Tiny soda bubbles rise from the bitsy hairs of a panfish jig as it hovers above a group of bluegill and crappies. The angler above sees one fish rise almost imperceptibly to the lure. Nothing moves, nothing is felt, and the fish spits the jig.
In many cases, light bites can't be detected unless the rod is raised. Some cheat by watching panfish on little television monitors. Others buy great panfish rods.
A fine panfish rod must be sensitive and light. It needs to protect 2-pound fluorocarbon, yet have the power to haul a 2-pound crappie up to the hole. But the tip has to be fast — a nice trick. A great rod is made with materials that don't absorb vibration, but transmit it instead. Not that long ago, almost every rod built for panfish was made with fiberglass or composites, or were seconds among tips designed for open-water rods.
"Today, most ice-rod blanks are made in China," laments Kris Kristofek, custom rod builder and owner of LakeLady Rods in Breezy Point, Minnesota. "I build most of my ice rods with fly rod tips from Lamiglas," he says. "But my solid carbon rods are from China, and a few from St. Croix in Wisconsin, too. I acquired several hundred fly-rod tips from Lamiglas years ago, but they're almost all gone, so we'll use Chinese blanks."
Solid carbon is the ticket for making a sensitive panfish rod, Kristofek says. His rods sell for $89.95 plus tax and shipping. With a custom rod, the choice of thread colors, inscriptions, and colorful cross-wraps are yours. "And it comes with an embroidered protective rod sock," he adds. "Rods are built one at a time to each angler's specifications."
Michigan walleye and ice pro Mark Martin has been using Fenwick Methods rods ($60) for two years since prototypes came out. "Methods Ice Rods are great," Martin says. "Fenwick sells them in a round case that holds an extra tip that ferrules into the handle. You can change tips from medium-light to medium-heavy so you don't need to carry many rods. Pull it out of the 8-inch handle and replace it. The tube takes up little space but protects these thin and sensitive tips. They come with two tips, but you can buy a third, fit it in the same tube, and be prepared to fish for anything from bluegills to lakers."
He fishes the "bayous" off the delta of Muskegon River near Lake Michigan, hunting brahma-bull bluegills. "You can use 2-pound line with the lightest tip and haul big bluegills through the hole," he says. "It's so easy and light to use — I've fished in 35-mph wind and could see and feel bites. It's rated for 2- to 6-pound line and is 23 inches long. The ultralight tip, also 23 inches, is rated for 2- to 4-pound line. The tube is about 25 inches long, so you need to pull the tip off to transport it."
Thorne Bros, the first maker of ice rods, now offers a remarkable panfish stick called the Sniffer. It incorporates a revolutionary Tripwire tip. "It starts with titanium wire wrapped and epoxied onto the rod," says Mike Rolek of Thorne Bros. "The sensitive tip is crafted on, creating a spring tip that's part of the rod. The wire is tipped with an oversized Titanium REC Recoil guide and a hi-vis bead. Line goes through the guides of the rod, then through the guide on the titanium wire. There's minimal freeze-up because ice doesn't cling to it. Titanium has almost no memory, so it doesn't bend out of shape. And it's light and sensitive."
The Sniffer telegraphs strikes as well if not better than any tip or spring bobber made, sets hooks with authority, and plays fish well while protecting the line. It's the ultimate finesse rod for panfish. The Tripwire is 3 inches long, so if you request a 22-inch rod, it's 25 inches long including the Tripwire. It can be added to any Thorne Brothers custom-built rod. They retail for $110 with standard Fuji guides or $150 with Stealth Titanium REC Recoil guides, which don't ice up.
St. Croix is introducing 10 models in a Legend Black series this winter — three for panfish — made in America for $75. "Legend Blacks have solid-carbon blanks, fixed Sea Guide PNPS reel seats, and our popular high-tension, stainless-steel strike indicator," says Rich Belanger, promotions manager for St. Croix. "The strike indicator comes in four interchangeable tensions for whatever species you're after, and the black plated spring stands out against light backgrounds of ice and snow. Stainless-steel, ultra-smooth Pac-Bay minima guide rings reduce icing, and the solid carbon blanks are sensitive and durable." These panfish modelsLB17L, LB24UL, and LB24L — are 17- to 24-inchers with light and ultralight powers.
Hole-hoppers might prefer Mojo Ice rods, another new series from St. Croix. The lineup of 13 models includes two ultralights at 24 and 28 inches. Their purple blanks are precision-tapered, solid carbon, tough as nails, but sensitive. "The custom reel seat was developed by hard-core ice anglers, who also are St. Croix engineers," Belanger says. "Exposed-blank handles are sensitive, while the light stainless-steel guides and a premium split-grip cork/EVA handle are comfortable, unmatched at this price point ($50)."
Ice-fishing guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl uses Frabill Bro Series 25-inch rods in fish-house situations and the 30-incher when hole-hopping. "My designs came out in 2015 and they've been popular," he says. "People who fish with my equipment end up buying them because they're so comfortable to use, sensitive, and effective. With a solid-graphite blank, titanium guides, and a built-in titanium tip, Bro Series rods sell for $39.99. The graphite reel seat and blank-through-handle construction make these rods sensitive and light. They have a quick tip for creating precise presentations with panfish jigs of various weights. I use a Straight Line 371 reel, which eliminates line twist, and it free-spools smoothly for a fast drop."
With so many fine rods available, Clam designed a line to compete, offering unique features in panfish rods coming out this winter. The Dave Genz Legacy Rod ($99.99) boasts an attractive scale-finish and non-slip Winn-grip handle. This polymer grip technology provides traction in cold, wet conditions. Winn pioneered polymer grips, revolutionizing golf, tennis, and bicycling with grips that reduced fatigue, enhanced control, and reduced injuries due to repetitive motion. These compounds are tackier, more shock-absorbent, and more comfortable than cork or foam. This grip is wrapped on a tubular graphite handle, making it sensitive and light. The Legacy Rod is available in six models from 24 to 28 inches, in ultralight to medium power, with blanks of 24T graphite. A durable built-in Nitinol Spring Bobber rounds out the characteristics of these fine panfish rods.
Clam has another new panfish rod in the Genz True Blue Series (sold as a combo with a True Blue Reel for $59.99), with a solid-graphite blank and an ultra-thin, enhanced bite-detection tip. Seven models from 24 to 28 inches, in ultra-light to medium power, include four for panfish. Like the Legacy Rod, the True Blue is light, sensitive, and well balanced.
Chip Leer of Fishing the Wild Side was impressed with prototypes of 13 Fishing's new ultralight and light versions of the Widow Maker ($70 to $80). "They're great elite-level rods," Leer says. "I tested them last spring and was impressed. The solid-body Toray Graphite blanks are tapered to make panfishing fun, but you can tame the occasional bass or rogue walleyes." In total, five ultralight models range from 24 to 38 inches. ALPS Thin Wire Double Diamond Coated guides increase sensitivity and reduce ice buildup. These sleek designs have wispy tips for superior bite detection and protecting light line.
Handles and grips on the Widow Maker ultralights are sleek and unique. "We cover a lightweight high-density polymer core with a Toray Carbon shell," says Ricky Teschendorf of 13 Fishing. "The combination of the polymer core and carbon shell transfer vibrations to your hand. This reel seat provides sensitivity and balance, and is light. We also coated the Toray Carbon shell with a soft-touch finish to provide comfort and a firm grip." The 38-inch Hole Hopper ultralight has a split grip, creating a light but powerful match with the solid carbon blank.
The hottest selling panfish rods for HT Enterprises include the Ice Blue Series, which has comfortable EVA corkalon grips, and the Ice Blue Pro Series with cork handles. Blanks are translucent fiberglass with feather-light orange tips. Options include seven 18- to 48-inch ultralights for everything from one-man shelter duty to double-fisted, two-hole, run-and-gun operations. "Both series of rods are sold as combos with 2-ball-bearing reels," says Joel Brown of HT. "They're nice looking combos that hold up well. I do customer service and have few warranty issues with Ice Blue Series. The reels hold up well, too. We have three ultralights for panfish, all priced at $24.99 with reels and line. You won't find a better blank or combo in that price range, which is probably why Ice Blue rods are so popular."
Kristofek says perfection is in the eyes — and hands — of the beholder or handler. "It has to catch both fisherman and fish," he says. "A rod has to feel comfortable. The right rod can protect 2-pound line but land a big largemouth snarfing tiny snacks. That requires a unique blend of properties. It should give easily in the top third with a graduated stiffness down to the handle. But that top third has to be fast enough to make precise presentations.
"Panfish rods need an action and sensitivity that lets you feel light bites. Use the light line these rods are designed for. Setting the hook with a quality finesse rod is easy — wrist action should suffice. Sharp hooks hook fish nicely. I see many ice rods broken at the seat. These breaks are due to overstressing the rod or high sticking. These little rods won't take the abuse that open water rods are subjected to. Be careful with your equipment, treat it like a fine instrument, and it lasts a long time."
Tiny soda bubbles, rising from bitsy hairs. The jig is lowered the last few feet, stopping above a group of panfish. The angler sees one fish rise slowly to the bait. Nothing moves, nothing is felt. But the rod tip drops a quarter inch. A wrist reacts, a rod bends, and the line stretches.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies ice angler and an expert in rod selection and design.