Over the last 15 years, we’ve sold a ton of ice fishing rods. Cheap ones, expensive ones, rods only or rod & reel combo’s. Over all those years, one thing stood out with me through all the quality ranges and prices. I can’t find a ton of difference between the mid-range rods. They all do the same thing. They “beat the hell” out of fishing like I did as a kid with a notched stick with whatever mono we could find wrapped around it. We had a designated, used cigar box to haul around our sticks with line on them, some oxidized splitshots, assorted rusty hooks, a bobber or two and a few swivels. Sometimes we had the luxury of having an old, homemade airplane plug in the box as well. We also brought alone some surveyors tape to flag the lines so we could watch them from the fire we built on shore. If we didn’t have surveyor tape, we’d use an old candy wrapper or whatever we could find in our pockets. We’d hang minnows down from a sapling with a split in the end, stuck at an angle with the end centered over the top of the hole and the tape-flag attached with a trucker’s knot in the line. We’d put some extra, loose line out from our stick on the ice, and then jam the stick into the snow pile that held the sapling. Then, back to fire we went to turn our backs to the wind and our faces to the heat which never seemed to be quite enough. Boiled up water in an old coffee can with a wire, cooked our polish sausages, and visually checked the flags. Depending on how cold it was, we’d take turns running for flags down and hand-line the fish, either northerns or walleyes, to the cold harsh world above the ice. Those were our “fishing rods” back then. So, everything today is like a luxury to me.
Today, I’m much more spoiled and pampered. I fish in a thermal pop-up shelter with a heater, a radio, a chair to sit on and about $700 worth of lures and tackle in my Kondos pack. I rarely use live bait – not out of some sense of shame or guilt; but instead, because live bait is a pain in the neck to keep alive from weekend to weekend. I also now use fishing rods instead of a stick with line on it. Most of my ice rods come from inventory that would not sell easily in our store. In fact, I rarely will take a rod that is a hot seller for obvious reasons and have little interest in those. I prefer to take the rods that nobody else wants so I can see what sort of marketing baloney was used to make them all want a different, particular, specific rod. I do this because I grew up with no rods whatsoever and we still caught a lot of fish. So, all this fussy, picky, “expert” bullcrap about fishing rods intrigues me. Perhaps being a retailer of fine ice fishing rods, I should simply run with the $100,000 marketing campaigns and all the hype and go solely for the money. My banker would probably recommend that as well, but, I HATE bullcrap. I despise hype over something that is merely a nice paint job on a product that does the same job as everything else. That being said, in ice rods, a few of them make me take notice.
The way I notice what works well is by using those rods that get less or almost no attention. From that huge pile, I realize that the majority of civilian ice fishermen don’t know beans and are complete products of marketing hype, particularly as directed by big companies and big box retailers. They see you coming, man. They see that drool in the corners of your mouth and the distracted look in your eye as you don’t know where to begin when you walk through the door of some flashy big box store inside of a metro area. They create a frenzy and then ride that horse hard until it dies. Then they drag you into some other seasonally-based direction. This is not the description to be applied to all ice fishermen, but it certainly covers a bunch of them. And that brings me to the rods they ignore while following the bright sparkling lights and big cardboard cut-outs of fishing “greats” as if owning that recommended rod will make you catch bigger fish….
Rods that get snubbed in my store will include various unpopular weights & models, including but not limited to, St. Croix’s until we sell them below cost. Then everybody wants them. That is how I acquired some years back and still have them today. I figured if we are giving them away, I’ll take one and see what it is like on the ice having drawn my conclusions already in the store. My summations were correct and I love mine. I’ve also caught heavy fish on the light and ultralight models with no issues. I noticed that their solid carbon blanks can sometimes lead to eyelet misalignment in certain temps and humidity and I’ve had DEEPLY concerned customers email me about this HORRIBLE condition whereupon sighting down the “unloaded” rod will show one or two of the eyelets usually at the end of the rod, to be off by a millimeter or possibly, two. Even at super-sale-clearance-price, this is an “unspeakable atrocity” and also where I’ve decided that many ice fishermen have too much time on their hands. For some strange reason, deeply rooted in the ice fisherman’s psyche, if an eyelet is off by 2 millimeters on a $20 buck rod, the world should be made aware – before it spreads into a veritable pandemic. Years ago, after having a batch of rods from St. Croix that had this alignment ailment, I called St. Croix because I was tired of hearing about it. The guy there told me that he can pick out a straight one and ship it to me and in two days, it might no longer be straight due to temperature differences. I kinda figured that on my own, but by talking to the horse directly, I removed all doubt.
So, for that $20 rod or even that $50 St. Croix ice fishing rod, let me put it into perspective: It’s an ice fishing rod. You don’t cast with it and it’s pretty delicate from an alignment perspective. Put a reel on, run the line through the eyelets, put a jig on it and drop it down the hole. The eyelets will all line up automatically, even though you will have instantly forgotten about it. This is neither hard to figure out nor worth wasting as much time as I have on it already, particularly since all of my St. Croix Premiers have been serving me well for years now crooked eyelets and all. And do I care? No. It has nothing to do with the rod’s sensitivity or function as a good ice fishing rod. If straight eyelets are a sign of perceived quality, then discerning ice fisherman would be well-served by buying a Berkley Lightning Ice Rod for $14.99. The eyelets are perfectly lined up on these rods, but people won’t buy them because they don’t cost a lot. Remember the “cigar box with the line on the stick story” from above? These are pretty nice rods and work well compared to “no” rods. They are attractive and function just fine, but you should see the hemming/hawing that goes on when making that huge decision to buy an inexpensive, nicely made rod. I realize that this is the retail business and things that make no sense come in all shapes and forms, but I still shake my head on occasion.
Ultimately, if you want a noticeable, positive, difference in ice rods, I would say you need to move into the$40+ range. Do you have to go there to do well fishing? Hardly – because the cheap rods will do a fine job for ice fishing. Now, cheap reels are a different story, but rods are a lot less technical than the industry would have you believe in my opinion. One of my favorite rods late in this season were in St. Croix’s new Avid Ice Rods. Because they didn’t sell for crap, I did my usual and took one to see what ice fishermen were missing, and I found the usual – they were missing a lot. I wrote a review a while back – HERE. Out of all the rods, that was the most awesome. The next in the “awesome” lineup is the Fenwick Aetos, but for different reason. These are a high-quality dead-stick-type rods with a lot of backbone and very flexible tip. You could easily catch walleyes with even the shortest, ultra light sight rods in this series and then move into panfish. Do the eyelets all line up perfectly on the Fenwick Aetos Ice Rods? I dunno and don’t care. I’m not casting for bass, I’m jigging through the ice – straight down.
Remember that it is ice fishing and ice fishing gear. The ice fishing environment is a harsh world where wet stuff freezes and frozen stuff breaks because you are usually stumbling around in the snow after dark. If you are hard on stuff, I’d say go “cheap” with a little bit of shopping while ignoring the hype. If you like good stuff, shop around as well and also ignore the hype. My advice is that one should neither assume nor conclude that price and hyped-up marketing (or lack thereof) will dictate quality. From what I can see, it is pretty hard to find bonafide “crap” out there these days at least in our store. The stuff that everybody walks past may have some absolute treasures in it like St. Croix Avids. They didn’t look like much, but I picked one up and then used it. I only wish I’d have taken one sooner in the season. It’s in my rod bag for next year.
I’m still getting out on the ice this season and will be using my St. Croix ultralight Premier for sunnies. It’s about 8 years old and still works fine – crooked eyelets and all.