The idea of an automatic hook-setting device dates back more than 150 years. In 1868, Joseph Koehler completed his application for U.S. Patent #77,892, a portable, automatic hook-setting apparatus. It had an adjustable tension trigger-lever and recoiling spring to set the hook.
The "Improvement in Fishing Apparatus" was portable, folding for easy transport. Today's devices differ greatly from Koehler's invention, but the goal to improve angler success and enjoyment remains the same.
My introduction to this trend was with the Automatic Fisherman. We were targeting trophy brown trout and steelhead in a tributary of Lake Michigan, and the experience was an eye-opener. These devices have been a part of my ice-fishing arsenal ever since.
Kerry Paulson, inventor of the Automatic Fisherman, explains that trout are wary fish that often drop a bait if they feel any resistance. For this reason, tip-up fishing generally yields poor results. Anglers wind up running for plenty of tripped flags, but are disappointed as fish pull off a few feet of line, then drop the bait. With the Automatic Fisherman, as a trout takes the bait, the line pulls on the strike trigger shaft and releases the loaded rod upward to set the hook. This reduces the number of deeply hooked fish, which often occurs with setlines. The fish then pulls line against the reel's drag until the angler arrives to continue the battle. This brings up the second major advantage of auto devices — the fun factor. You fight the fish on a light rod and reel in contrast to the tug-of-war with tip-ups and thick line. On cold and windy days, dealing with frozen tip-up line strewn across the ice also is daunting.
The third advantage of auto devices is the ability to spread extra lines and cover more territory. This allows you to cover several zones like the top of a flat, adjacent breakline, and even the basin associated with a structure. They also help track the movement of fish across flats, so you can get positioned in front of them with jigging presentations. This approach works especially well for roaming fish like walleyes, perch, trout, and catfish.
The Automatic Fisherman is sturdily built and has a 20-year warranty. The base and trigger arm are made of injection-molded high-density plastic, which allows anglers to wiggle them free if they freeze into the ice or snow. Their size and red color make them visible even in blowing snow, and the sound of the trigger arm dropping when a fish hits is a great bite indicator.
A weighted balsa slipfloat with the stem removed can be threaded onto the line between the first and second guides of a spinning rod to pull slack line. This gives fish more time to mouth the bait prior to the hook-set and can be adjusted for fish species and mood. For aggressive feeders like pike or largemouth bass, this distance can be decreased to reduce the risk of deeply hooked fish.
For anglers who prefer a more compact auto device, Automatic Fisherman has released the Snapper model for this ice season. It has the same sturdy construction and adjustable stainless-steel triggering pin, but in a smaller package. The Snapper collapses down to 17 x 2.5 x 2.5 inches and has an expandable base and adjustable holder for rods from 22 to 50 inches. It retails for $34.99, automaticfisherman.com.
The JawJacker is a compact and versatile device designed by Tennessee native Matt Dungan who spent several years in Idaho where five lines for ice-fishing are allowed. He observed anglers with unattended deadstick rods that were relatively ineffective and decided to design a device that would work with existing gear and automatically set the hook when a fish bit.
Dungan's target species were trout and the results of testing JawJacker devices were dramatic. He soon had anglers using them from Alaska to New Mexico and east to Pennsylvania. Anglers like its adjustable base and holder that can accommodate a range of ice rods. Place a rod in it with a release loop attached to the tip. Spread the stabilizing arms and set the trigger over the hole. With the bait set at a desired depth, the loop is placed in the release trigger arm and the line draped over the trigger. When a fish bites, the line trips the trigger and the rod tip is released to set the hook. With a little experience, it's simple to set up.
Unique to the JawJacker is a trigger tension wingnut that can be adjusted for more or less resistance. This feature comes in handy when switching from light-biting fish like crappies to harder-biting pike, or for making adjustments in lure weights or bait size. The tension control guards against false releases and deeply hooked fish. When designing the JawJacker more than 15 years ago, Dungan recognized that his device would be even more effective if it also jigged baits, so he engineered the frame of the JawJacker to fit into a motorized jigging device. This Jigging JawJacker is scheduled for release this fall, retailing for about $70. It will accommodate existing JawJacker units, allowing anglers to select between several jigging actions, jawjackerfishing.com.
Jeff Van Remortel is a full-time fishing and hunting guide in northern Wisconsin who uses every tool to ensure his customers have a fun, successful, and safe outing. "For ice-fishing, force multipliers like the traditional tip-up are a great way to increase fishing action over a single jigging rod," he says. "I've used many auto-fishing devices over the past 10 to 15 years. But over the past two years, a product called the Gill-O-Tine has become my favorite piece of ice fishing equipment.
"My introduction to the Gill-O-Tine came by a client and now good friend, Kurt Duxbury. He'd hired me as a muskie guide in 2012 and we soon became friends. He later introduced me to the two owners/inventors of the Gill-O-Tine, Keith Ziemba and Jon Faulks."
Van Remortel was skeptical when told of their "programmable jigging machine." "The prototype looked intimidating," he says, "with its keypad and jigging arm attached to a servo motor. But even in the early stages, it was user friendly. They placed an ice fishing rod in the holder and demonstrated the hair-trigger hook-set and a few of its programmed jigging routines. I was impressed and couldn't wait to see it in action. We took out six prototypes for panfishing and the results were incredible."
After more testing and refining, Gill-O-Tines were released in 2016 and will be available this season. Van Remortel says it can outfish human counterparts for bluegills, crappies, perch, walleyes, trout, and pike. But the goal of the product isn't to replace anglers, but to enable them to actively fish more lines.
"The Gill-O-Tine's finely tuned electronic bite-detection system uses counterweights (to offset lure weight) and magnets to deliver a fast hook-set on the lightest bites, with a high hookup percentage and virtually no gut-hooking," he says. "It comes with more than 20 proven jigging routines for everything from Jigging Raps and spoons to tiny panfish jigs. There also is also a feature that allows for custom programming with routines such as slow rise, slow fall, and a variety of jigging cadences. It even includes an aerator attachment to keep holes from freezing. An audible signal and light system provide visual and audio alerts as well."
It runs on a rechargeable 6-V battery (included) and retails for $450. Battery life is about 6 to 9 hours, depending on temperature and programming. A remote control (sold separately) can operate up to 6 units with a range of several hundred yards, rut-fin.com.
Introduced in last year's In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide, the SIKU is a programmable jigging device that runs on a 12-V battery and accommodates most ice rods. Rods are balanced with a magnetic adjustment system that allows it to perform various jigging routines. When a fish bites, the rod is pulled off balance, which triggers an audio and visual strike alarm. The SIKU X also comes with an attachment for automatic hook-sets, which increases its height from 14.5 to 27 inches. This lift means the jigging range of lures also can be increased for fish like lake trout that often respond to large sweeping presentations.
The original SIKU and SIKU X are made of anodized aircraft-grade 6061 T-6 aluminum and retail for $419.99 and $489.99, respectively. New for 2017-18 is a composite plastic model that retails for approximately half that cost, profishapp.com.
While some skepticism regarding new developments may be healthy, closed mindedness can leave you at a disadvantage in fishing. Automatic devices have a track record of adding efficiency, enjoyment, and conservation to fishing. The expansion of auto jigging evices is an expression of how technology is advancing in fishing. As with most tools, they're only as good as the person behind them. In the hands of a skilled angler, they can add a new dimension to the Frozen Water Period and perhaps attract a new crowd to the sport of ice-fishing.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid ice angler and stays in close touch with product developments.