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Expert Tips for Choosing the Best Ice Fishing Tackle

Learn how one of Minnesota’s most acclaimed anglers chooses rods, reels and line for different ice fishing situations.

by Jeff Sundin

Whether at a fishing show or on the ice or through his popular daily fishing reports, Jeff Sundin commonly gets asked about the gear he uses for ice fishing. We’re excited to be able to share his answer to that question. Sundin in a veteran Minnesota fishing guide who has been voted as Best Fishing Guide in the WCCO TV Best of Minnesota viewer’s choice poll. Sundin doesn’t guide during the winter, but he is an avid ice angler and spends countless days ice fishing for walleyes, crappie, perch and more throughout the winter. 

Anglers sometimes ask about the rods, reels and lines I use for ice fishing. Like with any tool, the trick is to correctly match fishing rods and reels with the task that they’ll be required to perform. Having the “latest and greatest” (typical translation: most expensive) gear isn’t always the best solution. High-end, specialized gear can offer certain tactical advantages, but sometimes there are trade-offs that go beyond cost.

Ice Fishing Rods

ice fishing tackleice fishing tackle

For me, walleye, perch and pike fishing can be easily accomplished using very basic and affordable gear. If you have watched any of my ice fishing videos, you may notice that in many of them, I’m holding an Ugly Stik in my right hand. At $30, these are probably the most cost-efficient tools I own for catching fish and what I use for most basic presentations. I match them the same spinning reels I use on my lightweight summer gear. The Ugly Stiks work great for typical jigging presentations, using spoons, jigs and most lures weighing from 1/16 to 3/8 ounces. Line test weights from 4 to 8 pounds are standard for me for these set-ups.

Catching light-striking crappies and sunfish can require higher levels of finesse, and presentations are less suited to rudimentary fishing gear. Ice anglers consistently tout the benefit of using light, 1- to 4-pound-test line to trigger strikes from finicky panfish. Lighter weight lures and ultra-thin fishing lines require fishing rods with softer and more sensitive blanks. This is important not just for detecting light strikes, but also for protecting your fine fishing line from breaking while reeling in fish.

My best panfish rods are custom built – some by my friend, Bob Bohland, and others put together by my nephew, Chris Andresen. I’ve tried some medium to higher end retail fishing rods too and found St. Croix, Fenwick, 13 Fishing, and Tuned Up Custom Rods that all offered good models, well suited for finesse, panfish presentations. My list only scratches the surface, but these are the ones I’ve used personally. There are plenty of other great offerings that merit consideration.

The only real secret to picking a great rod for you is to focus on matching the lure weight, line strength and reel size. When these are all in balance, you’ll have a rig that pleases you. Most often, sensitivity is a function of physical weight. If everything else is equal, the rod with the lowest physical weight will likely be the most sensitive. Bear in mind that sensitivity often comes at the price of reduced strength. The most sensitive rods on the market are also the most prone to breaking and are better suited for more experienced anglers.

Best Reels for Ice Fishing

ice fishing catchice fishing catch

Inline style fishing reels are purported to be effective for minimizing line twist. Some experts say that panfish will shy away from lures that rotate excessively. In-line reels can help reduce that unwanted rotation and make it easier for anglers to hold their offering still. These differences make it easier to trigger strikes.

I think these claims are true. Having total control of your presentation probably will help you get more strikes. However, all that control comes at a price, and having your spool tension and drag set correctly are essential. That’s fine for veteran ice anglers with refined skills, but casual anglers may find control of this type of reel to be more cumbersome. So, a high quality in-line might not be the ultimate choice for folks who don’t fish as much.

I would guess there are five or six inline reels in my garage, but right now, there are none in my rod box. That should tell you something. That’s subjective, of course, but I do feel that the spinning reels are perfectly fine for 95% of the situations I encounter. Mine are Pflueger Presidents. For the money, you will not find anything more reliable, and like I said, they move from the ice kit into the boat for the open water fishing season.

Ice Fishing Line Considerations

Jeff Sundin with ice fishing crappieJeff Sundin with ice fishing crappie

Copolymer fishing lines are great for minimizing line freeze-up. Whenever your gear is subject to cold temperatures, this is the best type of line to use. There are several brands offering copolymer lines, but of the ones currently offered, Gamma is the only one I’ve used personally. It has performed exceptionally well for me.

Fishing in warm temperatures, like inside a shelter, allows more flexibility. In that case, almost any fishing line you like will work well enough. Specialty presentations using heavier lures aimed at larger fish typically require the use of heavier rods and braided lines. This topic might be best suited for an article devoted specifically to the pursuit of big fish, but if you chase trophy walleye, pike or lake trout, braided line can be important. I have braid on the rods that I use for lake trout, and my heavy walleye rods are spooled with braid.

3 Ice Fishing Combinations

Yellow perch caught ice fishingYellow perch caught ice fishing

To cover all the bases, I think three rods would be ideal:

  • The first – the aforementioned 28-inch, medium Ugly Stik, along with Pflueger’s size 25 President reel, spooled with Gamma ice line, 6-pound test – will handle most standard jigging lures for walleye, perch and active panfish.
  • The second, any high-quality 28- to 30-inch light action rod, paired with Pflueger’s size 20 President reel and spooled with Gamma 1- to-3-pound-test ice line covers the finesse presentations. Personally, I love the 2-pound test, but their 3-pound test is usually adequate, even for finicky panfish.
  • Finally, a heavier action rod, 30 to 36 inches long, a Pflueger size 30 President reel and 20- to 30-pound braid, is a nice option for presenting larger, heavier lures. When using braid, be sure to use a leader tied with clear, fluorocarbon line. Mine are cut to about 18 inches.

As always, there is a lot of room for personal choice. So, if you like something, use it, especially if it allows you to fish more, using less gear.

Top Ice Fishing Lures & Presentations

Jeff Sundin, ice fishing walleyeJeff Sundin, ice fishing walleye
  • Glow Streak - Secret to successful jigging is heavier action rod with braided line. Move the lure fast, using long upward sweeps and let it fall back on slack line. Pause occasionally, shaking your rod tip to emulate wounded bait fish to trigger strikes.
  • Glow Spoon and Rattl’n Flyer Spoon work well with many standard jigging presentations. Medium action rod, 6-pound-test copolymer fishing line. Jig using moderate “lift-drop-lift-drop” presentation and pause frequently using slow wobbling rod tip motion to trigger strikes.
  • Hybrid lures like the Rattl’n Quiver Spoon or Wally Talker, particularly in medium to larger sizes, also work well with the standard jigging rod and reel combos. Combine “lift-drop-lift” jigging action with shaking your rod tip to attract fish. Slow down and wiggle your rod tip to trigger strikes once fish are spotted.
  • Smaller sized Rattl’n Quiver Spoons, Glow Spoons and Frostee Spoons are better suited to light action ice fishing gear. Slower, less aggressive jigging styles work well, keep an eagle eye on the rod tip to help detect light strikes.
  • Tiny lures like Lindy’s Tungsten Toad, or the Crappie Pro® Overbite Sickle Jig are also well suited for light action gear. Whether you tip them with live bait, or use small plastics, jigging with subtle motion works best. Use a slight wiggling or wobbling motion to attract fish, when spotted, hold still while lifting your rod tip slowly to trigger strikes.