January 20, 2021
The winter of 2012 seems light years away, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the first time I started experimenting with single-action fly reels to catch fish through the ice. My friend Paul Shibata encouraged me to put aside my traditional spinning outfits and use the reels to jig for the fat rainbow, splake, and brook trout that swim beneath the ice in the lakes around my Northwest Ontario home.
“You’ll never get a trout to bite,” he told me, “if your lure is spinning in circles. Every time you fight a fish with a spinning reel and your drag slips, you’re putting a tiny bit of twist into your line. Even reeling up your lure quickly and dropping it back down the hole causes your line to twist and your lure to spin. It doesn’t happen when you use a fly reel.”
At the time, Shibata was so obsessed with winter line management that he would remove the arbor from one of his fly reels, trace the outline onto a piece of Styrofoam, and cut it out with a sharp knife. Then, he would slice the foam in half and tape it around the spool. The bulk added no weight, yet it packed the spool requiring only a modest amount of fluorocarbon line to fill it up to the top and stopped line twist in its tracks. Fast forward to today and the specialized single-action ice reels, with their elevated seats and free-spool drop systems, have become indispensable tools for many hardwater anglers.
Twist and Shout
“I guarantee my fish numbers have gone up at least 25 percent since I’ve started using the reels,” said HT Enterprises pro staff member Chad Meyer, when I met up with him and Tom Gruenwald, who works at HT and is former television host of Tom Gruenwald Outdoors.
“When panfish are negative, line that’s wound tightly around the spool of a small spinning reel memorizes the shape and severely reduces your ability to sense strikes,” Gruenwald says. “The faint tick of a subtle take is absorbed by the coiled line. Wider arbor center-pin ice reels minimize this issue. When you have the line coming straight off the spool, instead of passing over a bail roller, you eliminate line twist.”
Gruenwald’s point is important because many anglers attempt to counter the inevitable coils caused by spinning reels by tying a barrel swivel into their setup. But using spider-thin line introduces a new issue.
“The ability to eliminate lure spin without using a swivel and creating multiple knots and weak points is a huge advantage,” says Minnesota angler and tackle promoter Mandy Uhrich. “Besides increasing the chance for tangled line, line twist weakens the line at the knots and increases the chance of breakage.”
It’s all reason enough to consider adding single-action ice reels to your winter fishing routine. But models like 13 Fishing’s Black Betty 6061, with their lever-action free-fall system, offer another benefit—the ability to re-enter the strike zone quickly, an advantage noted by South Dakota ice stick Mike Olson, host of Fish Addictions TV.
“For me it’s about efficiency,” he says. “I can make lure adjustments quickly and easily, while working fussy fish. Say I get a crappie to rise up to my lure, but it hesitates and drops back down. With the Black Betty I can instantly lower the bait to restart the presentation without moving the lure erratically and further spooking the fish.”
Southern Ontario ice-fishing ace Pete Garnier says that center-pin-style ice reels give him much needed insurance when he is using the micro-light thin-diameter fluorocarbon and monofilament lines that he has come to rely upon to maximize lure action. “When it comes to 2-, 3-, and 4-pound lines, the reels do a far better job of line management,” he says. “Because it comes off straight, without those destroying coils, it preserves line strength and integrity.”
Not surprisingly, ice anglers targeting yellow perch, black crappies, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and stocked trout in shallow to moderately deep lakes have been the first to embrace the rewards offered by single-action reels. “They excel when you’re panfishing with micro jigs in less than 30 feet of water,” Meyer says. “You can use them in all depths and for all species, but the focus for me is panfishing with micro jigs.”
Garnier agrees, noting that with the click of a button, he can engage the free-spool mode, let out line, and precisely control the rate of fall of his lures. “It’s a handy feature when I’m targeting suspended fish,” he says. “I was on a spectacular crappie bite during an overnight trip last winter, when an extreme cold front moved in around 1 a.m. and shut everything off. I could still see hoards of fish on sonar, but I was struggling to get them to bite. I tried every kind of lift-pause-jiggle presentation to no avail. The solution was a painfully slow super-steady fall. I tightened up the tension on my Eagle Claw free-spooler to slow the decent of my Crappy Fry lure, and the fish couldn’t handle watching it drift past their noses. It was the key to getting bit and I duped the biggest fish of the night, a 17-inch slab during that slow-down period. The reels lend themselves to controlling the fall rate of your baits and then duplicating the presentation more easily than fumbling around with looped line as it spills off a spinning reel.”
Gruenwald used an HT Deep Blue Drop Spin DBDS-100 reel to school a nearby bluegill angler who was using a spinning reel last winter on an Upper Peninsula lake in Michigan. “Small pods of bluegills were roaming 15 to 20 feet down over a basin,” he says. “Two or three finicky fish would pass through quickly, so you had to get down to them fast. I was using a #14 Marmooska tungsten jig. As soon as I would see an approaching pod, I’d drop the micro jig and trigger a strike. In two hours of working these roving bluegills, I landed 7 over 9 inches, the biggest a 10.25-inch beauty, while the spin fisherman beside me iced only three.”
