Choosing The Best Ice Fishing Reels
I'll give you my list of the 6 best ice fishing reels on the market for winter 2019-2020. Don't spend your money on a new reel before checking out my reviews.
Ice fishing takes place in some pretty harsh environments. Gear takes a beating out on the ice, and I really value durability in my reels. In order for me to consider it as one of the best, an ice fishing reel must first meet this requirement, and prove to me that its tough.
I also look for features that are particularly useful to ice fisherman. For this reason, I tend to prefer reels that are specifically designed for the purpose of ice fishing.
There are two main types of ice fishing reel - typical spinning style, with a flip up bail, and inline. I use both types, according to the circumstances.
First, lets briefly figure out how we distinguish between inline and spinning reels.
Essentially, the main distinction is the orientation of the spool, and the direction that the line comes off of it.
With an inline reel, the spool is inline and lateral with the rod and its guides. The spool on a spinning reel is upright and vertically aligned with the rod.
On an inline reel, the line leaves the spool in a direct, straight path, and the line on a spinning reel comes off the spool head first, opposite the rod, and then is turned at the bail, before passing along through the guides of the rod.
Each reel has it's strengths and its weaknesses, and there are appropriate times to use each one. When panfishing, especially in 25 feet of water or less, I much prefer to use an inline reel.
Targeting panfish through the ice often calls for very fine line, such as 2, 3 or 4lb test. Lines that are this light can be problematic when used on a spinning reel. This is because the way spinning reels retrieve is very conducive to creating twists in line. The lighter the line, the worse this twist will be.
Twisted line is undesirable for 2 reasons - first, its more likely to knot, tangle and jam the reel, and secondly, the line twist will spin the jig, giving it an unnatural presentation to the fish. Inline reels eliminate this issue, and so I definitely prefer them when working with light line.
Another issue is freeze ups. Spinning reels are more prone to having problems in below freezing temps. When the reels get wet, they can freeze and seize up. They then need to be thawed out before you can resume fishing. While inline reels are certainly not immune, they do seem to be noticeably less susceptible to freeze ups. And when they do freeze, they can usually be thawed out a bit quicker than spin reels can.
When I'm targetting larger fish, in deeper water, and using line heavier than 4lb test, I mostly use spinning reels. The heavier line is less prone to being twisted, and I find the traditional grip of a spinning reel to be preferable when setting the hook on larger fish. This is opposed to the "pistol grip" used with inline reels.
Also, many inline reels on the market have lower gear ratios than spinning ones, which means that as you reel in, you'll have to crank the handle more to pick up the line. This can make retrieval in deep water more time consuming, especially when fighting a fish. That's why I mainly use inline reels when fishing in 30 feet of water or less. Most spinning reels on the other hand, are capable of turning a spool 5 or more times for each crank of the handle. This allows you to retrieve line at a much faster rate.
Top 6 Best Ice Fishing Reels of 2019
Below, I've made a list of what I believe to be the best ice fishing reels on the market. The list is structured by category - inline and spinning reels.
The Best Ice Fishing Reels: Inline
13 Fishing, Descent Ice Reel
Over the last few years there's been a movement in the ice fishing community. More and more frequently, fisherman have been deciding to utilize inline reels. At the forefront of this movement you'll find the company, 13 Fishing. They make the best inline ice fishing reels on the market. All of their reels are great, but some are more premium than others. The Descent ice reel is 13 Fishing's most economical inline option.
The Descent reel is sleek and handsome. But its also so much more.
First, the build quality is really great. It's got a light, yet strong graphite composition that won't overpower any of your rods. The reel is available in both left and right handed retrieval models. It's also got an aluminum crank and an excellent star drag system to help you wear down hard fighting fish. The Descent utilizes a stainless steel ball-bearing system which makes its operation exceedingly smooth.
The reel has a cool feature that allows you to control the drop speed of the bait, making it easier to place it exactly where you want it in the water column.
I also like the setting for an audible alarm, which is particularly useful when dead-sticking. You'll be alerted when a fish picks up your bait and begins to move with it.
This reel has a 2.7:1 gear ratio, which makes line retrieval a bit more speedy than it is with a traditional inline reel.
The Descent looks nice, is priced cheap, and works great. You won't be able to find better quality for the price. Its certainly one of the best ice fishing reels.
You can order the Descent ice reel here.
13 Fishing, Black Betty Freefall Ice Reel
If you're looking for the absolute best ice fishing reel, you've found it. Is it the most expensive ice fishing reel? Probably. Is it worth the price? Without a doubt. In case you don't already know, the Black Betty Freefall is easily the best ice fishing reel on the market. A highly durable reel, weighing only 6.6 oz, and packed with innovative, cutting edge features.
I bought this reel last winter, and after 3 months of heavy use, my sole complaint was that I only had gotten one. My father tried it out, and he completely fell in love with it. When his birthday rolled around I knew exactly what to get him. Anyone who fishes with it becomes completely spoiled, and will never want to use another reel. That's how great this thing is.
The build is premium - tough and light airfoil carbon frame, aluminum handles, and a carbon disc drag system. Operating this reel feels silky smooth.
It's freefall feature, which its named after, is a real game changer. You can easily place your jig at the exact right depth to catch suspended fish that you've pinpointed on your flasher or fish finder. Simply hold down the line drop trigger, watch your flasher, and just as your lure reaches the desired depth, release the trigger. This reel has a 2.5:1 gear ratio, so like other inline reels not optimal for use in very deep water.
