Best Ice Fishing Reels: Hot Fishing in Cold Weather

Winter doesn’t mean the end of fishing season, especially if you live where the mercury really sinks and the ice thickens over lakes and rivers. While it takes some specialized gear, a bit of know-how, and a lot of tolerance for the cold, ice fishing is really heating up!

Crappie, perch, bluegill, and sunfish–the same species you catch in the summer–are still swimming and feeding below the ice, albeit much more sedately. Walleye, pike, and trout are there, too, just waiting for something tasty to flutter by. But that cold water lowers their energy levels, demanding expert presentation to entice a strike.

If you’re ready to tackle the challenge, you’ll need the right rod and reel. We’re here to help, and we know that it can be hard to get authoritative answers–backed by fact and experience–about exactly what works and what doesn’t.

To cut through the confusion, we’ve reviewed a number of excellent reels, explaining the criteria we used to select them.

Here’s a quick glance of our top picks

ImageReelType
13 Fishing Black Betty 6061Straight/Inline
Eagle Claw Ice ReelStraight/Inline
Shimano Sienna SN1000FESpinning Reel
Daiwa Crossfire CF500-3BiSpinning Reel
KastKing Centron 500Spinning Reel

The Most Important Considerations When Selecting a Reel for Ice Fishing

Ultra-light

To protect themselves from the cold, ice anglers often pursue their quarry from tents, huts, and other forms of cold-weather shelter. That protects them from the worst of the winter, but doesn’t give them much room to set hooks. Moreover, because they’re fishing through an augered hole in the ice, there’s no casting involved.

And because the fish have entered a state of near torpor in the frigid water, they won’t strike with the power and ferocity of summer. Anglers who want to turn these nibbles into successful hooks need the most sensitive rods they can get their hands on.

That’s why ice fishermen choose very short rods with ultra-light actions.

To match these rods, they run ultra-light reels and very light line. Anything else is just inefficient.

Spinning vs. Straight-Line Reels

If you take a peek into the fishing huts on your nearest lake this winter, you’ll find plenty of anglers who’ve just swapped rods, keeping their ultra-light spinning reels for both summer and winter. That makes sense, and plenty of people prefer the tried, true, and already-owned.

But another hot option is the new breed of straight-line reels–essentially fly fishing gear on steroids. As the tech has improved, this alternative has really heated up. But as experts caution, there are pros and cons to either choice. The option you choose is up to you, but know the difference!

Spinning Reels

Spinning Reels are generally the best option for live bait and deadstick fishing. Since their major disadvantage is line twist, unless you’re a dedicated jig angler, a spinning reel may be the best choice.

They generally feature much better drag systems than straight-line reels and work well across a variety of situations and seasons. They’re also easy to use, and virtually every angler is familiar with how they work. What’s not to like about that? But really high-end spinning reels can be super expensive, and the advantages they offer in casting and retrieval don’t pay off for ice fishing.

The spinning reels we’ve selected are modestly priced models that won’t break the bank while still delivering the performance you need.

straight-line ice reel with ultra-light rod

Straight-Line or In-Line Reels

Straight-Line or In-Line Reels have one real selling point: they’re the ultimate jigging machines. By dint of their design, the line leaves the spool straight, preventing twists and corkscrewing, which are especially troublesome issues when you fish with 2-pound test. When jigging, these problems translate into lures that spin faster than the best ice skaters, scaring, rather than attracting, fish.

Straight-line reels are also mechanically simple, leading to fewer problems in super-cold weather. And some people prefer the ‘pistol grip’ option they allow, as it reduces fatigue when you’re jigging all day.

The downside? They sport pretty basic drags and don’t offer the multi-season or situation versatility of their alternatives. They’re also a bit tricky to figure out if you’ve never used one before.

spinning reel explained for ice fishing

Baitcasting Reels

Baitcasting reels are commonly used in warm-weather conditions because of their smooth spooling and fantastic retrieving. Popular with everyone from bass fishermen to anglers chasing reds, they’ve proven their worth.

For ice fishing, they’re a fine choice, but the advantages they bring to the table–awesome casting and retrieving–don’t really shine when you’re dropping a lure or bait through a 10-inch hole. That said, they don’t twist line as badly as a spinning reel, and if you’re already running an ultra-light baitcasting reel in the summer, it’s worth a try through the ice, too.

Nonetheless, we can’t recommend baitcasting reels over the other available options, so we didn’t include any in our reviews.

Closed Face Reels

Popular for years, closed face models from companies like Zebco are an angling staple, and I don’t know a fisherman who’s never used one! Great as they are, though, they’re not designed for cold temps, and they’re likely to freeze when things get tough.

While awesome in warm weather, we can’t recommend these reels as a solid choice for ice fishing. That’s why none of them made our short list for review.

Sensitive Drag Systems

This is a critical component on a good ice fishing reel, especially for pike and walleye. Panfish can be caught without setting your drag, but for strong, heavy fish, you really need all the help you can get.

