So what’s up with all the fly reels hitting the ice fishing market the last two years? Performance and efficiency is what’s up with this style reel.
I know right off the bat some of you are either saying, “hey, I’ve been using a fly reel for ice fishing for years. This isn’t new. ” Or you’re saying, “my spinning reel works fine, I don’t need no stink’n badges, I mean fly reel”…(spaghetti western joke)..
Here’s the straight scoop on many fishermen are using fly reel style ice reels. This type of reel allows the line to come straight off of the spool with out any spinning motion. ALL spinning reels twist your fishing line. They twist it coming off the spool when you drop your jig, they twist it when reeling line in and they really twist the heck out off it if a fish pulls drag out or you reel against the drag. All this spinning energy is stored up in your line and wants to uncoil. It will either uncoil when you open up your bail and cause a snarl of line, or a loop. Or it will uncoil itself down where you can’t see it at your jig and cause the jig to spin. Most fish won’t hit a spinning jig. Now it is true, that if you keep the jig dancing, swimming or jiggling, it will resist spinning. But many times we need to at least pause that motion in order to get bit. And shortly after we stop, that twisted, spring like energy is going to try to unwind.
Fly reels or other level wind reels don’t twist the line. So, you don’t get line twist from reeling in or letting line out. The only line twist you get will come from any spinning that your lure does when raising, lowering or jigging it. So no line twist equals no jig spin, which equals more bites. It’s really that simple.
Ok, so no spin means better performance. What about efficiency? What do I mean by that? Ice fishing is vertical fishing. We let lures down and we bring lures up. We are not casting horizontally. You have to worry about getting a bite when the line is going “out” on a cast. You only get bit once your reel is “locked up” and you are retrieving, right? No problem here, because your reel is engaged and your ready to set the hook. That is unless the fish hits right as your bait splashes down…But when you’re ice fishing their is no real travel time in the air. Your bait is in the strike zone as soon as it passes the bottom edge of the ice, especially when fishing panfish or other relatively shallow applications. You have to be ready to set the hook all the time, and I mean ALL the time. You can’t set the hook with your bale open on a spinning reel. However, you can set the hook 100% of the time with a fly reel, by palming or pencil gripping the fly reel in your hand and using your hand to clamp down on the spool lip. You can even set the hook against your drag as long as you don’t set the hook to hard. But the point is, you don’t have to lock up the spool or close the bale 1st. You’re always, locked, cocked and ready to rock, 100% of the time.
I know some of you are saying ok that’s great, but how do you let line out? Well, in most of these reel designs you simply pull line out against the drag with your other hand. This means that you have to keep the drag set relatively light, at least light enough not to break the line. But you’re drag should be set that way anyway, right? I already hear the rumblings too, saying “man that sounds like it will be really slow getting the jig down” or “that’s a lot of work”. Here’s the truth here too. You will find that in most cases, unless you are using a jigging spoon or relatively heavy bait, you will be able pull line from your reel and keep your jig moving on free fall almost 100% of the time. What you will also find is that you will really want to stop and pause between line pulls anyway on your way down, because you will catch many super aggressive suspended fish on your way down. When dropping your bait with spinning tackle, your bait might have blown right by those fish! I guess this is where I should talk about a new hybrid type of “free spooling” fly reel. But 1st, let’s take a look back at ice reel designs, from where they started, right up to the latest designs.
If we go back 30, 40 or even more yrs you’ll find reels like the all metal Canadian made Swish reel. It had a stamped metal frame a rod stand and a very simple fiberglass rod that it was clamped to. You’ll also find the incredibly simple and inexpensive Michigan made plastic Schooley Reel. It’s simple design attaches using a small wood screw. This reel is still very popular today and still be purchased with several different length fiberglass rods. The Swish reel and rod combo is also still available.
