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Written By
Published Sep 7, 2022 1:00 PM

For anglers looking to upgrade their reels for the upcoming hard water fishing season, there are some amazing new ones that will help. Some folks go ice fishing for something fun to do once and a while during the winter months. Then there are the hardcore anglers that live to get out on the ice and do so nearly every day. Regardless of where you fit in the spectrum of frozen water fishermen there is some new equipment you need to check out, especially if you’re looking for the best ice fishing reels for this coming season.

Things to Consider Before Buying an Ice Fishing Reel

Spinning Reels versus In-Line Reels

Many anglers use spinning reels for ice fishing, mostly due to familiarity with them. Spinning gear is really good for live bait fishing or deadstick fishing, like where you’re fishing a minnow without a bobber and the extremely light action of the rod is what you use to indicate a strike. An added bonus to spinning reels for ice fishing is that you likely already own one or more that would work great for ice fishing … Or, you can use it as an excuse to buy a new one, saying it can be used year round. 

Inline reels have become more and more popular lately. These look like small fly reels and basically have the same function as one, but with some added drag and line control features. The biggest feature of an inline over a spinning reel is the lack of line twist. Since the line comes off the spool in a straight line, there is no action on the line to make it twist, and if you are a die-hard jig angler, this is a major plus. I like using one for fishing bigger minnows for walleye because it lets the fish run with the bait without feeling the drag. But for straight up jig fishing, it is hard to beat the inline.

The other two main styles of reels that are out there—baitcasting and closed-face reels—don’t really offer much advantage while on the ice. In fact, I find closed face reels an invitation to an iced up reel. A baitcaster can work and is very similar to an inline, but there’s really no advantage to one. I have a buddy who likes to use a baitcast reel on a short 4-foot rod while fishing for pike. He uses it on a big shanty and through a hole he cuts with a chainsaw, and it is very effective at winching a big pike up from the depths.

Gear Ratios

I find gear ratios more important than line capacity, especially in an ice fishing reel. A gear ratio refers to the amount of line that will be spooled with one rotation of the handle. A faster reel will have a higher gear ratio. For this list, the highest is a 5.6:1. Being faster, I would suggest a higher line weight, as you don’t play the fish as much. A slower reel is best if you are going to fish with a lighter line. A lot of jig and live bait anglers go for a slower ice fishing reel, so many inline reels are slower for this reason.

Avoiding Ice Build Up

One of the things I’ve mentioned several times already is ice build up on reels. You have several factors that come into play here. The air temperature can work against you. Some lubricants get gummy in the cold and can make your smoothest reel feel anything but. I suggest using a good synthetic lubricant, as they are less prone to gumming up in cold weather. 

It is also imperative to use a line specific to ice fishing, as they don’t hold water. I am a big fan of braided lines, but I use either PowerPro Ice Tec or Suffix 832 Ice Braid. These lines are coated to keep water vapor from adhering to them and causing issues. The same goes with ice-rated monofilament lines. Ice on the spool from your line can cause the line to either freeze and not work, or it can create added memory to the line as it leaves the spool, which creates a whole other set of problems when you reel it in.

I have yet to find a way to keep the rod tip from getting a little ice on the coldest days. If I’m in the shanty with the heater going, it is never an issue, but on those days where I’m fishing out in the elements and it is cold, I know I will have to occasionally clear the tip. 

Best Overall: Clam Gravity Elite Inline Hybrid Reel

Best Overall

Clam Gravity Elite Inline Hybrid Reel

Clam Gravity Elite Inline Hybrid Reel

Why It Made the Cut: Torture-tested by the fanatical members of the Clam Ice Team, this reel has it all.

Key Features:

  • Weight: 7oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 3.6:1
  • Bearings: 3 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right and left hand

Pros:

  • Trigger-adjustable anti-drag
  • Aluminum and graphite construction
  • Made specifically for ice fishing
  • Accommodates any side jig

Cons:

  • A little pricey for the casual angler
  • Anti-drag trigger takes some getting used to

Drop reels are made specifically for ice fishing and working your bait under a hole in the ice. This is one of the best inline reels we’ve ever used, due in part to the anti-drag trigger that lets you add just the right amount of drag force you want to use when fishing. With this reel, the drag is always engaged and the trigger cancels it out so you can drop your jig down the hole. The trigger lets you control the drop to your liking, which takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it helps create a better presentation. Everything else about the reel is top quality and the reel is tested and used by the Ice Team.

