The evolution of ice fishing tackle

ELK RIVER, Minn. — Most anglers are content to buy the best gear they can afford and accept it’s limitations. A few of them, though, are incessant tinkerers who are never satisfied with the performance of their tools. Pat Smith is a founding member of the latter group.

Smith began ice fishing almost 50 years ago using crude equipment that he laughs about today.

“My friends and I used to pound holes with a fireman’s axe,” Smith said. “Our rods were fashioned from the tip sections of open-water rods, matched with plastic Schooley reels spooled with Dacron backing and a lightweight monofilament leader.”

When his mom bought a new refrigerator Smith hauled the box onto the ice to use as a shelter during a brutal cold front. Life improved again when he traded his axe for a manual spoon auger that drilled holes with much less effort.

“We caught lots of fish but we knew the gear could be improved,” Smith added. “Once I began working in the fishing retail business, I was able to evaluate a range of products. I saw first hand how quickly ice fishing tools evolved.”

Smith said that most major tackle manufacturers weren’t interested in ice fishing until the St. Paul ice fishing show began in 1994, creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect directly with potential customers.

“For the first couple of years it seemed like everything on display was built in someone’s garage,” Smith added. “By the third year, though, some of the larger companies started to exhibit tackle and accessories that were designed specifically for ice fishing.”

Technique-specific rods

Smith said that Shimano and Jig-A-Whopper both made some good ice rods in the mid-1990s. Pioneering ice angler Dave Genz also worked with a European tackle company on a range of ice rods that he sold to retailers out of the back of his van.

“The first real breakthrough was the Northern Lite series made by Berkley,” Smith said. “That was the first rod to actually have an engineered taper from butt to tip. They were prone to breaking, but they were great rods.”

At the same time, the custom rod builders at Thorne Brothers, where Smith worked, were designing an extensive collection of rods designed for specific ice-fishing situations.

“The Sweetheart was a three-piece rod — meaning it incorporated sections from three different blanks,” Smith added. “That allowed us to create a proper taper like you would find on a longer open-water rod. That was a game changer.”

Through the years, Thorne Brothers added longer rods for anglers who fish for lake trout while standing on the ice, shorter rods for anglers kneeling over an ice hole while sight fishing for panfish and everything in between. They set a standard the rest of the industry still follows today.

In-line reels

Smith is the first person I saw tape a fly reel on an ice fishing rod. A spinning reel twists the line as its wound onto the spool. That twist causes an ice jig to spin, which looks unnatural to a wary fish. An inline reel, on the other hand, imparts no twist.

“The big discovery was that the reel needed to be three inches in diameter,” Smith added. “That size provides nine inches of retrieve for each turn of the spool — exactly what I was getting with a small spinning reel.”

Fly tackle is known to be expensive, but the Cortland fly reels that Smith prefers can be purchased for about $20.

“I did buy a higher end Ross fly reel for about $200,” Smith said. “It’s awesome — built with tight tolerances and a drag that’s smoother than butter. But it’s overkill for panfish or even walleyes. Buy less expensive reels and spend the money you save on other gear.”

Smith still uses spinning reels on most of his walleye combos and some of his panfish rods. Especially when fishing spoons, he said line twist can be an advantage as it creates more flash by causing the lure to spin.

“I don’t trust the drags on most small spinning reels,” Smith added. “I usually tighten the drag all the way down, turn off the anti-reverse function and back-reel when I need to give line to a big fish. Try it for a few trips and it will soon become second nature.”

Tungsten jigs and plastic tails

The development of ice-fishing lures has also continued at a rapid pace, leaving anglers with more options than they could use in a lifetime of winters. But Smith said the use of tungsten jigs and soft-plastic baits for panfish is having the biggest impact.

“Tungsten jigs are smaller than lead jigs of the same weight, allowing them to drop faster through the water column,” Smith said. “You need to increase the weight of your jig when you switch from live bait to plastics. Live maggots or wax worms move, plastic doesn’t. If you don’t work it, it doesn’t work.”

“Better equipment definitely helps anglers catch more fish,” Smith said. “But confidence is still 99% of the fishing equation. If you believe in your gear, believe in your fishing strategy you’ll be far more successful — on the ice or on open water.” Photo courtesy of Pat Smith

Confidence plays a large role in fishing success, and Smith said that many anglers lose confidence in plastics because they use them when the bite is tough.

“The time to start using plastics is when the fish are biting,” he said. “Fish that don’t respond to bait aren’t going to eat plastic. I always have one rod rigged for bait and one with a soft-plastic tail super-glued to the jig. If the bite is hot, using plastics is more efficient than re-baiting.”

More lines than we need

Walk into any fishing retailer these days and you’ll be confronted with a wall of lines for every conceivable fishing situation. It affords experienced anglers an opportunity to fine-tune their presentations, but it’s likely to confuse a novice.