In the 70’s through mid 80’s a myriad of retailers starting private labeling tiny plastic and aluminum fly reels with an anti-reverse switch that locked the spool. These reels were primarily a spin off from the southern crappie and bream fishing markets. These reels had lousy drags and tiny arbors that caused the line to hold lots of tiny curly-q’s. They were really simply intended to hold line and nothing more. Don’t get me wrong, it was possible to fight and land a big on them. But it took luck and great deal of skill. This was also the time that many of us started experimenting with full size fly reels. But unless you spent $150 or more, they were large, heavy and had too small of arbor diameter to be practical. They also had small handles and were usually aluminum, which is cold on the hands.
In the last 5 yrs the ice fishing market has experienced a real revolution which I believe started with another little Michigan company in Adrian, MI. These entrepreneurs took notice of how the Schooley Reel had held its market share and even expanded into to top level tournament ice fishermen. They decided to manufacture a high quality machined aluminum version of the Schooley , complete with needle bearings and metal center pin shaft. The company that started this was Ice Tech Fishing Systems. They later came out with a model which positioned his large center pin reel below the rod on an extended foot, like a spinning reel. He called this reel The Razor. He still makes these high quality fishing instruments today, which are used by top level tournament anglers and ice tackle aficionados across the ice belt.
About the same time frame as the introduction of the Razor, the market saw an influx of relatively low cost mid-sized fly reels with unidirectional bearings. Unidirectional means that they spin freely in one direction, but can be used to engage a drag mechanism when rotated in the other direction. For a fly reel, that’s a beautiful thing. You can reel line or fish in, without fighting the drag, yet automatically engage a fully adjustable drag as line is taken out. Ice Hopper, Frabil, HT and every other savy ice tackle company have either an aluminum or graphite frame version fly reel, if not both that incorporate these bearings.
Most fishermen using these style reels prefer to palm them in their hand and hold the rod almost like a pencil, hence the term Pencil Grip. A similar grip is also used on spinning reels. Which brings up my next group of reels, refrerred to as Extended Neck/Stem or Extended Reel Foot fly reels.
As the name suggests, these fly style reels are suspended 1-2″ below the reel seat, just like a spinning reel. This is one of those personal preference things. So much so in fact, that Frabil’s version even comes with an interchangeable long and standard foot. Personally, I prefer the low profile or traditional version, as I like to wrap my fingers around the reel and touch the spool with my fingers or palm. I find this grip really awkward with a longer stem …but to each his own on this.
Last year also saw some new reels enter the ice fishing market, although their designs aren’t as new to the European or Asian markets. These are the push button free spooling variants with geared retrieve rates. 13 Fishing and Eagle Claw marketed these style reels last winter at the opposite ends of the price spectrum. Key features of these reels include extended Neck, free spool button, geared retrieve drives and star type drag system. Where I think these reels shine is when using larger predator size ice jigs and lures, in deeper water. Then you can coarse adjust your free spool tension and just let the bait drop. What I don’t like about this style reel is awkward balance, weight and inability to palm the reel because the reel handle is on the opposite side of the spool. You have to hold one to see what I mean. But for a lot of hard water anglers, this style reel is huge step up.
I should also mention, that in this incredibly competitive fishing market popular designs don’t go unnoticed. Ice Tech’s Razor was no exception as it saw direct competition from the off shore manufactured Black Betty.
The last significant fly reel to hit the market came last winter when the Tight Line Extreme Reel was launched under the Ice Hopper brand. This little graphite frame fly reel, which follows the successful Tight Line Reel, has a unidirectional bearing, gear driven quick line retrieve rate, pulls line in from the top of the spool (unlike traditional fly reels). And because of it’s design it also allows the reel to be palmed, pencil gripped or fished with a spinning rod grip from above.
This winter both Beam Outdoors and HT Enterprises are offering aluminum frame reels that are very similar to the Tight Line Extreme Reels launched last year. 13 Fishing also continues to advance the market with it’s Tear Drop reel, long stem spinning reel and their plastic version of the Black Betty the Code Blue.
If you haven’t tried one of these style ice reels yet, you have lots of options and price points now. There truly is something for everyone. It’s time to join the hard water fly reel revolution.