Best Spinning: Abu Garcia Max Ice Fishing Spinning Reel

Best Spinning

Abu Garcia Max Ice Fishing Spinning Reel

Abu Garcia Max Ice Fishing Spinning Reel

Why It Made the Cut: A purpose-built spinning reel from Abu Garcia, made just for the ice.

Key Features

  • Weight: 6.4oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 3.0:1
  • Bearings: 3 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right hand

Pros:

  • Four-position anti-reverse
  • Durable Everlast bail
  • Lightweight
  • Smooth action

Cons:

  • No spare spool
  • No left-handed option

The Max Ice is easily one of the best spinning reels designed specifically for ice fishing. It has the line management features that are found on Abu Garcia’s open water spinning reels that help you have better control of the line as it comes off the reel, resulting in fewer tangles. It has slow oscillation for even more control when reeling in line. It can handle both braided and monofilament lines. This reel is a solid value, too, with a great price for anglers of any skill level.

Best for Wearing Gloves: 13 FISHING Wicked Longstem Spinning Reel

Best for Wearing Gloves

13 FISHING Wicked Longstem Spinning Reel 13 FISHING

13 FISHING Wicked Longstem Spinning Reel 13 FISHING

Why It Made the Cut: Extra room for thick gloves on those brutally cold days.

Key Features: 

  • Weight: 5.15oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 4.8:1
  • Bearings: 5 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right and left handed

Pros:

  • Fast gear ratio
  • Best for those who wear gloves all the time
  • Lightweight
  • Smooth action

Cons

  • If you don’t wear heavy gloves, it can feel weird

This is one of those products that makes you ask, why didn’t they think of this sooner? This is an ice-fishing specific reel that has built-in antifreeze in the lubricant for the internal workings of the reel. It works amazingly well for anglers who wear heavy gloves, as it does for those that don’t wear them all the time, too. It just takes a little getting used to. It is a fast retrieve reel and the 5+1 ball bearing drive is silky smooth. This is a great reel for anything from panfish to walleyes and more. It is my go-to cold weather reel.

Best for Walleye: Pflueger Trion Inline Reel

Best for Walleye

Pflueger Trion Inline Reel

Pflueger Trion Inline Reel

Why It Made the Cut: A smooth, lightweight inline reel that you’ll love fishing with.

Key Features: 

  • Weight: N/A
  • Gear Ratio: 5.0:1
  • Bearings: 3 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Left hand oriented

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Silky smooth action
  • Fast retrieve 

Cons

  • It has a left-hand orientation only

The Pflueger Trion reel is one of the first modern inline reels I had used, so it set the standard for me. It is a really nice reel that is very smooth. It has a free-spool trigger for dropping the line down the hole. I like to use it when a walleye grabs my minnow so I can let the fish run with the bait for a little bit before I set the hook. This reel has a fast retrieve being a 5.0:1 gear ratio, so getting the fish up is quick, or if you need to re-bait with a good bite going on underneath you.

Smooth Operator: Shimano Sedona 500 FI Spinning Reel

Smooth Operator

Shimano Sedona 500 FI Spinning Reel
SHIMANO

Shimano Sedona 500 FI Spinning Reel
SHIMANO

Why It Made the Cut: Not ice-specific, but still works extremely well.

Key Features: 

  • Weight: 6.3oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 5.6:1
  • Bearings: 3 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right and left handed

Pros:

  • Fast retrieve
  • Classic Shimano quality
  • Can be used as an ultra-light reel in the summer
  • Strong drag system

Cons:

  • Not winter specific
  • Heavier than some other options

Shimano doesn’t make a winter-specific spinning reel, but I have found the Sedona FI in the 500 size to be a truly great ice reel. I just added some Lucas Oil reel lubricant to it to help keep it from getting gummed up in the cold. What I really like about this reel is just how smooth it is. It feels like it has more bearings than it does, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Shimano reel. I run one in the winter months on a Fenwick rod, and then swap it over to a Fenwick ultralight for the summer.