The ability to set the drag so that it’s light enough to give just a bit at the end of your hookset ensures that it won’t pull free during the fight. It also prevents it from being so light that it’s essentially useless. Properly set, it’ll be strong enough to help you muscle that bad boy in without tearing free or overstressing your line.

Variable drag with fine adjustments is the key, allowing you to match the setting to your line weight and the fish you’re angling for. Again, this is one place where spinning reels shine, and they generally feature advanced drag systems compared to straight-line alternatives.

  • Front Drag – These systems adjust on the front of the spool, offering a dial that loosens and tightens drag. It’s relatively easy to make fine adjustments this way, and cranking the drag to its maximum setting creates the greatest mechanical resistance that reel can manage. Whatever your drag setting, however, casting is unaffected.
    On spinning reels, front drag systems are usually better than rear-mounted alternatives. After all, drag affects the spool as the fish takes the line, so placing the drag there yields a smoother, stronger system.
  • Star Drag – Popular on baitcasting and straight-line reels, star systems provide a five-fingered wheel that adjusts the friction on the spool. On high-end baitcasting reels, costing hundreds of dollars, these can be very precise. On most ice fishing reels, by contrast, the tech’s not there yet, especially at the lower line weights where the drag needs to be very light and still smooth.
    On all systems of this design, if you keep cranking the drag, you increase pressure on the spool, affecting how easily it will spin, both when cranking and when spooling line.

As such, there’s no “maximum” setting. Dialing the drag all the way up will eventually stop the spool from spinning.

how to set drag

Anti-Reverse

In a few specialized freshwater applications, having your reel reverse is useful. For just about everything else, it’s a disaster, since it allows the spool to spin freely and doesn’t engage the drag.

Good ice fishing reels need anti-reverse systems.

Gear Ratio

Gear ratio describes the relative motion of the spool and handle. Where a 1:1 gear ratio means that one 360-degree turn of the handle spins the spool once, a 5.0:1 ratio means that each crank of the handle spins the spool five times.

Normally, gear ratio is something to be concerned about when you’re spending the day casting or fishing with lures that demand quick retrieval. But they matter for ice fishing, too, especially when you’re fishing in water deeper than 20 feet. In those situations, a 1:1 gear ratio is a recipe for a slow day’s fishing and a lot of frustration.

For ice fishing at depth, this matters. If you have 50 feet of line beneath you, and a 1:1 gear ratio, it’s going to take forever to retrieve it. While you don’t need the 7.0:1 gear ratios of the fastest baitcasting rods, a little more mechanical advantage is welcome.

The reels that made the cut with us offer more versatility than 1:1 designs.

Straight or In-line Reel Reviews

13 Fishing Black Betty 6061Our Pick!

Line Weights and Capacity (approximate): (mono) 2#/270 yards, 4#/190 yards, 6#/120 yards

Drag System: Star

Maximum Drag: N/A

Gear ratio: 2.7:1

13 Fishing’s Black Betty is the talk of the ice fishing community, and the general consensus is that this is the best straight-line reel available. We chose the 6061 as our model to review, and we think you’ll be as impressed as we were.

Machined from aluminum, the 6061 is plenty tough. It can hold more line for jigging than you’ll ever need, accommodating everything from 2-pound monofilament on up. And similar to the Eagle Claw, it too offers a free spool button to assist your jigs’ descents. We’re impressed by the bearings and smoothness of the spool–it’ll drop 1/32 ounce jigs with no trouble.

Like all of it’s kind, the large spool and in-line design eliminate line memory and twist.

The drag functions well, even with light line, though it’s not as smooth as comparable spinning reels. That said, if you’re a dedicated jig angler, you really can’t go wrong with this reel. Be warned, though, that it’s on the expensive end of similar products.

Pros:

  • Good gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Free spool button helps you drop jigs
  • Good drag

Cons:

  • Not cheap

 

Eagle Claw Ice Reel

Line Weights and Capacity: (mono) 2#/270 yards, 4#/190 yards, 6#/120 yards

Drag System: Star

Maximum Drag: N/A

Gear ratio: 2.6:1

Eagle Claw’s hooks are popular with anglers, and so are their ice fishing reels. Made from high-strength nylon, these budget-friendly reels offer the straight line spooling that prevents line twist. And unlike baitcasting and spinning reels with tiny spools, which force the line to twist tightly, the Eagle Claw–like all in-line reels–helps prevent line memory.

Its spool has more line capacity than you’ll ever need, given that this is a jigging machine. But for ice fishing, that’s not a problem. And with a gear ratio of 2.6:1, you won’t find deep fishing a chore.

This reel features a spool release to make dropping your jigs no more trouble than pressing a button. That’s a great feature, and we really appreciate it.

Unfortunately, the drag system suffers a bit, and with lighter weight line–think 2-pound test–it’s simply not smooth enough to be useful. Worse still, setting the drag toward the lighter end of the spectrum means that the spool is awfully loose. But if you tend to fish with 4-pound line or more, the Eagle Claw’s drag should be fine.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Good gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Free spool button helps you drop jigs

Cons:

  • Drag is hard to adjust for #2 test

Spinning Reel Reviews

Shimano Sienna SN1000FEOur Pick!

