The tip bobs down. The hook sets into something that feels like a Chevy truck, which suddenly kicks into gear and strips line. Game on.
The temperature outside is 0°F, but beads of sweat form. Questions arise. Did the rod have the backbone to set the hook properly? Does it have enough play to keep the line tight when a 20-pound laker swings its head three feet in all directions? Can it protect the line you're using? Can it turn this fish? Will it break?
With line screaming off the reel, we know one thing: The rod presented something right. It either had the backbone to present something heavy — a big deadbait, a 1-ounce jig, or bulky swimbait well enough to entice a strike — or the tip speed required to make lures jump, dance, or twitch as needed. Some rods billed as big-fish sticks don't have strong or fast enough tip sections to snap big baits upward to trigger strikes.
But of course a 10-pound walleye, 12-pound steelhead, or 20-pound brown can be triggered with something weighing 1/4-ounce or less. Sometimes you need play in the tip of a long rod to keep big fish pinned when lightning-quick motions can create slack line. And sometimes line has to be fed to wary, finicky giants before the hook is finally taken in.
Picks of the Pros
"When big lakers peck at a bait, my 42-inch Thorne Brothers Professional is more forgiving, and softer when you need to let them hold it and take it all the way in so they can't feel you," says Chris Beeksma, who often guides for lake trout on Lake Superior. "And you have enough room in a long blank to build in an unforgiving butt section for fighting and hauling big ones up. I can set the hook on fish in 200 feet of water with that rod. People think they need short rods to fish in a tent and it's just not true. I love a 42-incher even in a one-man tent."
Lonnie Murphy, ice-rod designer for Thorne Brothers, says the 42-inch Professional comes in glass (model #9810625, $67.99) and graphite (model #24256, $102.99). "Different handles may cost a little more," Murphy says. "Tennessee handles are standard, but you can get a reel seat for $10 more, and custom locking seats or Winn grips for up to $40 more. We made the first ice-rod handles featuring Winn grips, which are hugely popular on open water.
Glass is indestructible and therefore more popular among guys taking snowmobile treks 12 miles into the wilderness, which really beats a rod up. Finding this kind of power in an ice rod is rare. Graphite is more sensitive and it's solid graphite — so plenty durable. But guys also like the 34-inch Walleye medium-heavy (model #130919, $115.99) with the Winn handle. Most guys aren't used to targeting double-digit walleyes all day, but the rush to Lake Winnipeg is driving sales of these heavier rods. They're very popular with Erie guys, too, for fishing heavier lipless cranks and spoons."
Canadian tournament angler Jeff Gustasfson agrees that longer is better. "I like ice rods that are a little longer than traditional models for catching big fish, he says. "The Ice Hunter rod ($39.99) that I helped design for Frabill is a 38-inch heavy power, but it's not a pool cue like the old rods we had to use for lake trout. It has a soft tip, yet enough backbone to handle 20-pounders. I fish with braided line and this rod sets up solid with braid. Its length provides a lot more shock absorption on hook-sets and helps to prevent tearing hooks out of their mouths.
"I use the same rod for big pike, walleyes, and lakers. I live in Ontario's Sunset Country, where we have big fish of all three species and we can catch them all in the same day, so its convenient to pack a couple models of the same rod when I head out for the day. I'm a fan of longer rods for the leverage to fight big fish. It makes a big difference, giving the angler more control, wearing out the fish, and getting it to the hole."
Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl goes the other way. "I use a 28-inch medium or 30-inch medium-heavy Frabill Bro Series Rod ($39.99)," he says. "Medium-heavy is nice for 1/2- to 1-ounce tubes or spoons for big fish. It has a reel seat that locks down tight. There's nothing worse than hearing your reel go 'plop' into a hole. The backbone is great for monster hook-sets, even down deep after lakers. With big walleyes and pike, it's designed to drive hooks home through bony mouths. It has a graphite blank, cork handle, aluminum oxide eyelets, and contemporary design, and it comes with a Bro-Series Spinning Reel with a smooth drag, and foldable handle that works great with braid, fluorocarbon, and mono. It comes with a deep spool for heavy fish and a shallow spool for light line."
