When winter hits, anglers may find it difficult to kick back by the fireplace. After all, they prefer being outdoors, and they know the fish are hungry and waiting to feed. Luckily, ice fishing is there to fill their void. The sport has grown in recent years, and improvements in ice fishing rods have played a major role.
Ice fishing traces its roots to fish spearing. The Ojibwe Tribe chipped holes in the ice and waited, sometimes for days, for fish to swim up to a wooden decoy. By the 1920s, rods with line and hooks had replaced spears, but they remained far less sophisticated than today’s graphite and fiberglass models. In fact, many anglers in the early part of the 20th century made their own rods from dowels or willow tree branches.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, ice fishing failed to garner attention until the start of the 1990s, when the technology led an infusion of new anglers to the sport. Today, ice fishing features a wealth of sophistication. GPS equipment and underwater cameras help anglers find the fish. Rods, too, benefit from modern technology, which has introduced products that resist the damage extreme cold weather can cause and provide the characteristics anglers need to haul in a healthy catch.
However, some believe the technology movement harms the nature of the sport. “You have to wonder if ice fishing is losing the sense of adventure that used to come from actually having to work to fin fish,” said Minnesota DNR angler Tom Jones. Some anglers still prefer to make their own rods. In fact, Steven Griffin, a Michigan angler, said in 1985 that he built rods out of the fiberglass posts that hold bicycle safety flags in place.
Ice fishing rods tend to be relatively stiff, which allows for the tug anglers must use to pull the fish to the surface. Anglers, however, also need the tip of the rod to move. This allows for jigging the bait, whether it be live or artificial, and helps anglers to determine when fish are nibbling.
Some rods are little more than a wooden stick that is used for jigging.
Most ice fishing rods, however, are composed of graphite or fiberglass. Rods come in four categories: ultra-light, light, medium and heavy. Choosing the best option depends on the type of fish the angler hopes to catch. Ultra-light rods are best for small pan-fish such as crappie and bluegill. Light rods are fine for perch and small-mouth bass. A medium rod is needed for large-mouth bass, walleye and rainbow trout. Heavy rods work well for lake trout and pike.
Ice fishing rods tend to be shorter than most other fishing poles. The shorter rod allows a fisherman to stand over the hole and set the hook, and it makes it easier to pull the fish upward toward the surface. Anglers cannot pull the fish toward the shore or toward a boat as they do during other fishing seasons. According to Matt Straw, who covers the sport for In-Fisherman, a popular magazine and website for anglers, the best poles for panfishing have a length between 18 and 26 inches. A good medium rod, meanwhile, tends to be in the 28- to 48-inch range. Heavy ice fishing rods range from 36 to 42 inches in length.
Rods also differ in where and how they bend. Anglers prefer fast-action rods for use jigging with artificial lures. Fast-action rods bend at the tip, but the remainder of the rod remains fairly inflexible. The way they bend makes it easier for anglers to sense when a fish hits the bait, but the strength of the lower half of the rod supplies the necessary strength to haul in the fish. Fast-action rods are best when you’re fishing for crappie, bluegill, rainbow trout and most species of bass.
Those who fish with minnows and intend to move the bait up and down in the hole prefer medium-action rods. Medium-action rods bend at the middle of the rod shaft. They are good options when you fish for walleye. Slow-action rods work better when fishing large lakes for pike, musky and lake trout.
Anglers also must choose between graphite and fiberglass rods. Graphite rods are more expensive, but they also are lightweight and more sensitive. Fiberglass rods are less sensitive and heavier, but they bend easier without the threat of snapping in half, which can happen in cold weather, or failing to return to their normal shape.
Through technology, anglers today consider ice fishing to be a more popular option for cold-weather recreation, and there are signs that the sport might continue to grow. In fact, new ice fishing tournaments pop up each year in cold-weather states. In February 2009, Pelican Lake, Wisconsin, held a tournament offering $100,000 in prizes, including a $25,000 check for first prize. Seventy-five anglers fished the tournament, and the winner, Rostk Lyogky, caught a 3-lb. northern pike.