Can You Use a Regular Rod for Ice Fishing

Winter is on its way and with frigid temperatures comes the best part of the season, ice fishing.  It’s time to break out the ice fishing gear, sharpen the auger blades and hit the ice.  

If you are new to ice fishing then you may be wondering what gear you need to be successful.  One of the most common questions I get asked is what kind of fishing rod to use.

Most of us envision an angler with a pint-sized rod and reel huddled over the top of an ice hole.  But do you really need one of those little ice fishing poles?  There is more to an ice rod than meets the eye.  Keep reading to get the full scoop.  

Can you use a regular rod for ice fishing?  The simple answer is yes.  There is no reason a regular sized fishing pole won’t work for ice fishing.  You would not be the first person to catch fish while ice fishing with a regular pole.  However, a rod and reel designed for ice fishing has important advantages that will definitely up your game.  

Using a regular rod for ice fishing

My first ice fishing trip was with a 6 foot, open water rod.  I was not willing to shell out the money for ice fishing specific gear before I knew if I would enjoy it.  And guess what?  I caught fish.  

You may be having similar thoughts.  I highly encourage you to try ice fishing with a regular rod first.  Mainly because it gives you some idea as to why an ice fishing rod is a worthy investment, especially if you plan to ice fish frequently.

If you are ready to ice fish and all you have is a regular 5 to 7 foot fishing pole, here are a few pointers to success.

  • Use light line and pick your shortest, most sensitive rod.  Detecting bites through the ice is more difficult than in open water.  The fish are often more docile and they can spit your bait with barely a twitch of your rod tip.  
  • When fighting a fish, be mindful of the edge of the hole.  It is difficult to control a fighting fish while standing 6 feet away from a 8 inch hole.  It will take extra effort to keep your line from getting cut on the sharp ice.
  • Try dead sticking with a regular rod instead of active jigging.  Ice fishing involves a lot of vertical jigging with small lures or jigs.  A subtle approach is usually key to getting hookups.  You may find that this style of finesse is difficult with a long rod.  One solution is to dead stick with live bait.  This way the rod stays stationary and you can more easily see bites register on your rod tip.     

Just like conventional angling in the spring and summer, ice fishing with a regular rod requires time to learn the limitations of your gear.  Once you reach that point, you are probably ready to try out specialized ice fishing gear.

What’s special about an ice rod

You have decided that ice fishing is right for you and are ready to up your game.  It’s important to know what makes an ice rod special.  Below, I listed out the key advantages that boost your catch rate with an ice fishing rod.

Ice fishing rods are shorter than regular rods.  

Most ice rods range from 18 to 48 inches in length.  Open water rods are stouter and longer because you need to cast a heavy lure toward your target.  With ice fishing, you only fish directly below.  Therefore, it is more important to be close to your hole.

The benefit of a short ice rod is most obvious when fishing from an ice shack, pop-up tent or other shelter.  The cramped space inside the shelter is not conducive to using a conventional rod.  A pole less than 48 inches makes maneuvering around and fighting fish more practical. 

Ice rods are built with extra sensitivity.  

Winter time temperatures cause cold-blooded fish to be more sluggish.  Their lure strikes are subtle.  Ice fishing rods include an extra sensitive tip to help you detect those bites.  

Some rods even come with a brightly colored tip or a special extension called a “spring bobber.”  More sensitivity means more hooked fish and fewer missed bites.  Line sensitivity is also important and we will discuss that a bit later.

Fighting fish is easier with an ice fishing rod.

Fighting fish through a small hole in the ice is all together different than fighting a fish in open water.  In open water, you can let the fish swim in any direction and play it out.  Whereas, when fighting above the ice, it is critical to avoid letting your line get dragged along the edge of the ice hole.  

I have had my fair share of cut line due to sharp ice until I learned to properly fight a fish with a short ice fishing rod.  

