January 14, 2021
By Joel Nelson
Innovation in ice fishing seems to go in spurts, rarely following a steady path or rate of incline. New ideas are borne, and most fail. Gear designs are continually revamped until a major direction or angle comes about. Then, a host of manufacturers rush to make good on that boom, until we look back and nothing seems to relate to what we did only a few years prior.
We’re in the middle or recent back-end of one of the biggest periods of ice-auger evolution the sport has ever seen. All of which leaves most of us scratching our heads, wondering why a simple hole in the ice ever had to get so complicated.
Still, for those looking for lighter, faster, or just plain better, it’s a point of relief rather than confusion. There are more ways to cut a hole in a sheet of ice than ever before, and for a sporting public obsessed with tech specs, we can do it with more precision, power, and ease than ever imagined. Yet, it’s also not as simple as it used to be, when getting the “best” auger was always the goal. With so many varieties and options, it’s no longer about “which one,” and more about “why.”
Why a new auger? Why an electric instead of my trusty gas version? Why an electric drill powered unit instead of a dedicated electric powerhead? Why put a lightweight polymer bit on the whole works when my steel auger bit cuts just fine? Each “why” when answered, seems to create a new question before giving us time to settle on the previous response. Like ice anglers, augers are getting more specialized, so before answering any of these questions, it helps to define those specialties before falling back into that best-of trap.
Chances are you have a favorite species, area to target, and even a lake where you spend 80 percent or better of your winter, which can help focus your search for a new ice auger. If you primarily fish for panfish on small backwater bays of the Mississippi River, for instance, we can narrow down your choices quite a bit. Yet, there are plenty of us that may fish those sloughs for big perch and crappies, but also head north to chase the same species on bigger waters. Others may love panfish but like to mix in trophy walleye trips to border waters and beyond. All of which begs the question, “Can one auger still really do it all?”
The answer I think a larger number of us are coming to is “Yes, but why?” With all the specialization for speed, weight, power, and price out there, just like we select different jigs, line, and rod-and-reel combinations for different situations, we should consider diverse auger options and their strengths.
The concept, especially when compared to long-standing tradition, sounds crazy. Auger options these days can be modular, and aren’t necessarily $500 per. Certainly, you can spend more than that on an auger these days, but you don’t have to and can still cover a number of bases in the process. The days of owning a single auger are rapidly then coming to a close.
Think about how you fish, where, and what-for. You can always buy another one down the road if your fishing drastically changes, but it tends not to. Species, more than anything, determine hole size—6-, 8-, and 10-inch diameters are the most popular, and move from panfish up to the largest predators that swim in freshwater. If you’re a multispecies angler, consider an option that allows another bit, turned by the same powerhead. That gets you in the game for much cheaper, and requires only an Allen wrench to switch up.
Next, and perhaps more importantly, think about how many holes you drill on an average outing. Most of us are inclined to say 50, but really mean 20, as with older, heavier augers, it can sure feel like it. If you already have latest auger brand X, what did you pay for and what are you getting? Do you need enough battery to drill 100 holes when you only need a handful? Or do you need the largest lithium-ion powerplant when simply an additional battery on a more standard model offers the confidence needed to move on from gas?
The Electric Age
A popular question only two years ago was “Will electric augers eventually replace gas?” Most of us then felt they would, but that was too bold a statement for most ice anglers to accept. At this point, mere months later, they already have. While gas options do exist for extremely thick ice found at the end of the season in the northern portions of the ice belt, that tends to be the extreme, not the norm, for your average ice angler.
For some, gas is a comfortable power source and known commodity with a long history and parts catalog to match. Yet, the advantages of electric are dramatic and unflinching. Anglers love that they press a button, and the bit spins. Electric is a front-end cost you purchase and recharge continually, rather than something that’s smelly, flammable, requires mixing, and has its own set of maintenance procedures. From a long-term perspective, the power-plant features a lower cost of ownership over its life, as there are no carb kits, fuel line replacements, or recoils to swap out.
Early adopters had been electric fans for years, until lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology blew the doors off. Mass segments of the ice market then started following suit, creating bigger and better power sources that over time, grew smaller and lighter in the process. Then, most anglers compared electric augers to the only ruler they had in gas augers, but fewer are now asking those questions. Now, anglers are paying for capacity, holes per charge, and weight.
