October 23, 2017
By Steve Ryan
Not long ago, deadsticking was synonymous with jigging in one hole and having your least favorite jigging rod sitting motionless in a hole next to you. Little consideration was given to the characteristics of the deadstick rod, rod holders, or electronics. The deadstick was an extra rod in the spread and any fish caught on it was a bonus. Expectations were low and often the results were as well.
Today, top rod makers and traditional ice-fishing companies are designing rods for this technique, as well as precision rod holders. Deadsticking is no longer a secondary technique that might give you an extra fish or two throughout the day; it's a system that can account for most of your catch. One such system has been designed by JT Outdoor Products, consisting of a Hotbox, Snare rod, and multi-tiered adjustable rod holder. As multispecies ice angler Jason Drewa describes it, this system is the planer board of ice fishing.
"This system has revolutionized the way ice anglers use deadsticks. We've all been out on cold days trying to keep holes open while running a few extra deadsticks, and it can be frustrating. No more." The JT Hotbox is a solution to hole freeze-ups. It consists of a collapsible aluminum box that keeps an ice hole open at temperatures down to 20°F below zero with a propane burner. Even in less frigid temperatures, the Hotbox keeps holes free from blowing snow so lines need less tending. In addition, a bite-indicator system is available on the Hotbox matched with a Snare rod.
The JT Snare rod comes in two models, a panfish and walleye version. At first glance, the Panfish Snare rod appears to be ultralight in power, super-slow in action, and a bit awkward with a gum-ball-size orange bead glued at the rod tip. But anglers recognize the functionality of each element of the rod and the power of its glass blank. "The Panfish Snare is the ultimate weapon for finicky panfish," Drewa claims. "It allows me to fish light line (usually 1- to 4-pound test). The slow action of the fiberglass blank loads perfectly on the lightest bites. The built-in titanium spring bobber and strike indicator make the tip more visible from a distance. On a recent late-season perch trip, I was running Snare rods up to 30 yards apart on a large flat. Nothing is better than seeing that orange strike indicator slowly sink."
The Snare is much more than a fiberglass noodle rod. JT Outdoors designed the blank so fish feel even resistance when taking the bait. "When you watch fish take a bait with the Snare rod, you see the initial strike," Drewa says. "Then there's a pause, followed by the rod slowly loading to about the third eyelet. When a fish gets the rod loaded to that point, a straight lift hooks it much better than a wrist snap. The fish has already almost hooked itself."
When fishing the 36-inch Walleye Snare, Drewa uses the Hotbox setup as a jigging station, with a JT Rod Holder and Lowrance Hook-5 Ice unit. "By having several Hotboxes and Snares with Lowrance units at the holes, I can watch how walleyes come in and react to the bait. When using these jigging stations, I switch from a traditional plain hook-and-minnow setup to a jigging spoon or Jigging Rap with a minnow. These stations must be close to your central location since you need to keep an eye on the sonar screens. If I see that walleyes are merely sniffing a lively minnow, I adjust the depth and presentation, or actively jig at that station. It turns deadsticking into a more active and engaging presentation."
HT Enterprises offers two systems on each end of the power spectrum. To deadstick for big predators like pike, HT has a newly improved Ice Rigger base with an adjustable rod holder and strike indicator flag that deploys when a fish runs off with slack line attached to an alligator clip. When the slack is taken up, the fish pulls against the action of the HT Sapphire Ice 36-inch Dead Stick. This rod has flex in its brightly colored tip section, but a powerful mid-section to tame the biggest fish. This system allows Sapphire Ice Dead Stick rods to be baited with large minnows and placed into Ice Riggers awaiting a bite, much like a tip-up but with the bonus of fighting the fish on rod and reel."
With soft-biting crappies and panfish in mind, HT offers its 32-inch UL Ice Blue Pro rod and Lift N' Hook Rod Holder. This system plays off the ultra-slow action of the Ice Blue Pro rod, which has great flex at the tip, and the nearly horizontal position of the rod in the holder. By using a heavy tungsten jig on this rod with a lively crappie minnow or eurolarvae, the rod tip sags under the pressure and bounces with any movement of the bait. The instant a fish takes the bait, the tip reacts. If a crappie swims up with the bait, the tip rises. If a bluegill inhales a bait and swims down a half inch, the rod responds without putting pressure on the fish. The angler then reaches over, takes the rod from the Lift-N-Hook stand, and sets the hook.
Another system that's gained popularity over the past three years is a favorite of Kevin Yeska's for deadsticking a 13 Fishing Widow Maker 32ML rod and Black Betty in-line reel. The Widow Maker has all the attributes of a great deadstick rod, with an ultra-soft tip and power and sensitivity throughout the remainder of the rod. But the major advancement with the system comes in the form of the reel.