Another aspect of this reel that can't be overlooked it's instant anti-reverse. This is a feature that I always look for before I consider a reel as one of the best ice fishing reels.
Many reels typically use a multi-stop anti-reverse which rely on a series of teeth to grasp each other. But this system has a real shortcoming. When setting the hook, the gaps between these stoppers enable the reel to backspin until the nearest tooth becomes engaged. This isn't optimal, as even the slightest backspin can put enough slack in the line to cause missed hook sets.
The Freefall's instant anti-reverse, on the other hand, utilizes a roller bearing, which immediately locks the spool in place, and prevents any back spin.
The instant anti-reverse, combined with the freefall trigger feature, make this reel an absolutely lethal fish hooking machine. Yes, its more expensive than other reels, but when you buy it, you're getting a top of the line, premium product. Its truly leaps and bounds ahead of it's competitors, and is undoubtedly the single best inline ice fishing reel.
The awesome Black Betty Freefall reel can be ordered here.
13 Fishing, Black Betty Freefall Ghost Ice Reel
If you're interested in the Freefall, but don't really want to spend the money, there's another option for you. The reel has a second tier little brother called the Black Betty Freefall Ghost. The Ghost retains most of the same functionality of the original, but without the ultra premium build quality. Its also roughly half the price.
This reel is built with a composite graphite frame, but it has the same features as the high-end version, such as the freefall trigger and instant anti-reverse. It's even got the drop speed control dial to make it even easier to accurately put the jig exactly where you want it. Also the same, is it's 2.5:1 gear ratio.
Operationally the reel feels just as smooth as its big brother. It's got soft grip handle knobs, which I really like. While the BBF Ghost definitely isn't as sophisticated looking as its premium sibling, its certainly not ugly by any means. Its also built very solidly, and seems to be pretty durable.
If you want a high quality, mid-priced inline reel, the Freefall Ghost might be for you. It's combination of features, and the low price makes it one of the very best inline ice fishing reels.
The Best Ice Fishing Reels: Spinning
Now, so far we've discussed the best inline ice fishing reels. However, as great as they are, inline reels aren't always the right option for all circumstances. There's a time and a place for everything. So, lets talk about spinning reels...
Abu Garcia, Ice Max Spinning Reel
For deeper water, and larger fish, the Abu Garcia Ice Max is certainly one of the best ice fishing reels. Its not just a spin reel that can be used for ice fishing. Its a spin reel designed for ice fishing, and is very reasonably priced.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, I strongly value durability in my ice gear, and this reel certainly fits the bill. The thick, heavy duty Everlast bail wire can withstand the type of abuse ice fishing gear is prone to recieving. An oversized, aluminum spool decreases line twisting.
The reel stem is extra long to accommodate gloved hands, and the inner gears are coated with a special, cold resistant lubricant to keep it spinning smoothly on even the most frigid days. The body and rotor are composed of lightweight graphite so it won't weigh down your rod.
The handle is collapsible, but doesn't need to be untightened to do so. Its simply one touch to collapse. This reel also features an instant anti-reverse system to ensure better hook ups.
The Ice Max has a gear ratio of 5.2:1. So, that means the spools rotates 5.2 times for every full turn of the handle. I especially like this reel for walleye and trout, but its not too overpowering for large panfish.
The Ice Max definitely belongs in the list of the best ice fishing reels. Especially, since its well built, and so economical.
Pflueger, Monarch Ice Reel
The Pflueger Monarch is another really good spinning reel. And, its another spinning reel designed specifically for ice fishing.
The Monarch is constructed of lightweight graphite and has a thick, heavy duty aluminum bail wire to handle the harsh conditions on the ice. It has a gear ratio of 4.2:1. Its a pretty versatile reel - light enough for panfish, but strong enough for bass, walleye, and trout.
Now, I'm aware that lot of fisherman use Pflueger President reels on their ice rods. However, most ice rods are meant to be light and very sensitive, so I find those reels to be too large and heavy for most of my ice fishing purposes. I really think that the Monarch is the best size for a spinning ice fishing reel. Another positive factor - the Monarch is roughly half the price of the President reels.
It also has pretty smooth drag, and the all important instant anti-reverse.
If you're interested, you can order the Pflueger Monarch here.
Clam, 8480 Jason Mitchell Ice Fishing Reel
You can't go wrong with a Jason Mitchell and Clam collaboration. Jason takes ice fishing, and ice fishing gear seriously. He vigorously puts his gear to the test out on the hard water before it goes to market. He designed this reel himself to be tough and efficient on the ice, but also affordable. This is a spinning reel designed for ice fisherman, by an ice fisherman.
The reel's features include a 5 + 1 ball bearing system, infinite anti-reverse (a term Clam uses to refer to instant anti-reverse), a one touch, push button flip down handle, a 5.2:1 gear ratio, a large capacity spool that can hold a lot of line, as well as a smooth and strong front drag system.
I've got this reel paired with a Fenwick Elite Tech light rod, and use it as my deep water perch outfit. I think its a really versatile, dependable, and well built ice reel.
The Clam Jason Mitchell ice reel can be ordered here. You really can't beat the quality at the price point. Its clearly one of the best ice fishing reels currently available.