Line Weights and Capacity: (mono) 2#/270 yards, 4#/140 yards, 6#/110 yards

Drag System: Front

Maximum Drag: 9 lbs.

Gear ratio: 5.0:1

If you fish, you know the Shimano name. That says a lot, and I can’t count how many of their reels I’ve owned or seen on the water. The Sienna model we reviewed is a good choice if you’re looking for an all-arounder, want to use the same reel in more than one season, or like to deadstick through the ice.

The heart of the Sienna is a spool that can accommodate far more line than you’ll need for ice fishing. But this ultra-light reel is going to twist that line tightly around its tiny spool, creating corkscrews that will send your jig dancing. In that respect, you’ll either need to strip line by hand, unwinding it manually, or just switch to live bait.

With a 5.0:1 gear ratio, you can expect to have your lures or bait back to the ice in no time.

But what sells us on spinning reels for ice fishing is the drag, and the Shimano doesn’t disappoint. Incredibly smooth and adjustable through a wide range of weights, this reel simply outperforms the in-lines in this department. It’s also pretty inexpensive, which is always a plus.

If you’re not a dedicated jig angler, or you regularly fish with 2-pound line, this reel is worth a second look.

Pros:

  • Awesome gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Incredible drag system
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Line twist will be an issue when jigging

 

Daiwa Crossfire CF500-3Bi

Line Weights and Capacity: (mono) 2#/190 yards, 4#/100 yards, 6#/60 yards

Drag System: Front

Maximum Drag: 4.4 lbs.

Gear ratio: 4.9:1

Like its competitor Shimano, Daiwa is a giant in the angling world. We chose the Crossfire 500 for its ultra-light design and line weights, and if you think you might like to use the same reel during both summer and winter, or prefer live bait to jigs, this might be the reel for you. That said, we found the Sienna very hard to beat at this price point.

Daiwa’s reel is a solid, dependable choice, fitting more line than you’ll need at the lower weights. Like the Shimano, expect the line to remember the twists this spool forces it through. That’s just the nature of spinning reels, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Its gear ratio, 4.9:1, will seem like lightning as you retrieve your baits, and its front-mounted drag is acceptably smooth and easily adjustable.

Refinement is where we feel the Daiwa trails its competitors. That drag system simply isn’t as smooth as it should be, though it’s still better than the best of the straight-line reels. Here, again, spinning reels are probably the best option if you regularly fish with 2-pound test.

Pros:

  • Awesome gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Great drag system
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Line twist will be an issue when jigging
  • Drag isn’t as smooth as the Shimano Sierra

 

KastKing Centron 500

Line Weights and Capacity: (mono) 4#/240 yards, 6#/155 yards

Drag System: Front

Maximum Drag: 11 lbs.

Gear ratio: 5.2:1

KastKing’s reels have been making a splash in recent years, delivering high quality at a low price. The Centron 500 won’t disappoint, and in many respects, it feels like a reel that costs two to three times as much.

This reel is a lightweight, but it’s not as ultra-light as its competitors. That won’t stop you from loading its spool with 2-pound test, of course, so there’s no real worry there. And the KastKing’s larger spool has a practical advantage in that being slightly larger than the Shimano and Daiwa, it’ll force a touch less memory on the line. That won’t turn it into a jigging legend, however.

Like the other spinning reels, either switch techniques or strip line by hand–and even then, expect some twist to bedevil your jigs.

Of course, that’s not where the spinners shine. But the Centron 500 sports a front-mounted drag that’s far smoother than it’s cost might suggest. Easily adjustable for light line, the Shimano probably edges it out with 2-pound, but at the higher weights, that’s subject to debate.

Its gear ratio is high enough that deep fishing will be a pleasure.

Pros:

  • Awesome gear ratio for deep jigging
  • Great drag system
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Line twist will be an issue when jigging
  • Drag isn’t as smooth as the Shimano Sierra with 2-pound test

 

Our Picks – the 13 Fishing Black Betty 6061 and the Shimano Sienna SN1000FE!

Whether you choose the jigging mastery that a straight-line reel offers or the versatility and awesome drag options of a spinning reel, our two top contenders can deliver.

The Black Betty 6061 offers everything the dedicated jig angler wants: no line twist, easy deployment, a powerful gear ratio, and a solid drag. Built simple and tough, it can take the cold, and if you take care of it, it’ll take care of you. It’s simply better put together than its competitors, and offers better performance as a result. But it’s not cheap, and if that matters a lot to you, the Eagle Claw is a solid choice as long as you stay away from 2-pound test.

If a spinning reel is your thing, you deadstick, or you demand multi-season versatility, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better reel than the Sienna 1000FE. Inexpensive and impressive, its incredibly smooth drag is the star of the Shimano show. At this price point, there probably aren’t better reels, especially if you like to fish with really light line. But if you regularly drop bait for the big ones, KastKing’s Centron 500 is a great option, too.

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