A number of manufacturers have offered synthetic bits over the years, dating back to StrikeMaster’s first foray into the game more than a decade ago. Today, most major brands have a synthetic bit option, starting with K-Drill, featuring a chipper-style blade system designed specifically to pair with brushless, cordless drills. At $249.99 for the 8-inch model, and at 5 pounds in weight, it’s one of the lighter versions on the market. kdrillauger.com
StrikeMaster’s Lite-Flite is just a touch over 5 pounds, but features a shaver-style blade system and their own proprietary blend of synthetic resins. It retails around the $200 mark and pairs with brushless, cordless drill, as well as StrikeMaster’s electric powerhead versions in the 40V or 24V systems. rapala.com/strikemaster-augers
Eskimo’s Pistol Bit is the lightest of polymer options, weighing in under 4 pounds, and featuring a reinforced hexagonal shaft to pair with its polymer flighting. The pistol bit utilizes flat blades for cutting new and old holes alike, and like the StrikeMaster option, has a centering bit for more efficient cutting ($219.99). geteskimo.com
The newly introduced HT Enterprises E-Drill, with heat-annealed steel blades, features a 33-inch shaft fitted with lightweight, yet durable synthetic nylon flighting segments, each configured in stackable, modular sections for adapting to ice thickness. A 10-inch extension fits a cordless drill adapter—$159.99 (6 inch), $179.99 (8 inch). htent.com
Drill Adaptive Solutions
Before Li-ion batteries made the jump to ice augers, they were slapped on the back of construction-grade, brushless electric power drills. They spun a mean drill bit, but why not an auger bit? As companies began creating adapters to use current steel ice auger bits in conjunction with those power drills, others yet began creating a new auger bit to match the power source rather than the other way around.
Now, we have a number of extremely durable, lightweight polymer auger bits that are custom-made for attaching to a power drill. Either way, they shave weight, so it doesn’t matter what power source you use to turn the bit; you’re saving precious pounds. Pair it with a drill, however, and you take something that weighed in the 20- to 30-pound range and cut it in half. That weight savings has revolutionized panfish angling especially, where large numbers of holes and mobility are keys to success.
Drill-driven lightweight bits have some limitations, however, especially with aggressive blade styles at breakthrough. Power drills turn quickly, and when on the fastest setting can be dangerous if the bit catches an edge and stops. Momentum can torque wrists and even break bones if you’re not careful and using the additional power drill handle. For that reason, there are times in extremely thick ice or with larger bit sizes where drill adaptive augers don’t always fit the bill. That’s when larger lithium powerheads and dedicated electric ice auger systems win the day.
All ice blades will chew a hole through ice, but, depending on how you fish and where, certain options may be better than others. Here’s a rundown of the three popular styles, and how to get the most out of each.
Chipper: These have been around the longest and are probably the most durable option. They excel in crushing and pulverizing ice, which, while less efficient, makes the most sense in re-drilling old holes or chewing through rough, sandy, or refrozen ice. They’ve long been popular in the Dakotas and westward, where big winds can blow sand into freezing lake systems come ice-up. Take a file to them, and you can easily re-sharpen them yourself. Jiffy has been making a great chipper for decades, and would be considered the category leader in chipper systems. jiffyonice.com
Shaver: This style of blade is the sports-cars of the auger blade world. They require the correct pitch and blade curvature to cut efficiently, and definitely cut the fastest when getting after fresh ice. They don’t do as well at re-drilling old holes and sand can dull and render them useless with two turns of the auger. They need to be replaced after dulling rather than resharpened, yet for anglers looking to drill volumes of holes on fresh ice while ice trolling, shaver blades are the premium option. StrikeMaster came out with the first shaver system now more than a decade ago, and it continues to be the blade platform they build on. rapala.com/strikemaster-augers
Standard Flat Blades: These have been around as well, and could be considered a good compromise between standard- and chipper-style systems. They open up fresh ice or old holes the same, and while slower than the shaver style, they’re faster than chipper blades. Just like the previous two versions, they’re readily replaceable, but can also be sharpened like the chipper system. They’re also the cheapest of the other two versions for replacement options, so it never hurts to have an extra set on hand. Eskimo uses this system exclusively for power augers and polymer bits alike. geteskimo.com
Just like the bits and powerheads that turn them, not all blades are created equal. Shaver-style blades have been popular over the years for their aggressive cutting angle and overall speed. They cut efficiently through fresh ice, but can bind at the bottom of the hole and have issues re-cutting old holes when needed. They’re the sports-car of blade styles that offer incredible performance, but are sensitive to getting out of pitch while dulling easily.
