March 06, 2018
Hooks are everywhere. On the floor, stuck in the carpet, threatening my feet. Out the window, snow slowly retreats from the lawn. Ice on area lakes is too rotten to venture out on. Along the walls, lure boxes and tackle bags are stacked to the ceiling. Ice gear falls out of the closet when the door is opened. Fly boxes, reels, and lines are piled on the shelves of a cabinet. Trolling rods occupy the wall over a window. Another black cabinet holds nothing but fishing line.
Overhead, on bicycle racks, are all the open-water rods. A step stool is placed underneath. I climb up, patiently untangle the panfish sticks, and bring them down one at a time. Each is rigged and ready to go, the spools filled with light braids that refuse to break down — all with equally long-lived fluorocarbon leaders. The only reason to spool up with new line each year is the addition of new rods and reels to the lineup.
Manufacturers send new reels to try sometimes. But I resist putting some of them into regular use. In this article, I explore where that resistance comes from — why I like the reels I fish with. But it's exciting to see what the newest reels feel like, spooled with the newest lines because incredible improvements have been made in the past few years. New amalgams, new carbon bodies, new drag systems — the increase in efficiency has been exponential. Reels are lighter but stronger — better able to protect delicate lines, yet more durable than ever.
I like reels for particular reasons. I just had to figure out what those reasons are. The first rod I pulled down was an 8-footer from the St. Croix Panfish Series. The reel on it is a Pflueger Patriarch PARSP30X ($199.95). Standing in the shadow of the tackle apocalypse and holding that weaponry made me smile. The memory of how it feels to cast with that particular stick, that particular reel, is sensual. Vivid. The cast is one thing, but the retrieve is what brings memory of the reel into focus.
The reason for having a well-balanced 8-foot rod for panfish is long casts. The reason for having a Pflueger Patriarch is feel. If you're going to make long casts, it's best to be able to tell what's happening on the other end of the line. A reel that oscillates heavily takes feel away. A reel that catches, grinds, or sticks — even slightly — costs you fish. Captain Obvious says panfish are not muskies. To feel a near miss from a 1-pound fish, everything about the operation of the reel has to be smooth at every point of every revolution. The Patriarch is smooth. Even smoother is the Patriarch XT PARXTSP30X ($249.95).
But the Patriarch PARSP30X is right for that particular rod because the gear ratio is lower (5.2:1 compared to 6.2:1). Did somebody mention panfish aren't muskies? We seldom need to fish things at buzzbait speed for crappies, bluegills, or perch. White bass? Maybe. Spend the extra $50 on them (you won't be sorry). A tediously slow retrieve with a small suspending jerkbait, jig-grub combo, or soft swimbait catches more panfish most days. The rod tip has to load just right with the weight of the lure — but it does no good to have the perfect rod when the reel is sluggish at a certain point in every revolution because of a burr on a gear you can't find.
The next rod off the rack is a 7-foot 6-inch Fenwick sporting an Abu Garcia Revo STX REVO2STX10. The STX ($199.95) has a bigger spool in a smaller size than the other models, producing longer casts in a lighter, smaller package. It has a Rocket Spool lip design that allows line to slip off more efficiently and I find it lives up to the hype. I like it for making long casts with the new microbraids. Long casts are incredibly important when you don't know where the crappies or bigger bluegills are yet. Covering water is more fun and less torturous with a Revo and a long rod that can propel a 1/32-ounce jig and 2- to 3-inch grub or soft swimbait into the next county with minimum effort. The size is right — the 20 holds 140 yards of 4-pound mono.
It has a 6.2:1 gear ratio, however, forcing me to consciously slow the pace of the retrieve or use the reel with float rigs. Faster gear ratios, for me, are most important for retrieving line fast when vertical jigging or using bobbers in search mode. The Revo STX is a Cadillac among panfish reels and worth the price because it's so smooth. Slow Oscillation and nine ball bearings pick up line and lay it smoothly on the spool without the vibration or wobble that, in cheaper reels, robs sensitivity.