Best on a Budget: 13 FISHING Thermo Ice Spinning Reel

Best on a Budget

13 FISHING Thermo Ice Spinning Reel 13 FISHING

13 FISHING Thermo Ice Spinning Reel 13 FISHING

Why It Made the Cut: Save some cash without sacrificing quality.

Key Features

  • Weight: 5.6oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 5.2:1
  • Bearings: 1 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right and left handed

Pros: 

  • Price
  • Quality and function is really good for the money
  • Great beginner reel

Cons:

  • A little clunky

I bought a couple of these reels last year. I use them as both back-up reels if something breaks on the one I started using, or as rod and reel combos for my kids to use. These reels are simple reels, but they have many of the features you’d find on reels costing more money. It has a comfort-grip handle that can be right- or left-hand drive and an aluminum spool on a graphite body. Most reels in this price range come with a plastic spool that never lasts. It has a 2-bearing drive system that works better than you’d expect.

 Sleeper Pick: KastKing Centron Spinning Reel

Sleeper Pick

KastKing Centron Spinning Reel KastKing

KastKing Centron Spinning Reel KastKing

Why It Made the Cut: Ten bearings for the price of one!

Key Features: 

  • Weight: 6.9oz.
  • Gear Ratio: 5.2:1
  • Bearings: 9 plus 1 anti-reverse
  • Drive: Right and left handed

Pros:

  • Price
  • 9+1 bearings
  • Quality for the money

Cons:

  • Bearings can freeze up in extreme cold

If you haven’t heard of KastKing reels yet, you are missing out. For the money, these are some of the better reels to be found, but not many retailers have them as of yet. This reel is an ultralight reel made for open water use, but it works very well on the hard water, too. My only concern is with the bearings freezing, which can be taken care of with proper lube. I call this my sleeper pick because it is a reel some may overlook, but those that do grab one will be very happy with it. You really are getting a lot of reel for the money.

How We Made Our Picks

The author is from northern Michigan and has been ice fishing for decades on water across much of North America, so he started this article from a position of experience having tested and reviewed many of the ice fishing gloves available while he searched for the perfect pair. What he realized is that there is no one perfect pair, but several that can be used to match the weather conditions and the style of fishing being done on that day.

We also took into account user reviews on consumer sites like Amazon, Cabela’s and more. These are important because we realize that not everyone uses equipment the same way we do. Not everyone fishes the same way as others, so picking the best reel is quite subjective. Pick the best features for you and how you fish, set your budget and start from there.

FAQs

Q: Can you use any reel for ice fishing?

Technically yes, you can use any reel for ice fishing, but there are some things to consider. Will the reel fit the rod you will be using? Most reels that aren’t ultralight reels are too big. You also need to look at how well the reel will handle the cold and ice.

Q: Are inline ice fishing reels worth it?

If you fish a lot and are into jig fishing, then you definitely want to try out fishing with an inline ice fishing rod. I like them for some live-bait presentations, too. There is a bit of a learning curve that goes along with using one, so if you’re just getting into ice fishing, they may not be the best option to start with.

Q: How do you put a line on an ice fishing reel?

You spool an ice fishing reel the same way you’d spool any reel, however, it is a smaller space. I like to use a small piece of waterproof friction tape to keep the line from spinning loosely on the spool. It is important to use waterproof tape to avoid that ice issue.

Q: How do you attach a reel to an ice rod?

It depends upon the rod and the rod handle when it comes to attaching the reel to an ice fishing rod. If the handle has a threaded clamp, then it is just the same as a regular rod. Some ice rods just have reel seats that slide freely on the handle. Friction is all that keeps the reel from moving, but there is an advantage in that you can often set where you want the reel to sit. Some anglers use a strip of tape, or even zip ties to keep the reel in place. Whatever works best for you.

Final Thoughts

Ice fishing is a great way to spend some time getting out of the house during the cold winter months. Having the best ice fishing reel you can get for your needs helps make the experience more enjoyable. Some anglers prefer it to fishing on open water, too. I know of one angler that had special holes cut into his nice boat, just so he could use his ice fishing gear during the summer months. He likes to ice fish that much. Get out on the ice and have fun this winter. It’s a great place to be.