Targeting the largest predators puts tackle and tactics to their ultimate test. Any weakness in rod, reel, or line is quickly exploited by trophy pike, walleye, lake trout, brown trout, and catfish. Drag-screaming wipers, steelhead, and salmon leave no room for sub-par drags offered by micro ice reels, and mighty lake sturgeon leave you heartbroken if you use anything less than the best gear available. Fishing in the extreme means looking to exquisite handcrafted custom rods, along with specialty rods from proven manufacturers, top-performing reels, and the finest quality fishing lines for each species and application.
Ice rods like the Thorne Brothers 28-inch Professional Graphite series (also available in fiberglass for deep-water lakers) offer versatility to tackle big pike no matter their mood. The Professional Graphite series rods have power, sensitivity, and responsiveness, traits that make them invaluable to Minnesota guide Luke Swanson. He appreciates their comfortable Fuji cork handle, which provides a lightweight, warm, secure grip in subzero conditions. Oversized guides equipped with braid-ready ceramic inserts guard against ice build-up.
I like to pair this rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 spinning reel spooled with 20-pound PowerPro. To guard against bite-offs, Swanson uses a 12-inch leader of 20- to 50-pound multistrand wire, break strength depending on water clarity. Williams Whitefish spoons and B Fish N B3 Blades worked aggressively along weededges can be a key presentation for early season pike. As the season progresses, he deadsticks with the same rod and reel in an I Fish Pro with a deadbait on a quick-strike rig.
For a new twist on a traditional panfishing concept, DH Custom Rods makes the 48-inch Big Boy Noodle rod. While a power noodle may seem counterintuitive, the Big Boy is the only glass noodle-style rod rated for lures up to 3/4 ounce. Consider matching it with a smooth functioning Piscifun Honor 20 spinning reel. When spooled with 12-pound-test Sufix Fluorocarbon, it’s a great combination for vertically jigging and deadsticking livebait for wary trophy pike in clear water, as well as Great Lakes trout.
The Big Boy Noodle has a lot of power through the lower three-quarters of the blank, yet a soft tip, which allows livebait to swim naturally and signals nervousness by the bait. It may be the most versatile rod you try this season. A PK Lures Flutterfish spoon on this setup is a great way to anchor a lively golden shiner, while adding color and flash when slowly jigged.
A rod-and-reel combo with sufficient power and versatility is critical for trophy big-water walleyes. Lake Erie anglers routinely turn to Bricker’s Custom Rods for high-performance works of art handcrafted by Adam Bricker. His 34-inch Walleye Killer starts with a full-carbon blank tuned to individual specifications for increased tip power for big-water applications such as working 1/2-ounce Big Dude Blades and #7 Rapala Jigging Raps. They’re fitted with Fuji K series braid-rated guides secured with locking thread wrap at the front and back of each guide frame, which provides greater guide stability and better rod performance. A split-grip handle with rear cork grip reduces rod weight and provides a secure grip.
Cosmetically, all Bricker’s Custom Rods are distinctive, with razor wire thread art and air-brushed blanks with triple high-gloss finishes. Paired with a Shimano Stradic CI4 2500 reel and 10-pound PowerPro ICE-TEC, you have a lightweight combo for long days on the ice. The Stradic CI4 has light-weight construction, impeccable drag system, and never-fail anti-reverse. PowerPro ICE-TECH offers the strength of PowerPro braid with the added benefit of PTFE coating that sheds water from the line and minimizes ice build-up.
Captain Ross Robertson has a knack for consistently catching giant walleyes on Lake Erie. He attributes part of his success to his gear. He helped design the Clam 36-inch MH Ice Team Professional Rod, and focused on creating a powerful and responsive solid graphite rod. Guide placement insures less stress on the rod blank under heavy load, and Pac Bay TiCH frame twist guides make for quick and easy ice removal. The lack of ceramic guide inserts means one less component to fail, even when bounced for miles on the ice on the back of a sled or ATV. The rod’s size-16 reel seat accommodates larger reels such as the Daiwa Tournament SS 700, which Robertson favors for its smooth drag and no-fail anti-reverse.
He designed the blank to have no added tip bounce or slinky effect when working Clam 1/8- to 3/8-ounce Drop TG jigs loaded with shiners. To feel the slightest take when deadsticking baits in deep water, he recommends SX1 Sunline Braid. When working a Clam Super Leech Spoon, he switches to 10-pound monofilament mainline for added stretch and more natural lure movement. An extra-small SPRO swivel joins the mainline to a 12-pound-test Sunline Super FC Sniper fluoro leader for added strength and abrasion resistance.
