What I like in an ice fishing reel is smoothness when fighting a fish.  Now, you simply do not have a lot on which to go in a retail store.   You take take the reel out of the box, tighten up the handle and crank it.  Then you crank it….and crank it…..and crank it… while you are wandering around the store.

I’ve personally witnessed that completely worthless action by countless numbers of  guys who mindlessly do this, over and over to the point that I finally ask them what they gaining by cranking the reel furiously while wandering around the store looking at tackle.   The response is usually, consistently, the same:  They are testing the “smoothness” of the reel.   Like “air-reeling” really tells them anything at all about that fishing reel with no line or load – just air.  They NEVER, EVER check the drag or drag components which are by far,  THE most important parts of the reel when you are using a reel for the actual catching of fish.  Most guys have absolutely no clue as to what to look for in the most important part – under the spool.  They always want to know if there is a spare spool “in case” they need to change out line on their trips after a possible, but not likely,  45 lb northern peeled off all the line on the first spool.  Spare spool or not, one could always simply throw a pack of line in the tackle box.  It takes all of 5 minutes to re-rig a reel in the event that a tuna just happened along while you were crappie fishing and took all the line off your spool.  I’m pretty sure the old spool on your reel is fine.  I’ve yet to see anyone wear out the original spool on a reel.  Lose it, yes.  Wear it out?  No.  Wear out the rest of the reel?  Yes.

Tica Ice Fishing Reel
Tica Ice Fishing Reel Order HERE

Instead of doing what everybody else does, do this.  Crank the handle a couple of times to see how smooth the reel is.   If it makes a slight whirring noise – who cares? People obsess about the noise of the gears going around.   Clicking, clacking or sticking during the crank is significant.  Once you determine that the reel is reasonably smooth, the next step is trying the bail.  This is a procedure that confounds 99.999998% of every, single, customer who walks through the door: Opening the bail and then cranking it shut.  Darn near everybody gets stuck.

When there is no load on the reel, and the reel is particularly smooth (as they ALL are nowadays.  It’s hard to find a reel that is not smooth cranking – even the cheap ones are smooth), every last customer opens the bail and because the reel is smooth, the weight of the open bail throws off the balance of the computer-balanced rotor.  That is the part the spins line around the spool  in a spinning reel.  The open bail almost always rotates (via gravity) down to the “bail trip” position which is an internal mechanical trip to close the bail.  When the bail trip is right up against the bump in the mechanism to  actually trip the bail, that is when the customer decides to try to crank it shut.  Then he sits there and struggles drawing conclusions about the reel.

With any mechanical-trip bails, you MUST take a little bit of run at the trip.   Customers constantly struggle with this across all name brand and off-brand reels.   All you have to do to get a feel for this,  is turn off the anti-reverse switch, crank backwards for half a crank and then go forwards:  Click goes the bail.   It’s neither difficult to do or understand.   I have personally given this lesson 300 million times, now.   It’s not hard but some customers will shy away from a very good reel when they can’t figure this out and instead allow “user error” to determine the quality of a reel based on the bail closing.   Now it is true that this can also be a cheap reel that has issues with this although, I’ve seen spendy reels that require a strong-arm crank to close as well.  I don’t like that either. There should be balance in the closing.    Having a two handled Shimano Spirex really makes “levering” the bail closed a snap and levering can be done with a single handle reel as well, but I would say that a solid majority of fishermen do not know how to do this.

When, I’m looking at a reel, I like an easy-closing bail.  The Tica Cetus SS500 & SB500 (just a different color) have low-effort-closing bales that are tuned just perfectly offering an easy click.   Other spinning reels like this are most Pfluegers, Lews, some Shimano, and Quantum Pti’s.  The Quantum Pti’s have a unique magnetic bail trip which particularly cool – I have one and LOVE that reel, but they are not all that suited for winter use as the grease is the wrong weight and freezes up in cold temps.  You could use them in a pop-up shelter but in cold temps outside, the grease is going to be an issue.  I could change the grease as well, but blah.  It’s not like I don’t have any other reels for ice fishing in my bag.