Smith’s in-line reels start with a thick layer of Micron fly-line backing. This effectively increases the spool diameter, which in turn, increases the retrieve speed.

“It’s important to use a line winder to load the backing,” Smith said. “That foundation needs to be rock solid or the monofilament line will bury into the backing under the pressure of a big fish.”

His line of choice is P-Line Floroclear, a copolymer line coated with fluorocarbon. Smith said it offers the stealth of fluorocarbon with the low memory of monofilament. He usually adds 60 to 100 yards of line to the backing on his reels.

“I’ve simplified my line selections through the years,” Smith said. “I use three-pound-test for panfish and finicky perch because I can see it. I step up to five-pound line for larger perch and walleye, and occasionally resort to eight-pound-test for lake trout.”

Smith added that he sometimes uses a braided super-line for perch in deeper water, but tries to avoid fishing deeper than about 20 feet because fish might die after being released. Braided lines also hold too much ice above the surface and too many air bubbles under water.

Electric augers rock

Augers powered by industrial cordless drills hit the ice-fishing scene about 10 years ago, and continue to grow in popularity. Most manufacturers now offer electric powerheads that resemble gas models, but Smith still prefers to use a drill.

“I use a Hilti drill with a 6½-inch Strikemaster bit that was designed for a hand auger,” Smith said. “The whole unit weighs a tad more than six pounds and drills holes faster than a gas auger with an eight-inch bit.

Smith prefers a six- to seven-inch drill for all of his ice fishing, adding that most anglers drill larger holes than they need.

“Many people I’ve talked to worry that they will lose a big fish with a six-inch auger,” Smith said. “But a smaller hole actually makes fish easier to land. Once their head is in the bottom of the hole they have nowhere to go but up.”

Today’s electronics are almost too good

Technology buffs might relish the ongoing evolution of ice-fishing sonar units, but Smith said the old-school tools we’ve used for decades are still effective — and in some cases, preferable.

“Durability is too often overlooked when buying a sonar unit for ice fishing,” Smith said. “The Marcum units paired with a Lithium Shuttle are terrific. But you better buy two of them if you don’t strap down your gear when you’re driving on the ice.”

Smith favors a Vexilar FL-22 mounted on the company’s Genz Box and paired with a 12-volt lithium battery. The unit and case are durable enough to withstand years of use and abuse.

“Some of the new sonar units are unbelievable,” Smith added. “Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope unit almost seem like cheating. Traditional sonar shows where the fish are, LiveScope shows where they’re coming from and, more importantly, where they’re going. It’s going to be a game changer for ice tournaments.”

Trick your Trap

While working at Thorne Brothers, Smith began customizing Fish Traps with a range of accessories including baitwells, rod holders and LED lights.

“Most anglers would buy a shelter, take it fishing then complain about its limitations,” Smith said. “We wanted to show them what was possible — that you could transform a stock shelter into something that was nearly perfect for the way you fish.”

Customization aside, Smith said he long ago gave up on finding the perfect portable shelter.

“Just like there’s no such thing as a perfect boat for every kind of fishing, there’s no perfect portable,” Smith said. “I use a Fish Trap Scout for running and gunning for panfish, but have a larger Guide model for walleyes because it allows me to fish two holes. When fishing with friends, I use an insulated Voyager shelter with three seats.”

And while he prefers to fish from portable shelters because of the increased mobility, Smith said that he often fishes in a wheelhouse when the weather is particularly cold.

“Everything has a time and place,” Smith added. “A friend and I can fish comfortably in his hard house when it’s -30 degrees outside. And with the right tow vehicle — like a one-ton truck with a plow — we can keep moving to stay on the fish.”

Clothing designed for ice fishing

Smith said that no other product category has changed through the years as much as ice-fishing clothing. It’s revolutionized the ice tournament scene as it allows anglers to fish outside of a portable shelter and move more quickly between holes.

“I prefer the original Ice Armor blue bibs and parka,” Smith said. “I buy one size larger than I need so I can add layers of insulation under the suit. It does a great job keeping me warm and blocking the wind.”

He also uses Ice Armor gloves, usually paired with chemical hand-warmer packets when the temperature drops.

“I wear a range of hats depending on how cold it is, but prefer something that looks good in pictures,” Smith added. “I also wear a Buff when fishing for a bit of face protection from the sun, cold and wind.”

Unlike the pac boots many ice anglers prefer, Smith wears a pair of vintage Irish Setter boots constructed from leather and Codura and packed with 1,600 grams of Thinsulate insulation.

“I also wear a pair of Neos over-boots that provide a bit more warmth and are waterproof to just below my knee,” Smith concluded. “Truth is, the older I get the more I prefer to sit in a Fish Trap with the heater on.”

That’s a long way from fishing in a refrigerator box, and a good illustration of how far we’ve come in the evolution of ice-fishing tackle.


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