For anglers not fishing the big waters of Lake Erie, Lake Winnipeg, or Bay of Quinte, which frequently necessitate heavier gear due to current and depth, a trimmed-down and feather-light Kraemer Custom Rod may be the perfect fit. Erik Kraemer designs and builds a wide range of ice rods, including a 30- and 36-inch pure-carbon trophy walleye rod. They come with Pac Bay black anodized flyrod-style guides for less ice build-up, and compact Fuji DNPS soft-touch reel seats with EVA trim for a comfortable form-fitting grip. Each rod has a brightly colored tip for easier bite detection. The shorter 30-inch model functions well in a shelter, while the 36-incher offers more tip flex for anglers who hole hop with artificial baits. A Pflueger President XT 25 reel balances nicely on these rods when spooled with 8-pound-test Berkley FireLine Micro Ice, a thermally-fused line. Its thin diameter and sensitivity allows anglers to feel thumps of a lake shiner on a 1/4-ounce jig in 20 feet of water.
Bernie Keefe is a lake trout aficionado, who pursues these quirky fish year-round on Colorado’s Lake Granby. While Clam makes a range of rod actions, powers, and lengths within the Jason Mitchell Mackinaw Rod Series, Keefe enjoys the 45-inch heavy-power model with an Abu Revo Max spinning reel. He spools with 10-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon Professional Grade when fishing shallow with 10-inch Hogy softbaits to mimic Kokanees, or 14-pound FireLine when deep jigging with 3/4- to 2-ounce jigs.
The 45-inch Mack Stick allows his customers to fish comfortably all day. These rods have the power to muscle trophy lakers, while possessing a soft tip to keep fish pinned on the hook. Their long rear grip tucks under the angler’s forearm during protracted battles with lakers.
Pat Magdaleno fishes Lake Superior for lake trout that can top 40 pounds. Among his favorite tactics is working custom-poured 2- to 3-ounce jigs in 70 to 200 feet of water. These jigs can be tied with bucktail hair for a quicker fall rate or rigged with a large plastic tube for a slower fall and more action on the bounce. He tips them with a whitefish belly strip for added scent, and fishes them on his custom 42-inch casting rod. His custom trout rods are fashioned from a 48-inch carbon fiber rod cut down either from the tip or butt end to suit each customer’s needs. His rods are known for their finely fashioned, multicolored cork handles, spiral wrap guides, and trigger-grip reel seats for less rod twist and greater power when fighting giant fish.
Pair a Mag Custom Laker rod with a Quantum Smoke S3 PT reel for increased line capacity, quick retrieve, beefy drag, and PT Hot Sauce lubricant for smooth performance and increased longevity. Spool with 15-pound Sufix Nanobraid for an exceptionally strong, abrasion resistant line with a slick coating that helps reduce water retention and line freezing. Since most laker fisheries are clear water, a quality fluorocarbon leader such as 12- to 14-pound Sufix Invisiline increases catches.
Brown Trout, Steelhead, and Salmon
Brown trout and steelhead quickly drop a bait at the first hint of any added line pressure. For this reason, JawJacker hook-setting devices increase your hookup ratio. For those anglers pursuing trophy trout, the 31-inch MH JawJacker rods handle most browns or steelhead, while the 35-inch XXH model tames anything that chooses to bite on the JawJacker.
With IM7 graphite construction, these rods are both powerful and responsive. Their screw-down interlocking foregrips make for comfortable handles to accommodate larger spinning reels such as the 13 Fishing Prototype TX 3.0 reel. Their 4D-forged gearing and corrosion-resistant bearings make for a powerful reel that can stand the abuse of heavy drag settings and harsh conditions.
The Automatic Fisherman is another staple ice-fishing device among trout anglers throughout the Great Lakes region. Along with the new more compact and fully adjustable Snapper model, they’re available with rod-and-reel combos from light power for panfish to heavy for large predators.
Tim Maher of Habitual Guide Service adds a new twist in the traditional spawn sac and sinker rig for trout by incorporating hardbaits on three-way rigs in current. It’s a rig suitable for all gamefish in rivers. For holdover coho salmon and brown trout on Lake Michigan tributaries, he uses the AF 32-inch MH combo spooled with 20-pound Sufix 832 Ice braid for its strength and abrasion resistance during protracted battles at the hole. The hydrophobic protective layer on the 832 Ice Braid resists line freezing. The mainline is attached to a three-way swivel. A short breakaway dropper line of 6-pound mono to a sinker and an 18-inch leader of 10-pound fluoro to a Yakima Mag Lip 4.0 completes the rig. The sinker is just heavy enough to keep the rig on the bottom. The Mag Lip’s repetitive hard-thumping action draws angry strikes from nearby fish that may turn their noses up to more subtle presentations.