Chipper-style blades would be the exact opposite then. Less efficient bashers of ice, these things pulverize and crush, taking out any dirty ice and imperfections along the way. They easily cut old holes on fresh ice or old, but don’t do it quickly. Standard blades with an exterior ring can offer a happy medium of cutting speed and rough-ice performance. They’re not as quick as the shaver-style systems, but aren’t as slow as a chipper either.
Going back to your angler profile, none of that may matter if you never re-drill old holes or don’t care about cutting large volumes of holes quickly. An ice troller on big walleye waters may never care for any blade style but a shaver, while ice anglers out West who drill wind-blown and sand-laden ice don’t get the choice. They need a chipper style blade as the other two simply dull too quickly to keep drilling.
Putting It All Together
By now, you’ve probably gathered that there is no “best” auger these days, rather, there are only augers that are best for you. Panfish anglers in the middle to lower parts of the ice belt are likely to enjoy weight savings offered by lightweight polymer drill adaptive bits, powered either by power drills or dedicated lightweight powerheads in a size of their choosing.
Those anglers would be wise to note that the debate regarding overall weight versus holes-per-charge can often be resolved by simply buying another battery. That keeps the overall unit light, while offering power in reserve for as many batteries as you’d like to purchase. Bits in the 6-inch range are more than enough to do the job for big gills and crappies bigger than I’m able to catch.
Predator species demand at least an 8-inch bit, and preferably 10 inches for lake trout and large pike. If there was one category when a gas auger could still shine, this may be it. That said, the Li-ion options today are more than adequate, even when an auger extension is required. Again, consider additional batteries to extend range and run-time rather than worrying about gas versus electric. For these anglers, the security of two handles may be a nice feature when turning such a large bit.
Wheelhouse and other permanent house owners are a rapidly growing segment of the ice market, and the boom in electric has certainly been fueled by their ranks. Fumeless electric units that can punch a handful of holes inside the house, along with a couple of tip-up holes outside, have helped the electric market along in general.
From here, this class of anglers looks to blade styles and individual tendencies on re-drilling versus all new holes. Chipper- or standard-blade styles would be favored for a permanent that doesn’t move, while standard shaver-style blades would get the nod for the hydraulic lift-style houses that are plenty mobile and always drilling fresh ice. Weight is less of an issue here, though lighter is always better. Speed, too, isn’t of the essence necessarily, as we’re talking seconds, not minutes.
The portable-shelter, mobile, hole-hopping brand of ice trollers requires light weight, speed, and maximum holes per charge. It’s the nexus of exceeding demands for an ice auger operator, with each variable working against the next. Light weight can certainly be achieved on the bit end via the polymer auger configurations. Speed is achieved via shaver and standard blade configurations. On the powerhead side, however, the portable angler needs to consider multiple batteries on lighter or smaller powerheads to really get the ultimate configuration.
Unfortunately, we may all not fit into such neat groups as anglers. From north to south and east to west, anglers more than likely classify themselves in more than one of the groups above. Community crappie anglers that enjoy the occasional walleye trip, or backwaters bluegill seekers that like to put out a few tip-ups for toothy critters. What then?
Depending on your needs and existing auger, it may be as simple as converting a brushless drill and polymer bit into your new panfish auger, while keeping the big-water walleye rig for just that. It could also mean getting a new dedicated electric powerhead with two different sized bits. I love a drill-adaptive unit for small water and first-ice panfish, but eventually gravitate toward the old-school two-handled powerhead version. I know it’s not as fast, but if I had to have one, it’d be a Li-ion electric with a few drill bit options in differing sizes.
The best part is that I don’t have to choose. I can use the new polymer bits on a power drill for early ice, and put that same bit on an electric powerhead later. I can then take that powerhead and put on an 8-inch bit for walleyes anywhere. I can buy a battery or two to extend the run-time of that same auger if I feel I may run out of juice on some ice-trolling expeditions. I can also have my existing 1-inch steel bit on hand for chasing big fish, and interchange any of them back to panfish when I feel like it.
Options are a beautiful thing when you exercise them. Anglers have the opportunity to pick and choose attributes they like for the kind of fishing they do most often. If that changes, they don’t need to purchase a brand new entire rig; they can often swap out certain parts of the system for another option, with total performance being the ultimate goal. It’s a brave new world out there in ice augers, and the most talented anglers I know are already embracing the change and exploring those options for the better.
*Joel Nelson, Cannon Falls, Minnesota, is an exceptional multispecies angler on ice and open water, an angling tactician who writes about the outdoors and appears in videos and on TV, teaching all things fishing (www.joelnelsonoutdoors.com).