Keep in mind that fish are not usually as vigorous in the winter, but they do still put up a fight.  When a fish gets close to the hole, they usually find a new source of energy and run like crazy parallel to the underside of the ice.  This is when line gets cut.  However, you can avoid it by dipping the tip of your pole into the hole (assuming the ice is not too thick).  Now your line is below the ice edge and you can actually control the direction of the fish.  This tactic is especially useful when using light leaders or main line.

What size ice fishing rod should I use

Just like any other type of fishing, you need to tailor your gear towards the species of fish you are after.  Ice rods range in length from 18 to 48 inches and span the spectrum from ultralight to heavy weight power.  

If you’re after panfish like bluegill, crappie and perch then an 18 to 24 inch ultralight rod is perfect.  You will have the sensitivity for delicate bites from small fish and the fun of fighting them on an ultralight rod.  

When your target fish is giant lake trout, a longer rod with more backbone evens out the playing field.  Something from 36 to 48 inches with a medium to heavy power comes in handy if you get a real trophy on the end of your line.  

Most anglers who simply want a good all-around ice fishing rod that works for panfish, trout and walleye should use a medium-light rod in the 28 to 34 inch range.    

A medium-light rod gives all the sensitivity you need, especially if you use a spring bobber, while also giving enough strength to hoist larger fish through the ice.  It is also universally good at fishing different baits and lures.  Everything from small tungsten jigs to Acme Hyper Rattles are easily fished with a medium-light rod in the 30 inch range.

Do you need special ice fishing reels and line too

There is nothing particularly special about the reel or line you choose for ice fishing.  Although, most ice anglers do elect to have a dedicated set of reels and line for it.  

Any conventional reel will work for ice fishing.  It is important however, to match it to the type of fishing you plan on doing.  Since you are not casting, an ultralight spinning reel is ideal for most species like walleye and panfish.  Scale up your gear if you have bigger fish in your sights.

One of the important things to note is that reel grease can get “sticky” in extreme cold.  Some people opt to remove the factory grease and apply a low viscosity grease like Quantum Hot Sauce Reel Grease.  

Personally, I have not had any issues with the factory grease where I fish in the winter.

Ask any group of ice anglers what line to use and each person will have a different answer.  Line manufacturers produce ice fishing specific line that functions better in sub-zero temperatures.  

I like using ice specific line and I find it does make it easier to fish in the cold.  There are many types of line available and I encourage you to do some research when selecting your line.  For the walleye addicts among us, check out my article on the best ice fishing lines for walleye.

If you decide to use an ice fishing specific line, it is good to also have a reel dedicated for ice fishing.  That way you can keep it spooled up with the right line without needing to constantly re-spool each season.

Are ice fishing rods expensive

Like all other equipment we like buying for our hobbies, ice fishing rods run the gamut from cheap combos at Walmart to pricy custom rods online.  The choice is really up to you and your needs.

Ice fishing combos with a rod and reel cost about $50 for a decent setup.  To get a good quality ice rod from reputable brands like St. Croix or 13 Fishing, you can expect to cough up $60 to a $130 for the rod only.  

Add in a decent reel and a good ice line for another $60 to $80.  The cost does get a bit steep for the average ice angler.

A reasonable budget might be around $100 for a good all around ice fishing setup.  My choice would be the 28”, medium-light, St.Croix Mojo Ice rod paired with a Pflueger President reel.  A good line choice as icing on the cake is 6 pound PowerPro Ice.

There are few fish you could not conquer under the ice with that set up.

Final thoughts

When you want to go ice fishing this winter and all you have is a regular fishing rod, don’t let that stop you.  You will still catch fish and have a blast doing it.  

Once you are ready to get serious about ice fishing, it is time to graduate to the pint-sized ice fishing rods that are indeed mightier than they appear.  It won’t take long before you see that the features of an ice fishing rod are designed to help you catch more fish.  

Want to get the most out of your ice fishing season? Check out our Washington State Ice Fishing Secrets book. Our book highlights the 10 best lakes for ice fishing in Washington State with actual coordinates to some of our most productive holes. Plus, we thoroughly cover everything from gear selection, tactics and travel planning. To top it off, you also get information on 41 other lakes with superb ice fishing! Check it out before ice fishing season passes you by!