As more ice anglers make the pilgrimage to the Great Lakes and western reservoirs for world-class trout fishing, they quickly discover the need for a perfectly balanced rod-and-reel combo to finesse these astute fish into biting, while also having the power and performance to land trophy-caliber fish. A single failure by a reel to allow even drag pressure on light leader material instantly spells doom—as does a light-power rod that never allows for positive hook-sets, or one with too stiff a tip that fails to cushion the line with each surge of the fish.
Shimano’s new 28HM Convergence rod, matched with a Sahara 1000 reel (or newly released compact Sahara 500 when less line capacity is needed), is the perfect combo for this application. The IM-6 graphite construction of Shimano’s popular Convergence rod series delivers a sensitive, light-weight, yet durable rod, and Sahara reels have proven drag performance both on and off the ice. If pursuing slightly smaller rainbows, trout less than about 10 pounds, Shimano’s new Sienna SNSE28M combo is a great option when matched with 8-pound-test PowerPro ICE-Tech.
The most extreme game in ice fishing is lake sturgeon in rivers. They can top 100 pounds and grow in excess of 7 feet. They’re also among the most stubborn fish to get to the hole. Presentation is simple—a bunch of nightcrawlers or minnows gobbed on a jig or spoon and placed on the bottom. What’s not so simple is finding an appropriate rod-and-reel combo capable of coaxing these monsters off the bottom. Andy Wolfram of A. W. Wolfram Custom Rods has answered that call by designing his Sturgeon Ice series rods, 40-inch solid E-Glass rods available in both spinning and casting models. Both come with stock EVA handles with extended rear grips to place under your forearm during battles. The casting version comes with a trigger grip and spiral guide placement to minimize rod torque when loaded by giant fish. In areas with reduced current, braid as heavy as 40-pound can be used to put pressure on these fish, but when dealing with fast current, a thinner diameter line in the 15- to 20-pound range reduces water resistance on the line and allows a more vertical presentation.
Since deadsticking is the most effective presentation for sturgeon, weight of the rod-and-reel combo is less of a concern than is performance and reliability. Consider pairing the Sturgeon Ice spinning rod with an Okuma Trio Baitfeeder, which allows fish to take line with the bail closed and drag disengaged. For the casting model, the simple functional design of the Ming Yang MC 500 reel is an excellent choice on the ice. This dependable round baitcaster is lightweight and has a loud bait clicker to signal a fish bite.
Catfish and Smallmouth Bass
Two fish that ice anglers often overlook are channel catfish and smallmouth bass. Although they’re less aggressive in the coldest winter months, they’re not dormant, and they display their well-earned reputations as tenacious fighters. The key is presenting small baits slowly and naturally. That typically means using softbaits. I like a 1.25-inch Coconut Crab rigged on a 1/32-ounce Sled Head jig, for bass, or a Flash Bang Spoon tipped with a few minnow heads for catfish.
To keep these baits from spinning, use a straight-line reel with a quality drag. 13 Fishing makes several reels in this category, including the Black Betty 6061, Free Fall, and Free Fall Ghost—all with impeccable drag systems. A common knock on straight-line reels is their lack of high retrieve ratios. Fortunately, speed is not the strong suit of winter catfish or smallmouths. I suggest a rod with a soft tip to detect subtle bites and backbone to battle with these bull-dogging fish, and Trilene 100% fluoro for its quick-sinking and abrasion-resistant properties.
Match these straight-line reels with the newly designed St. Croix 24-inch MH Legend Black ice rods. The Legend Blacks feature an adjustable strike indicator to detect light-biting catfish and bass. The fast-action blank allows for instantaneous hook-sets and plenty of backbone to muscle these dogged fish off the bottom.
The availability of hybrid stripers is limited across the ice belt, yet they offer a thrill to ice anglers. With “hybrid vigor,” wipers hit a lure in fifth gear and never downshift. You need a rod with backbone for driving hooks home while ripping bladebaits and rattlebaits, but with enough tip flex to cushion the line from abrupt stops and changes in direction by these speed demons. The 13 Fishing 32-inch M Widow Maker meets this description. With its form-fitting Evolve reel seat, wipers can be played to the hole with less fatigue on the angler. Match it with a Creed X 1000 spinning reel for its strong gearing, smooth drag system, and quick line retrieve. Spool with 8-pound Sufix Ice Fuse Braid. Superlines allow for more line capacity, and less memory than mono in the cold. Sufix Ice Fuse Braid utilizes their Y6 waiving process for a thin and sensitive line that resists freezing.
No matter what giant fish you decide to chase this winter, there’s a rod-and-reel combo to get the job done. Reel options have expanded and carryover well from open-water. And if that perfect action rod doesn’t exist in an over-the-counter product, custom rod builders can fill equipment gaps for pursuing fish to the extreme.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan of the Chicago area travels near and far to match wits with the largest predators swimming.