The evolution of ice rods has occurred in hyper-speed, compared to tackle for open-water fishing. On some off my earliest ice ventures in Massachusetts, a local ice veteran took a simple approach, walking to the lake with an ice chisel and a small box with a coil of line, a few split shot, and hooks. He was far removed from owning one of the best ice fishing rods.
With his trusty jackknife, he’d cut down a limb, tie on a length of line, and add hook and weight. He’d examine shoreline brush and trees for the presence of galls—bumps on branches that contain larval insects. He’d slice them open and extract the larvae for bait.
A mere 40 years later, the array of best ice fishing rods rivals what we have in the bass fishing world. While the target back then was bluegills and crappies, anglers now target a full array of species, including hybrid stripers, channel cats, sturgeon, burbot, and bass as well as walleyes, pike, and perch.
OUR PICKS FOR BEST ICE FISHING RODS
- 13 Fishing Widow Maker Series
- Fenwick’s World Class Ice Rods
- St. Croix’s Skandic Series
- Clam Katana Ice Rods
- Elliott Rods Odyssey Ice Rods
- G. Loomis IMX Ice
For open-water fishing, a casual angler can buy a 6 1/2-foot spinning rod and plan to use it to catch everything from panfish to pike. Not so in the ice world. There’s no do-it-all ice rod.
So the first step when selecting a rod is considering what species you plan to fish for and the typical habitat: deep or shallow, clear or murky, rock, vegetation, etc. Next, choice of line affects rod choice as well.
While braid offers small diameter, which matches well on miniature ice reels, you need a slower action to avoid pulling a bait away from a fish, especially in shallow water. Thin mono is stretchy, so probing for walleyes, panfish, or tullibees in deep water demands a stiffer rod.
PANFISH ICE RODS
Across the Ice Belt–roughly from New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic states west into Idaho and Northern California–panfish are the most common quarry for winter fisherman. That group includes the ubiquitous bluegill and other sunfish species, crappies, and yellow perch. In mid-winter, bluegills, in particular, can be picky biters.
It’s common to see a couple of them below the hole, clearly marking on sonar, yet not reacting to your pretty little jig tipped with a wiggly waxwork; that is until their marks disappear into the depths and you’re left to drill more holes. Jigs down to 1/100-ounce and colored maggots sometimes are required.
In such situations, light and sensitive rods are essential, with especially sensitive tip sections. “Noodle rods” represent the extreme, as the tip bends under the weight of a 1/16-ounce jig. This flexibility telegraphs light bites, while not resisting the pulling of a fish’s bite. They match well with line from 2- to 4-pound test.
Many anglers prefer spring bobber tips—a tip section of thin wire that bends at the slightest pull. Some models have these built in and you can add them to standard rods to increase sensitivity. Tips of titanium are super-flexible and also durable. The wire tip telegraphs an otherwise imperceptible bite from finicky fish. Raise it fast and the rod’s mid-section takes over.
One important question is whether or not you’re fishing inside a portable shelter, a popular option in challenging conditions. Because of their tight dimensions, short rods are best–generally 23 to 30 inches–allowing you to jig a lure while sitting and staring at the sonar screen then set hooks without hitting the walls or roof.
On mild days, anglers wander across the ice, covering more water, so longer rods are an option, though they max out at about 48 inches. Larger wheel houses allow a choice of rod length.
Some rods come with reel seats, others with a pair of rings to hold the reel, and other require taping a small spinning reel to the handle, once you determine the best balance point. Electrician’s tape is ideal for this job, though heavy-duty rubber rings have gained popularity, as they don’t mar the cork finish. It’s mostly a matter of personal preference, though taped rods tend to be most sensitive.
Crappies can be equally finicky, and the same light outfits work well for them, despite their larger size. In the late-ice season, hole-hopping with a long rod is fun and effective with a longer straight-line or inline rod, which resemble a super-short fly fishing setup.
By this time of the season, the ice is “Swiss-cheesed” with holes all over flats and along breaklines leading into the shallows–prime areas for late-season panfish. With a longer rod, you can drop a jig straight down the hole, then derrick a fish straight up and onto the ice. Some anglers prefer a straight-line outfit with a large, low gear-ratio reel spool that reduces line-twist that’s a hassle when jigging small lures with small spinning reels.
Perch tend to be more aggressive and hit larger lures, often in deep water, so slightly heavier rods that handle 6-pound test are best. Moreover, on the prime perch waters of the Great Lakes and large northern lakes, you can deploy multiple lures on a line, so you need a rod with backbone.
I know of only one rod designed specifically for perch—Elliott Rods’ Perca.
It’s a 30-incher with the right flex to haul in jumbos while keeping them pinned on the ride up. As you can see, it’s easy to build a pretty large collection of panfish rods to match any conditions a winter season can dish out. If you fish only local lakes, you can limit your collection. But anglers who travel to fish have closets full of ice tackle.
WALLEYE ICE RODS
While you can get by with a medium-heavy panfish rod to catch walleyes, you’ll be happier with a slightly less springy one with a stiffer tip, for setting hooks on larger predators in deep water. Longer rods help for battling big fish, but portable shelters compromise your choice.
Moreover, jigging motions required in Wally fishing are better performed with a tip section that’s not mushy. In today’s wheelhouses, 36-inch medium-heavy models make a fine choice, whether you fish braid with a fluoro leader or straight mono.
RODS FOR LAKE TROUT, PIKE AND STURGEON
Trophy hunters venture to the far north to catch lake trout, which typically run from 3 to 8 pounds. But fish over 20 are common in top Canadian waters, and are increasingly being caught all across the Great Lakes.