So, we have smooth-spin, easy closing bails, and the final important feature:  the drag.  I would say that only 50 percent of the fisherman I meet actually know what the drag is on their reel.  I’m amazed.  That is the most important and also probably the least-talked about feature in the fresh water reel world.  In salt water, all of those guys know what it means to have a quality drag.  In fresh water, I swear that more fisherman tend to blame the rod and the line for failure as opposed to the drag.  When I was guiding, 90% of my customers had zero clue as to where their drag should be given their line weight.  If you have 8 lb. test line and your drag is cranked down to provide resistance of say 20 pounds, failure is imminent.  In my book, the drag is what separates the men from the boys in fishing reels.  Not only does your drag need to be smooth and not get sticky or jerky under duress, but it also needs to be adjustable when under a load.  If you need to adjust your drag when you have a fish on, and if moving it 1/8 inch lets it free-spool, that reel is a piece of junk.  There is an endless stream of reels out there that turning the drag button a tiny bit in either direction results in a completely stopped or completely open spool.  Throw those away.  If your line plays out of the drag in a herky-jerky manner, that, too miserable.  May not be the end of the world, but it affords more opportunities to lose the fish.  Smooth is what you want, always.

I’ve found that bigger is better in respect to mechanical parts that carry a load.  The Tica Cetus SS500/SB500 have a bigger arbor around which the spool spins when the drag is being activated by a sizable fish.  A tiny little bit of grease on this arbor can’t hurt.  A big arbor size offers more surface area for the internal sleeve bushing of the spool to glide on as line is being pulled out under duress.  More surface area means less friction in any single single part of the internal spool sleeve bushing which means the drag assembly allows the spool to spin smoothly.  A skinny shaft has more pressure on less area of the internal spool sleeve bushing.  If it develops rough areas inside that little hole up the middle of the spool where the arbor goes, you’ll never see them but they will make your drag jerk as the spool spins around to that rough area.  It’s all about support.   You’ll notice other reels that simply have the same, small arbor running up through the spool center sleeve bushing and hole.  The drags are smooth for a while, but as the reel has seen one too many jerked off snags (to save that 10 cent hook), they become jerky and the user doesn’t know why.  That’s why.   Other reels like Pflueger, Lews, and Quantum Pti’s and their Smoke have actual round bearings that the spool sleeve bushing runs on while under pressure.  These are high-end features that you’ll only see in the high-middle-and-up line of Shimano reels.   Shimano makes good stuff and I wouldn’t shy away from it, but there are many brands out there with less marketing and some really great features in their drags that you’ll never know are there without looking.  Pull off the spool and look under the hood.

If you are not comfortable taking apart somebody else’s reel, ask the sales staff to do it.  That kid in the big box store better know how to show you the drag’s internal workings!   Regarding drags, you will see references to “Japanese oiled felt” and graphite, etc.  The actual drag is the little washer that usually has grease on it and the bushing that surrounds the spool’s internal hole up the middle, spins around on the drag washer.  The screw-top part that holds the spool on the arbor is what puts pressure on the bottom of the internal spool bushing as it slides around on that greased washer.  In Tica SS500/SB500 reels, it is a milky white nylon washer.  In other reels, it can be red or other colors.  Without that drag washer, you are SOL and it can fall off of some reels.  The gear that it rests upon is simple a click that coincides with the spring inside the bottom of the spool.  That makes noise so you know your drag is working when you need it to work.  If the fish is pulling hard and fast with heavy jerking, loosen your drag a little so it can make noise on its own as line plays out.  If the fish is small and running away with your line and your spool is pinging a lot, tighten the drag a little so it pings a bit less.   This all applies only to spinning reels.    Baitcaster reels which do not have clicker buttons on them, make no noise and you have to determine drag play out with your thumb.  Whole different subject for a different day.  Spin-casting reels are an entirely different animal as well.

As for operational use, the Tica SS500 / SB500 offer excellent performance for many years.  They a little, tiny reels that we never seem to hear about once they leave and their owners will own multiple Ticas in their ice fishing bags.  From a retail standpoint, there are three easy ways to tell if the product is good.

  1. Look at it’s design and compare it to competing models.
  2. Take it out and use if myself extensively
  3. See how many come back and how many get sold to returning customers

There’s a lot of muddy water out there regarding how many bearings are in the reel as the main selling feature.  To that I say:    Who cares?  Are you actually capable of verifying those bearings?  I know I’m not and I do this for a living.

“Ooh!  11 ball bearings!  Feel how smooth it cranks!”  

In summary:

  • Smooth cranking  is good but not the main event you should be considering.
  • Bail closing easy is good.
  • Drag design and operation is most important of all and the most consistently over-looked part of any reel.

You need a good, reliable, Ice fishing Reel?  Tica Cetus SS500 or SB500.  The SB500 is gold in color.   Otherwise they are the same.  Order Your Tica Reel Here.