Many of the same features can be found in the Abu Garcia Orra S (ORRA2S20) for a few less shekels ($69.95). It has the same lip design, and the same Carbon Matrix drag system — a critical component. Never are we so vulnerable to big pike, muskies, walleyes, and bass as when they decide to rip into delicate little panfish lures. And the big heavies do it all the time. Teaching them it was a bad idea depends on a super-smooth drag. I've wrestled pike up to 22 pounds, walleyes over 10 pounds, and bass over 6 to the boat on 4-pound lines with Abu Revo, Orra, and Patriarch reels. It would be far less feasible without reels that give line without a hitch.
Quantum has made real strides in panfish reels (no pun intended) with the new Dynamic Throttle TH10 ($59.99). It has 11 ball bearings, a 5.3:1 gear ratio, and holds 125 yards of 4-pound test. "Pretty hard to beat a highly affordable Throttle reel for under $60," says Alan McGuckin of Dynamic Sponsorships. "Unibody construction. Solid one-piece feel. The panfish-friendly size-10 is super smooth for a reel in this price range. Tolerances are tight on this little wonder, and they have to be nowadays, when 4- to 6-pound microbraids are almost too thin to see."
Rationales for Reels
Cory Schmidt, In-Fisherman Field Editor says, "For me, panfishing is often about catapulting 1/80- to 1/16-ounce jigheads on 2- or 3-pound-test mono or increasingly now, microbraid. Almost always, it's better to fish a reel one size larger than a given manufacturer's smallest size. So that usually means I use a 2000-size spinning reel for panfishing. With a wider-diameter spool, casts fly farther due to looser coils that better resist tangles, and propel lures farther. I fill the spool so line comes within millimeters of the lip. A good rod maximizes cast distance, too. I like 6-foot 6-inch to 7-foot light-power, moderately fast action rods. I mostly fish St. Croix Avid and G. Loomis Trout series rods.
"One sweet exception to the 'one size larger reel' rule is Shimano's 1000 size Stradic CI4 ($229.99)," Schmidt adds. "It has a slightly wider spool than some of the similar size 1000 or size-10 reels (manufacturer size designations vary). Most 500 or size-5 reels — though nice and compact for panfish — have narrow spools that produce tiny line coils and big headaches. And while previous size-2000 reels were too heavy to comfortably match light panfish rods, new technology has drastically reduced reel weight, so a Stradic 2000 now weighs less than a 500 or 1000 from previous generations."
Minnesota guide and panfish expert Tom Neustrom likes the tight tolerances of Daiwa reels for light line. "The Daiwa Laguna LAG500-5Bi ($39.95) and CrossFire CF500 3Bi ($22.99) are affordable, excellent, and get the job done," Neustrom says. "But if you want to incorporate joy into the experience, the Daiwa Luvius 1003 ($299.95) is smooth as silk and awesome to fish with. It handles 2-pound line like a dream." The smaller Luvius has nine ball bearings and a gear ratio of 4.8:1 — perfect for slow retrieves. The spool is right for microbraids and light fluorocarbons, with a capacity for 160 yards of 2-pound mono.
"I like a smooth drag," he says. "So I love the Laguna. Bigger panfish and rogue bass or walleyes require a smooth drag when you're using light line, and I use 2-pound a lot. A slight angle on the bail design never lets it open on the hook-set. Line always finds its way back to the roller with this design. I need consistency, durability, smoothness, and good line pick-up for my clients. I can't afford to have reels on the boat where the anti-reverse breaks down. For a real that's not expensive, the Crossfire is a guide's dream. The Laguna is incredible with big fish, and the Luvius is expensive, but it's a Cadillac.
"Line comes off all these reels smoothly for long casts with slipbobbers or small jigs. The Laguna has a bigger spool, so it's a better choice for long-cast techniques," Neustrom says.
Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl approaches open-water panfish with reels of all sizes. "The different sizes and styles of reels I use reflect our approach to different techniques," he says. "I use Shimano 1000-series reels with smaller spools on 5- to 7.5-foot rods for various techniques — a good all-around size. I like the CI4 because it's smooth and light. But if I'm fishing in cane I like the 2500 series because you can cast farther.
"The Sedona 500 ($69.99) is a good specialty reel for vertical jigging with lighter jigs because the spool size is right," he says. "But I like a straight-line reel that gives me 24 inches per turn of the reel handle for most of my vertical fishing. The line lasts longer with less twist when vertical fishing deeper water when using the Frabill 371 ($55.99). I use 3-pound Sunline Sniper Fluorocarbon a lot because it's so thin you can use lighter jigs and micro spoons when fishing deeper than 15 feet. The idea is to ice-fish from a boat with 5-foot St. Croix Panfish Series or Legend Xtreme rods coupled with a straight-line reel. A light 5-foot rod keeps your jig in the cone of your transducer. Fishing straight up and down and staying in the cone is effective — and it's fun watching fish attack a jig on sonar in open water."
With braid, Brosdahl uses the 1000-series Shimano Sedona. "Sunline makes FX1 green, a 7-pound braid that can land anything," he says. "I tie on a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader. Feel of the take is immediate with braid. Hook-sets are easy and solid, whether you're pitching or vertical fishing. I use a longer rod for casting. The only time I use 2500 sizes for panfish is when I need to cast farther in emergent vegetation. They retrieve more line, and I use heavier line — sometimes 8-pound — in emergent vegetation. A faster retrieve is helpful when fishing vertically — not so much when you reel slowly when swimming plastics or retrieving lures. You can control speed by watching close to the boat, but it's less tedious with a slower gear ratio. But you want to reel up quick when hunting vertically."
In similar fashion, Chip Leer, expert angler, fishing promoter, and founder of Fishing the Wildside favors 13 Fishing straight-line reels for fishing vertically. "Anglers shouldn't be afraid to try straight-line reels in open water," he says. "The 13 Fishing Freefall Ghost ($69.95) has a lot of advantages in open water. Hit the Freefall Trigger to let jigs and spoons drop quickly into 'the zone,' then release it and the reel's engaged. A spool cap on the new designs keeps line from tangling on the drop. It's a one-handed operation. Hands down, zero line twist is the main sell. We use spoons more in open water for panfish. If you're jigging vertically, you don't want the lure spinning when you reel in.
"The original underhung reels had a 1:1 gear ratio," he says. "The Ghost is 2.5:1, retrieving 19 inches of line per revolution. The reel handles are comfortable and the reel doesn't oscillate, which increases feel. When you're moving from spot to spot, the trigger allows you to carry it all one-handed, which is more efficient than spinning reels. You don't have to engage the reel. Release the trigger and it locks up."
13 Fishing also introduced some nifty spinning reels. "The smaller Creed GT 1000 ($89.99) is nice," Leer says. "It picks up light line easily, keeps it manageable, and doesn't add twist. That's the key for me. It's easy to spin out with the lightest lures, especially when retrieving quickly to cover water in search mode. It's a fairly high-end reel, but you need to fish one to see why. It has 10 ball bearings, a 6.2:1 gear ratio, but it only weighs 7 ounces. The 13 Fishing reel designer is Matt Baldwin, and he's a genius. The Creed is unique in the market for 'Air-Foil' carbon rotors and handles that reduce weight."
The rods are down, nothing broken, no hooks in my socks, and the tenuous walls of tackle still stand. Mission accomplished. Time to turn every handle. If it doesn't spin like a bicycle wheel it's destined for the operating table and a grease transfusion. Or it will be replaced with something new. Whichever — panfish better have their fins strapped on tight once the ice is gone.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an avid multispecies angler with an expert understanding of reel function and design and a keen eye on this ever-changing industry.