"In-line reels have revolutionized the way we manage line by alleviating twists," Yeska says. "Plus they make it easy to reposition lures when fish change depths. Two of my favorite species to target by deadsticking on ice are channel cats and smallmouth bass. They're challenging to locate, so I always start with two setups. One is a jigging outfit and the other a deadstick. My catfish jigging outfit might initially consist of a Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon tipped with a minnow head for a more active approach. My deadstick outfit is rigged with a #6 Trokar treble hook baited with a fresh chunk of shiner and a split shot 10 inches up the line. For smallies, I prefer a subtle jigging presentation. Even in their lethargic state, smallmouths can't get enough of a green pumpkin or peach-color crappie tube jigged 6 to 24 inches off bottom. For my deadsticking rig, I use a lively shiner rigged on a RJ Shimmy Spoon with the single hook just under the skin behind its dorsal fin."
Yeska sets his deadstick combo several feet to the right of his jigging hole to minimize the chance of line tangles when fighting fish. He sets a sonar in graph mode, positioned so that he can see both baits on the screen. For jigging, he prefers a medium-action, 28-inch 13 Fishing Wicked Ice rod with a Black Betty 6061 in-line reel for both catfish and bass. For deadsticking, he uses the 32-inch ML 13 Fishing Widow Maker with a Black Betty 6061 reel. "The in-line reel makes deadsticking easier," he says, "especially on cold days when guides freeze up and the slightest amount of line twist from a standard spinning reel can ruin a deadstick presentation. The Black Betty makes it easy to release the spool, set the tension, and watch the line slowly trail away when a fish bites."
Frabill offers the 28-inch Bro Series rod for deadsticking. It has blank-through construction for greater sensitivity and power. Its moderate length makes it a good choice for fishing inside or outside a shelter. Its bright orange tip illuminates the tip section to the second guide and its power makes it a great inland walleye rod. Rig a lively fathead minnow on this rod and place it in a holder nearby. Let the minnow do all the work to trigger a bite. The rod does the rest.
For 2017, St. Croix has added the 36-inch light-action Mojo Ice rod. It's engineered for anglers who cherish the fight of every fish that comes through the hole. They have precision-tapered solid-carbon blanks, giving them responsive action, not the limp deadened feel that plagues some noodle rods. St. Croix has crafted a new style of split-grip handle that allows maximum contact with the blank. The Mojo is feather light and has oversized stainless-steel guides to resist freezing. The action and power of this rod also make it versatile for deadsticking everything from crappies and walleyes to trout and whitefish.
On the western waters of Lake Cascade, Idaho, dedicated ice angler Andy Fiolka incorporates deadsticking into his arsenal for nomadic trophy perch. Tuned Up Custom Rods 32- to 36-inch Bullwhips are his rods of choice. "While not designed specifically for deadsticking, the Bullwhip has a powerful backbone behind a soft tip," he says. "That soft tip helps detect light bites, see movements of the minnow, and offers minimal resistance once a fish commits to the bait. The first 6 inches of the tip are bright neon to help spot bites from a distance."
Even in locations like Lake Cascade where live minnows aren't legal, deadstick rods can be rigged with a spoon and piece of nightcrawler. When positioned on the edge of breaklines or spread across flats, deadstick rods alert anglers to the movements of perch. On windy days, the Bullwhip can be adjusted to sit higher in the rod stand to catch more wind and generate greater movement to quiver a jig. If winds are too gusty, it can be positioned with the tip closer to the hole for less line and rod movement. Tuned Up Custom Rods also offers a Deadstick series (30, 32, and 36 inches) with slightly more flex in the blank than the Bullwhip series.
When Matt Johnson guides clients on the lakes of central Minnesota, his favorite deadstick rod is the 36-inch Jason Mitchell Meat Stick, which he uses for several species. "That 36-inch length allows clients to try various techniques, including deadsticking," he says. "It has a split grip and light-wire guides for comfort and sensitivity. And its orange and yellow tip makes it easy to spot bites. I don't like a noodle rod for deadsticking. I need to be able to set into walleyes with power and drive the barb solidly into the mouths of big catfish. You can't do that with a noodle rod. This one has the right balance of tip forgiveness and power through the rest of the blank.
Johnson's walleye deadstick outfit consists of the 36-inch Jason Mitchell Meat Stick, paired with a 1000-size Shimano reel spooled with 4- or 5-pound-test line. He favors a vertical spoon that can also be jigged to attract fish from a distance, instead of a hook and minnow. He adds a dropper chain to a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Clam Pro Tackle Rattlin' Blade Spoon or Leech Flutter Spoon and adds a lively minnow. "The dropper separates the minnow from the spoon and allows it greater movement to attract fish," he says. "This added action creates a 360-degree chandelier effect as the spoon reflects available light and flashes as the minnow struggles." He cautions anglers to make certain deadstick rods are secured in a fixed rod holder. Nothing spoils a trip faster than a lost fish and rod.
Deadsticking has evolved from a passive approach into a more active and tactical one that's often highly productive. By incorporating electronics, anglers can monitor the movement and reaction of fish to deadstick presentations and adjust appropriately. The latest rod holders position technique-specific rods at various angles to cope with wind conditions. And in-line reels that eliminate the unnatural spinning of baits make deadsticking more effective as well.