, and you'll miss fish if the lure and rod aren't balanced. Some manufacturers list recommended lure and line weights appropriate for their rods.
Aggressive jigging requires minimal flex in the rod tip from the lure's weight to allow you to properly work baits. If there's too much flex, you won't be able to get a good jigging snap. Get too a rod with too flimsy a tip, and you'll tire from the energy needed to rip jigs.
Consider line when choosing an ice rod. A medium-heavy rod might be fine for aggressively jigging spoons for walleye on monofilament; however, if paired with superline, it's unlikely the rod will bend enough to absorb the shock of a hard hookset, which could mean pulling the lure from a fish. In the case of braids, consider using a slightly lighter rod than you would use with mono.
Rod length is somewhat dependent on your fishing conditions. Longer rods tend to be more forgiving. They absorb headshakes, hard hooksets, and give anglers leverage when fighting fish. The downside to longer rods is that they're difficult to fish in closed quarters.
Short rods provide less shock absorption, causing in the line, reel drag, and your arms to compensate for the stress of the fight. However, shorter rods are easier to use in cramped quarters, as you'll find when fishing in ice-fishing huts. Opt for graphite over fiberglass in short rods for more strength and backbone. If fishing's a family affair, keep in mind that short rods are easier for children to use and can turn pint-sized panfish scraps into epic battles.
Shorter rods are easier to use in cramped quarters.
Often overlooked by rod buyers, the number and quality of "eyes" or guides directly impacts rod performance. The more guides, the more uniform the rod bend and the better the unit's performance and shock absorption. Look for rods with at least four guides and strive for one with five to six. Guides should taper in size towards the tip.
Look for an ice rod with large eyes. Eyes with a large diameter allow ice-beaded lines to pass through much easier than small eyes. This reduces the amount of times you'll be cleaning ice off of your line and out of the eyes. Oversized eyes really pay off when regularly reeling up and dropping baits.
In most cases, single footed eyes suffice and will reduce the rod's overall weight. Double-footed eyes provide the strength needed for jigging heavy baits or when targeting large fish. Double-footed eyes are standard on baitcasting and spincast rods.
Handle materials vary and are worthy of consideration. Foam and plastic are the least sensitive. Wegman notes that foam handles tend to hold water-a significant downside when fishing in freezing temperatures.
Cork is preferred by most ice anglers as it conducts vibrations from the blank and warms easily when held. Some rod companies also produce high-tech graphite handles for ultimate sensitivity.
Some high-end rods feature graphite handles for ultimate sensitivity.
Handles feature various reel mounting options, from locking seats to adjustable rings. For the best balance and feel, many ice anglers use electrical tape to fasten reels to handles.
For maximum sensitivity, choose rods where the blank extends through the handle. Blanks stopping half way won't transmit vibrations as well, equating to a less sensitive rod.
When choosing a rod, make sure you team it up with the right size reel to properly balance the combo. "Because ice fishing is a vertical presentation, reels don't need to hold a lot of line," says Viehbeck. "I like to go with the lightest reel I can possibly put on a rod. With the exception of lake trout and pike, where I use larger reels as these fish run a lot, all of my reels are ultralights." Viehbeck explains that a light combo helps anglers stay comfortable when jigging all day, but also increases sensitivity. The lighter the rig, the better you'll be able to feel subtle hits.
Like fishing, choosing an ice rod should be fun. Take the time to pick a rod to suit your ice fishing needs and ice some big ones this season.