Another Minnesota guide, Tony Roach, famous for "trolling on ice" tactics, rarely uses shelters. He designed Tony Roach Series Ice Magnum rods ($29.99) with big lures and big walleyes in mind for Wright & McGill (WMTR150PIMC-WMTR150P). "These are run-and-gun rods," he says. "I was calling for longer rods for a while because that's how I fish. You can build more actions into a longer rod. There's not a lot you can do with a 24- to 30-inch rod, but you can blend forgiveness with stiff backbone into a longer blank. It's hard to go back after using 42- to 50-inch sticks because shorter rods lose fish. They throw slack into the line, while a longer rod keeps the line tight better no matter what the fish does."
A 36-inch rod is short for Roach, but he uses them at times. "You get better balance with a long rod," he says. "With a split handle, it's lighter and balances nicely in your hand. You need a perfect butt length for balance and maneuverability when fighting big fish. Walleyes are notorious for being finicky eaters with a hard mouth, so even when downsizing you need a lighter tip to both detect bites and sometimes feed line, but I like aggressive lures that get lunched.
"On Lake Winnipeg last year we used big spoons to catch 10- and 12-pound fish with these rods. It was amazing how well walleyes reacted to lake-trout spoons 3 to 4 inches long. We needed a rod with enough power through the tip to present those lures. You have to balance the rod with the lure. With lighter lures, you need a light tip and the lighter the better. Ice anglers tend to use fewer actions than open-water anglers, and that shouldn't be the case."
St. Croix responded to the call for longer rods with a new series of Mojo Ice Rods. "We have new 48- and 50-inch models," says Rich Belanger, promotions manager at St. Croix. "But for heavy lures and fish, the Mojo MIR36MH in spin, or MIR36MH ($49.99) in casting style would be right. I like a little give in that tip so fish can't shake free. I've always been a proponent of maximizing feel, and the split reel-seat design keeps fingers in contact with the blank. And these are solid carbon blanks — very durable with slightly oversized guides to help prevent freeze-up."
Adam Audettel, president of Tuned-Up Custom Rods, says the most popular big-fish stick he ever created is the Commander ($119). "We designed it for big greenbacks on Lake Winnipeg and for guys going north for lakers," Audettel says. "It's 38 inches long, has a split grip for sensitivity, and recoil guides that shed ice easier. Mike Thorson of Batson Enterprises designed these blanks, so there's a lot of knowledge behind it. Thorson knows as much about graphite as anybody."
Cody Roswick, field marketing manager for Pure Fishing, uses Fenwick Elite Tech Ice Rods. "I use 42-inch medium and medium-heavy versions (ETICE42M and ETICE42MH, $39.99 to $49.99) a lot for big walleyes, pike, and lake trout," he says. "The action is ideal with a fast tip and lots of backbone. It gives 1/4- to 3/8-ounce spoons and heavier rattlebaits great action. There aren't many rods of this caliber out there, and I like longer rods for big fish to reduce slack when fighting fish. They also provide a better jigging stroke and I use them in my Clam Thermal shack on occasion, but I mostly use them outdoors or out my truck door, getting line close to the hole, which reduces freezing and wind bow. Longer rods are great for when hole-hopping."
There's a lot to be said for glass rods and solid graphite for the adventurous type. When visiting Milwaukee Harbor for world-class browns, big frozen rivers in the flatlands, or thin ice around the river mouths of the Great Lakes region for steelhead, I turn to Thorne Brothers Professionals for jigging, but often use the Automatic Fisherman, too — which comes with its own rod and reel ($44.99 for the package). No need for sensitivity with a tool that snaps up and sets hooks for you — just durability, flex, and the power to beat down the fast heavies.
Finally the fish appears, racing by under the hole, stripping line again. Not a Chevy truck after all. As line disappears and the reel sings for the tenth time, some might wonder: Would a better stick have brought it up sooner? Would it be on the ice by now? The answer appears as sweat trickling down to drip off nervous fingers.