They’re stubborn battlers, and heavy-action rods in the 40-inch range are ideal. Northern pike fit a similar niche, though most U.S. lakes offer few fish over 36 inches or 10 pounds.
Most ice anglers stick to heavy spinning tackle, though I like a baitcaster for sturgeon, big pike, or lakers if the weather isn’t frigid. Their enhanced power helps pump big fish. But it’s a matter of personal preference, as top-end spinning reels in the 2500 size and up possess powerful drag systems.
As populations of lake sturgeon have rebounded following river clean-ups and strict harvest regulations, their popularity among anglers was soared. Where abundant, they bite well through the ice, then the battle is on.
Powerful and durable rods are in order. Some anglers rely on the heaviest actions in rods on the market, while specialists may order custom sticks to match their fishing style and location. Blanks must be heavy-power through the mid-section, though a flexible tip allows you to sense the delicate nibbling of these big guys as they sniff your bait with their barbels, catfish-style.
Once hooked, use the rod’s power to bring sturgeon up as quickly as possible for a quick photo and immediate release. To withstand their runs, top-quality guides reduce rod torque and avoid grooves when using braided line.
When Great Lakes fisheries freeze solid, big brown trout and steelhead join the ice-fishing scene, and there’s nothing that compares to the blistering runs these salmonids make, as they’re at home and feeding in cold waters.
Small lures and baits often work best for them, so medium-heavy spinning tackle, light line, and patience win the day. Make sure you have a large reel with strong drag to match.
BEST ICE FISHING ROD BRANDS
Several major rod companies have delved into the ice-rod market, including Abu Garcia, Fenwick, St. Croix, 13 Fishing, G. Loomis, and Shimano. Some smaller specialty companies offer carefully designed specialty rods such as Elliott Rods, owned by Gregg and Paul Thorne, founders of Thorne Bros. Rods, which remains a big player in this market.
Noted ice-fishing companies such as Clam, Frabill, HT Tackle, and JT Outdoors offer an array of rods as well. Composition ranges from solid carbon to fiberglass.
While more and more anglers shop on-line, I think it’s best to test ice-rods in your hand if possible before buying, if you want a certain length and rod action. Fishing buddies are helpful in this regard as well.
Best 13 Fishing Ice Rods
13 Fishing offers the largest selection of ice rods, including the following:
Fenwick Methods Ice Rods
For versatility, Fenwick’s Methods Ice Rods come with a handle and both a medium-light and medium-heavy blank that slips into the handle.
St. Croix Skandic Series Ice Rods
St. Croix’s Skandic Series includes 12 models ranging in action from ultralight to heavy, in lengths from 24 to 36 inches. Blanks are precision-tapered solid carbon for strength and sensitivity, with split-grip cork handles. They’re high end, retailing from $75 to $115.
Fenwick World Class Ice Rods
Fenwick’s World Class Ice Rods are fine-tuned for finesse with premium solid-carbon blanks and and split-grip handles of top-grade cork. Eight options from 24 to 42 inches retail for $79.99.
Clam Katana and Straight Drop Rods
Clam’s new Katana line also covers the bases with 15 models for panfish to big predators, up to 42 inches long, priced at $50 to $70. And their Straight Drop Combos feature oversized fly guides, for $60.
Elliott Rods Odyssey Series
Elliott Rods has added the Odyssey Series with 3 panfish rods built with super-sensitive solid-glass blanks, in 32- and 36-inch noodle styles, and a 40-incher for hole-hopping. For bigger predators, Elliott offers solid-carbon Evolution Rods from 42 to 44 inches with super-light Syncork handles, $130.
G. Loomis IMX Ice Rods
Not surprisingly, G. Loomis IMX Ice models are also on the high end at $199.99. Panfish models have split cork grips while predator actions have a full cork handle.
BEST ICE FISHING COMBOS
Anglers just getting into ice-fishing may want to buy a combo.
13 Fishing Ice Combos
And 13 Fishing scores here as well, with three nice options
Starting with the top-end Wicked Ice Combos ($119.99) come in 25 inch light combos up to 31-inch medium heavy combos with a nice smooth reel with aluminum fat bails and long stems for better balance and control.
Blackout Ice ($64.99) combos feature rods from 24 to 30 inches long with 2-bearing spinning reels.
Their Omen Black Inline combos are the Cadillac of ice fishing combos with the super strong brawny rods with their uber-popular Freefall XL.
Clam Outdoors Ice Combos
Clam Outdoors offers four different series of ice combos, priced at $25 to $120.
The Ice Buster Combo is a good starter combo on a budget at $24.99.
The Straight Drop Combo is a good value for getting your bait down quick and efficiently for $59.
The Scepter Combo is for those looking for a really sensitive rod with a good reel for $79.
And the Tatsumi Combo is their best offering with a very smooth reel on a super sensitive carbon blank rod. A great feeling and fishing rod and reel for $119.
HT Enterprises Fast Stix Extreme comboss
HT Enterprises sells its E-Glass Fast Stix Extreme rods in 4 lengths matched with 4-bearing spinning reels for $30.
Berkley Cherrywood HD Ice Combos
Berkley’s Cherrywood HD Ice combos (4 models) sell for $25.
Shimano Sedona Combos
Shimano’s Sedona combos come with that quality reel for $99.99.
In ice rods, as with open-water equipment, you generally get what you pay for in terms of weight and sensitivity and quality of guides. But beware of toting top-end sticks on a rough snowmobile ride across frozen Lake Winnipeg, Mille Lacs, or other massive fisheries, as the bouncing impact on packed ice is an extreme hazard for gear of all sorts.
Wise anglers invest in tough foam-filled rod cases for such adventures. But if you’re taking a bucket with a few rods out to your shack and setting up for some bobber action, no need to break the bank.