Echoing Garnier and Gruenwald’s observations, the thing that impresses me most about using ice spoolers is the ability to replicate what is working, especially when you have dialed in the precise drop speed. It’s something you cannot control as efficiently by opening up the bail on a spinning reel and letting your bait plummet.
Not surprisingly, though, because of the typically lower gear ratios, single-action reels have been almost the exclusive domain of the winter angler panfishing in shallow to moderately deep water. Even with a wider arbor, a lower gear ratio makes it difficult to catch up to and maintain contact with a big fish making a blistering run. It isn’t a problem with crappies, perch, bluegills, and even walleyes, but when you hook a lake trout and it shoots up 10 or 20 feet, it can throw slack into the line and escape if you can’t maintain contact and keep your rod bent. This is why steelheaders use similar, albeit larger center-pin style reels, and match them up with 10- to 15-foot parabolic action rods, to keep leaping fish pinned. Ice anglers can’t counter in the same way, but things are changing. For the past two winters, I’ve been using a much bigger and faster prototype in-line reel designed by Rapala Canada and it has been a winner.
“Until 13 Fishing introduced the Freefall XL, we thought of the reels as pretty much panfish exclusive,” Olsen says. “But I’ve always believed that with better line capacity and a tougher drag, we could take the aspects that we have grown to love about using them for panfish and apply them to walleyes, lake trout, and pike.”
Controlling Drop Speed
Few anglers have spent as much time on hard water as HT Enterprises’s Tom Gruenwald, designing, testing, refining, and using in-line ice reels. He testifies that controlling the drop speed of your lure is important to success. After he drops his lure into the water, he lightly feathers the spool with his index finger or thumb to fine tune its descent. He says it lets him experiment constantly to find the fall rate that the fish want. That may change over the course of the day. Sometimes a fast fall triggers fish to bite; other times it spooks them badly.
So, you’ve decided to buy your first in-line ice reel. What features do the pros consider essential?
“The ease of use of the various functions is paramount,” says Olsen, whose favorite reel is a 13 Fishing Freefall spooled with 3-pound fluorocarbon, paired with a 37-inch Tickle Stick. “You want the features in the right spots for your hand. I like to hold my reels with a pistol grip that allows me to use my finger, if needed, to help control the rate of fall. Also, ask yourself, how adjustable is the free-spool to accommodate different lure sizes and weights? Where is the drag located and how finely can you adjust it?”
Uhrich agrees, noting that a smooth drag is paramount regardless of the depth you’re fishing and the species you’re chasing. “There’s nothing worse than losing a big crappie because the drag stuck and the lure ripped out of the fish’s mouth,” he says.” Or you broke your line on a big fish because the drag couldn’t absorb the sudden shock. I’ll never use another in-line reel without a Freespool Plus-type trigger to control the drop speed of my lure.”
On the subject of drag systems, like many anglers, I love fishing with large single-action mooching-style reels on the West Coast for Pacific salmon and halibut. When you hook into a powerful fish, it’s routine to cup your hand around the reel and manually apply additional tension to the spool. The same approach works well with the ice spoolers, instead of tightening the drag when I’m fighting a bigger lake trout, walleye, or pike that has smacked a lure intended for smaller panfish.
Birds Still Nest in Winter
You also learn to master the spool tension and free-fall features on your ice spoolers, just like you did when you picked up your first baitcasting outfit and made a cast. “You have to set the spool tension properly to control overruns,” says Gruenwald, whose preferred reel is the HT Polar Fire PF-5000. “First-time users typically grasp the line and manually strip it out quickly, without adjusting the tension first. That doesn’t work, so always adjust the spool tension before you start to fish.
“And choose a model that features your preferred handle side (right or left retrieve), because the retrieve bearing can only be reversed on simple models featuring a basic 1:1 gear ratio. Also, the higher the gear ratio, the more versatile the reel, allowing you to fish a greater variety of depths and species of fish. Finally, I appreciate a slightly longer reel ‘neck’ to create a little more separation between the rod handle and spool. It gives me a more comfortable grip.”
Because the bearings used in the better winter ice spoolers are silky smooth and the lures we use to trick panfish are light and small, there’s a tendency to grab the line, pull it out and help your lure descend faster when you spot a fish on your sonar screen. Ditto, if you hit the free-spool lever and your lure stops for any reason, like a fish rising up to inhale your bait. If you don’t see it, you quickly discover that birds nest in the winter, just as much as they do in the summer.
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s best to use spoolers almost exclusively on an outing. So when I can, I leave the spinning outfits at home. That way I build up a muscle memory set over the course of the day, adjusting spool tensions, fine-tuning drag systems, and experimenting with lure drop speeds. This minimizes the issues you run into when jumping back and forth between reel styles.
If you have yet to ice fish with a spooler-type reel, you should this winter, especially if you fish for yellow perch, black crappies, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, or stocked trout in shallow and moderately deep water. The advantages are many, varied, and rewarding.
*Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor and a member of both the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wisconsin, and the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame.