Everything You Need To Know About Deadstick Ice Fishing

You’d be hard pressed to find an angler who hasn’t, at some point, employed the use of a deadstick on the ice.  Certainly, everyone loves to bounce from hole to hole jigging with the latest lures.  Yet, few tactics are as reliably successful as deadsticking on the ice.

Never heard of deadsticking?  Well, you’ve come to the right place.  For those uninitiated or those who just want to level up their deadsticking game, this article is for you.

Every ice angler should not only have a deadstick ice rod in their arsenal, they should know how to effectively use it too.  We’ll cover everything from the best deadstick rods to species specific setups.  By the end, you’ll be a deadsticking pro, so let’s get started!

What is deadstick ice fishing

Say “deadstick rod” to first time ice anglers and you’ll probably get a quizzical look in return.  It’s understandable.  It’s a weird term for a very common fishing tactic.  So, what is deadstick ice fishing anyway?

A deadstick, as it pertains to ice fishing, is a rod rigged with bait and left to sit stationary without any active jigging.  Deadstick rods often have soft noodle tips with a stout backbone so that a strike is easily detected without alarming fish.  Only when a fish bites, do you pick up the rod to firmly set the hook.

The key to successfully using a deadstick is ensuring that you let it sit undisturbed.  Most often, deadsticks are deployed as a second rod in a nearby ice hole.  Your primary rod is for active jigging.  

More often than not, a deadstick excels when fish are more finicky and won’t commit to striking jigs or spoons.  That’s why a combination of active jigging with a deadstick nearby is considered the classic, “one-two-punch.”  Jigging draws fish in but the more subtle deadstick with bait wins them over.

Can you use a deadstick for all species

We love using deadsticks almost all the time for one simple reason.  Not only does deadsticking work anywhere and anytime on the ice, it also works for almost any species of fish.

However, not all fish fall for a deadstick presentation as readily as some but for the most popular gamefish, a deadstick results in a pile of fish on the ice.  

For the following list of species, the right deadstick techniques are going to serve you well.

  • Walleye
  • Trout (tiger, brook, rainbow)
  • Lake trout
  • Crappie
  • Perch
  • Bluegill
  • Burbot
  • Pike

Some species however, are not as easily drawn in by a deadstick presentation and we do far better with active ice fishing tactics instead.  Keep in mind, that this is based on our experience.  Your experience may differ, so don’t be afraid to test it out anyway.  

Here are fish that are harder to catch with a deadstick.

  • Kokanee
  • Smallmouth bass
  • Largemouth bass
  • Whitefish

As you can see, many of the most popular species you’ll likely target through the ice are fair game for deadstick tactics.  Panfish, trout and walleye all fall prey to a well utilized deadstick setup and are the easiest to rig up for.  

Regardless of what species you plan to zero in on, always be willing to try a stationary bait setup that can entice several different species.  A plain hook or jig tipped with a small minnow, waxy or maggot appeals to a wide range of fish.

Best deadstick rods for any situation

For obvious reasons, the rod is the most crucial factor determining your deadsticking success.  Not just any rod will work well as a deadstick ice rod.  Deadsticks fished by avid ice anglers all have standard features in common.

Generally, a great deadstick rod is made of fiberglass and combines a flexible noodle tip with a firm backbone.  The soft tip lets you see when a fish takes your bait without the fish feeling any resistance.  The stout backbone then lets you set the hook with force and provides power needed to bring the fish up through the hole.

Everyone has their own specific opinion as to what makes an ideal deadstick.  If you have no such preference, start with a fiberglass noodle style rod in the 30 to 39 inch range.  Usually, ice anglers prefer a longer deadstick rod than is typical for a jigging rod. 

In addition, a light to medium light power rod is sufficient for most species.  Opt for a medium to heavy power fiberglass rod for lake trout, pike and other big game species.

In summary, start with a 30 to 39 inch L to ML fiberglass rod with a noodle tip and some decent backbone.  If you can, get one with a Hi-Vis tip to make seeing a strike even easier.

In case you want some specific recommendations, here are 3 excellent deadstick rod options for just about any situation on the ice.

1. Beaver Dam 32” Glass Noodle – Unbeatable budget deadstick

At only $15, the Beaver Dam Glass Noodle is truly unbeatable for any angler wanting a quality deadstick.  The ultralight fiberglass blank is suitable for stocked trout, light walleye and especially panfish.  Get one of these and you won’t be disappointed.  A similar rod to consider is the 32” ultralight HT Ice Blue Pro, but they are often out of stock which is why we opt for the Beaver Dam Glass Noodle.

2.  Thorne Brothers Custom Deadstick – The best in custom rods 

When it comes to custom ice rods, Thorne Brothers is a big player.  And for good reason.  We’ve used their rods on the ice and you can tell the difference in quality and feel.  The only question you need to ask yourself is if it’s worth the custom price.  At well over $130, Thorne Bros custom deadsticks are tough for most to justify.  Yet, they may be the best deadstick rod you’ll ever own.

3.  Frostbite USA Fiberglass Drench – Our top pick for deadstick rods

Frostbite rods are fast becoming a powerhouse on the ice.  Not everyone wants to pay for custom rods but many of us would rather not settle for the cheapest rods either. Frostbite’s Twilight series rods sit squarely in the middle.  We particularly love their Drench and Dipstick rods.  These 39” medium light and light fiberglass rods are awesome multi-species deadstick rods.  Be sure to check out our full on the ice review of Frostbite rods before you decide.

How to use a deadstick like a pro

Setting up and using a deadstick on the ice is probably the easiest skill to master.  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to mess up.  If you want to give your deadstick rod the best chance at success, learn from our mistakes and follow this simple deadstick ice fishing formula.

Step 1:

Choose the right rod and bait setup for the species you are after.  You can hardly go wrong with a quality fiberglass rod that’s at least 30 inches in length.  Just make sure it has a sensitive and flexible tip with a sturdy backbone.  And size it right for the species you intend to catch. 

For bait, worms of any kind are generally better for panfish and stocked trout while minnows excel at catching bigger predators like walleye and lake trout.  Either way, use the deadstick bait that makes the most sense for your specific situation.

Step 2:

Deploy your deadstick rod and bait in the right spot.  There are two parts to this point.  First, you need to drill a second hole if a deadstick is your second rod.  Don’t put it too close to where you are jigging but not so far away that you can’t grab it quickly if a fish bites.  Typically, 3 to 4 feet from your primary hole is best.  

Next, think about the depth you need to place your bait.  For fish like perch, walleye and lake trout, suspend the bait a foot or so off the bottom.  For suspended fish like trout and crappie, set your deadstick rig just above their feeding zone.  A flasher or fish finder is key to helping determine the right zone.

Step 3:

Put your deadstick rod in a secure rod holder.  This is critical.  Avoid just laying your rod on a bucket and definitely don’t lay your rod on the ice without securing it.  A big enough fish will yank your rod right into the drink if you aren’t paying attention.  Plus, laying your rod on the ice inhibits the bend of the rod from doing its job.

Take a look below to see our recommended deadstick rod holders that won’t let you down.

Step 4: 

Leave your deadstick rod alone.  When you are marking fish on the flasher, let your deadstick rod soak without interference.  Resist the urge to jig it or fiddle with it in any way.  Let the live bait do its job.  If your jigging rod and deadstick rod are being ignored, then feel free to check it and reassess. 

Step 5:

Watch for bites and time your hook sets.  The advantage of a deadstick lies in its ability to improve bite detection.  That super soft tip not only lets you see the action of a live minnow, it allows you to see a bite the instant a fish takes your bait.  

A good deadstick rod with a deep flex then allows you to let the fish take a swallow before setting the hook.  A key skill with deadsticking is resisting the urge to set the hook at the slightest bump.  Give fish a moment or two to load up on the bait and then give your rod a smooth hook set.      

What bait do you use on a deadstick

Since the basic premise of deadsticking is based on a stationary bait presentation, certain baits just work better than others.  Very few ice anglers deadstick with spoons or rattle baits.  That simply isn’t what those lures are designed for and fish seldom fall for that rouse.

Instead, ideal baits for deadstick rigs are natural or live baits.  Maggots, mealworms, wax worms, nightcrawlers, and live or dead minnows are among the best.  Use any of these baits on a small tungsten jig or with a hook and weight setup and you are good to go.

While I generally avoid lures designed for active jigging on my deadstick, that’s not to say that all artificial lures won’t work.  For example, small soft plastics like Clam Makis or Little Atom Nuggies work great for panfish and stocked trout on a deadstick.  Blob flies or scud flies are another great artificial deadstick bait that fools even the wariest of trout.

Really, there are no rules about what can and can’t be fished using a deadstick presentation.  The overarching rule is, that with whatever bait you choose, it should be left to soak undisturbed.  Hence, that is why wiggly, live bait is often superior to lures on a deadstick rod.

How to hook a minnow for deadsticking

A live minnow is one of the best baits you’ll ever use out on hard-water.  Nothing beats the natural presentation, scent and the irresistible movements of minnows for predatory eaters like walleye and crappie.  

Yet, taking advantage of what live minnows offer in terms of fish catching power on a deadstick means knowing how to hook a minnow the right way.  

Obviously, there is more than one way to hook a minnow for ice fishing.  In fact, take a peek at our post where we show you just about every way to hook a minnow right to catch more fish through the ice.

However, on a deadstick rod, live minnows are primarily hooked up one way.  Since you fish vertically through the ice with a stationary deadstick, you should hook a live minnow just below the dorsal fin with the hook point towards the head.  Hooking a minnow in this way lets it move freely and naturally while also positioning the hook in the best spot for a solid hook up.

Now that may be the best way to hook a live minnow on a deadstick rod but dead minnows can be hooked up in several ways.  Quick strike rigs are one such way to make use of a deadstick rod for walleye, lake trout, and pike.

Rod holders for your deadstick

When we first started leaning heavily on deadsticks out on the ice, we made all the classic mistakes that cost us plenty of fish.  And very nearly a rod or two.  That’s when we figured out the importance of rod holders.

The function of a deadstick rod requires a hands-off approach, which obviously means the rod is out of your immediate control.  If you are not paying attention when a fish bites, you may loose your rod down the hole.

Therefore, a rod holder is a must.  Resist the urge to simply lay your rod on the ice or on a bucket in any way that isn’t secure.  It’s not worth the risk.  Ice fishing rod holders work great and cost only a few bucks.  

Here are three of our favorite ice fishing rod holders.  All are well worth having on hand for anyone serious about deadstick ice fishing.

1.  Clam Rod Rocker 2 – Our top pick

The clam rod rocker is our absolute favorite rod holder for a deadstick.  It requires a bucket to securely attach to (or if you are creative, the side of your ice fishing sled).  We love this rod holder because it makes a bite so obvious.  Typically, you rely on seeing the bend of the soft noodle tip when fish bite.  With a Rod Rocker, the entire rod tips down when fish bite.  That extra sweep of the rod gives you more time to respond and less chance for fish to detect any pressure and spit the hook.

2.  Scheels Outfitters Rod Holder – Ideal for any deadstick

Scheels ice rod holders are simple and superbly functional.  This one also needs to attach to a bucket but it is compact and does exactly what it is designed to do.  It also lets your deadstick rod do its job.  While the Rod Rocker is great, you may want your noodle rod to load up when a fish bites.  Sometimes this actually helps keep the hook lightly pinned in a fish’s mouth.  For that, nothing beats the Scheels Outfitters Bucket Rod Holder.

3.  HT Lift N’ Hook – Best self supported rod holder

A bucket won’t always be the most convenient place to attach a rod holder.  When we need an ice rod holder that is self supported, we opt for the HT Lift N’ Hook.  Its collapsable design and sturdy configuration makes it ideal for setting up a deadstick anywhere on the ice without worrying about loosing a rod down the hole.  There are similar style rod holders that sit on the ice but the HT Lift N’ Hook folds up and fits in a bucket, so it’s our favorite.

When should you use a deadstick on the ice

Deadsticking is indeed a “deadly” hard-water tactic for many types of fish.  Yet, you still should not assume that it is always the best strategy to start with.  We often use a deadstick as our second rod by default but sometimes we give it up when it doesn’t produce results.

You can use a deadstick all season long.  However, the best time to take advantage of a deadstick setup is when fish activity slows down.  Normally, this occurs when temperatures are the coldest, January through February.  Fish feed less voraciously in subzero temperatures and are more hesitant to strike an active jigging presentation.  When this happens, a stationary bait presentation on your deadstick will probably out fish your jigging rod.

You also may want to forego a deadstick rod if you need to be on the move.  When you’re tracking down schools of perch or zeroing in on cruising walleye, it is not the time to break out your deadstick.  Hole hopping and drawing in fish with a baited jig or flashy spoon is often more productive and informative.

Even with that in mind, don’t discount the power of deadsticking just because you doubt the timing.  Like I mentioned earlier, a deadstick is our default tactic for a second rod.  It is easy to deploy, it helps you determine what mood the fish are in and it works more often than not.

One last thing

There are lots of ways to catch fish through the ice but few match the success of a well executed deadstick technique.  Next time you’re on the ice, be sure to try it out.

Want to learn more about ice fishing rods and techniques that make the most of the gear you already have?  Then check out a few of our most helpful articles that are sure to boost your catch rates on the ice this season.

Recommended Reading:

Best Ice Fishing Rods Worth Buying

Fiberglass vs. Graphite: Which Is Best

Frostbite Ice Fishing Rods: Full Review

Everything You Need To Know About Noodle Rods

Inline vs. Spinning Reels