Among my earliest ice fishing memories is how primitive the equipment was. Many ice rods and reels consisted of a block of wood with a hole drilled in one end fitted with the remnant of a spinning or casting rod. The “reel” consisted of a block of wood with two nails about six inches apart around which you wound your line. Dropping your bait down the hole involved unwinding the line from the nail pegs. Fish were retrieved hand-over-hand. After unhooking the fish and replacing the bait, the terminal end was just dropped through the hole. The line was then rewound around the nails when finished fishing for the day.
The first major advancement in ice rods and reels was the Schooley’s Spring Bobber Pole and Reel. It is still popular as an economical or entry-level rig for ice fishing and has stood the test of time. Among its features is a simple round spool fastened to the handle from which you strip line to drop your bait down the hole. There are holes drilled in the top of the reel from which you can use a peg or toothpick to stop and mark the length of line you feed into the hole, allowing you to return to the same depth each time. The reel is rarely used to retrieve a fish, so the fisherman would still use a hand-over-hand retrieve to bring in the fish.
One aggravation of the primitive homemade ice rod or the Schooley’s is when you retrieved fish hand-over-hand, the line would gather around any equipment on the ice, and find every frozen ice chip around the hole. To get the bait back down to the action you have to tediously unwrap the line from every obstacle the line was clinging to. Some ingenious ice fisherman solved this problem – why not create, what amounts to, a miniature ultra-light spinning rod and reel combination?
When this revolution gained popularity, many of these ice fishing spinning combos were homemade with tips from old or broken spinning rods attached to wood or cork handles. Small spinning reels attached to the handle with electrician’s tape. These ice fishing spinning combos allowed for a rapid drop of bait, as well as speedy retrieval of fish. Gone forever was the problem of retrieved line laying and catching on everything on the ice. The softer action of the rods allowed for light lines and small jigs and made fishing more enjoyable.
Three problems remained to be solved.
One was line twist inherent to spinning reels. If you can sight fish, you will observe the bait spinning like a merry-go-round. When the fish are finicky, this will frequently keep them from biting. The second problem was line coiling – that aggravating spiral of line that only straightens out with the heaviest of baits. Coiling prevents you from the feel you need for the light bites. The third problem was brought on by the use of ice electronics. Dropping your bait to suspended fish requires constant opening and closing of the bale on your spinning reel to reach the level of the fish. This is certainly doable, but over time it can become annoying. When fish are in a feeding frenzy, hits can be missed if they catch you between the manual opening and closing of the bale.
This brings us to the state-of-the-art solution for serious ice fishermen – the inline ice fishing reel! Early adopters of this technique used the smallest fly reels they could find, spooled with an appropriate length and strength of line for the waters they fished. Line would be stripped off and fed down the hole to the desired depth with the bait being presented without twist.
My first use of inline fishing utilized an Okuma SLV Fly Reel. I loaded the arbor with Scientific Anglers fly line backing. This also builds up the arbor improving the 1:1 retrieve ratio. To the backing, I connected about 30 yards of monofilament (more than sufficient for most waters). Although the low gear ratio took some getting used to after fishing for years with the rapid retrieve of spinning reels, it didn’t diminish my catch results.
In just the last few years, manufacturers such as Frabill, Eagle Claw, Clam and 13 Fishing have taken inline ice fishing reels to the next level. All of these inline ice fishing reels have an extended stem, which compared to a fly reel, allow for easier gripping. Even gloved fingers have ample clearance between the rod handle and reel.
My preference is 13 Fishing. This manufacturer just seems to have a knack for designing innovative equipment that really works on water. For shallow water, I like the Black Betty Inline Ice Reel. It is interchangeable for right or left hand retrieve, has an oversized handle knob for fishing with gloves and a clever removable “fender” if you prefer to fish with a “Pencil” grip.
For deep water fishing, I use the Black Betty 6061 Inline Ice Reel. I think this is the ultimate inline ice reel. Think of it as a sideways baitcasting reel. The design allows you to free-spool your bait to the desired depth. It has an amazing 2.7:1 gear ratio that retrieves 18 inches of line per crank. Other features include an instant anti-reverse and bait alarm. The 6061 makes it possible for me to fish any weight of bait in any depth of water without line twist or coiling. I can track my bait on electronics to the desired depth and stop it on a dime in front of suspended fish. And the increased line pick-up capacity is really nice in deep water.
I don’t know what the next step in the evolution of ice fishing reels will be, but I think with the amazing equipment available today, it may be quite a wait!