Inline vs Spinning Reels: Pick The Best For Ice Fishing

Ice fishing season is upon us.  It’s time to sort through your tackle, stash up on bait and upgrade your gear.  This winter, getting a high quality reel is one of the most important upgrades you can make.

For decades, spinning reels have been the main stay for ice anglers and for good reason.  They are versatile, dependable and fairly inexpensive.  However, spinning reels aren’t the only game in town.

Avid ice anglers are now eyeing inline reels.  For some, an inline reel solves all the problems they have with spinning reels.  More and more people are using inline reels on their primary ice fishing rod with a spinning outfit as back up.

However, before you jump on the inline band wagon, keep in mind that they have their own set of disadvantages alongside the benefits.  Picking the best reel for ice fishing is no easy task.  That’s why the rest of this article is here to help you decide.  Let’s get started.

What is an inline fishing reel

At some point, you’ll probably see an inline reel on someone’s ice rod this winter.  They look a little odd when you are used to seeing spinning reels but they are not nearly as strange as they appear.  In fact, they have more in common with a fly reel than they do a spinning reel.

Inline reels really show their stuff when it comes to managing line twist.  Fishing line feeds into the reel “in line” which means it lays flat on the spool.  This allows you to drop your bait vertically without slack in the line while also preventing the dreaded jig spin.  

A spinning reel on the other hand forces the line to take a 90 degree turn through the bail onto the spool which inherently adds twist in the line.

Inline fishing reels are designed specifically with ice anglers in mind.  Therefore, they have minimal open water utility.  

Panfish anglers are especially fond of inline reels.  Although, anyone looking to put together a finesse walleye or trout setup should also consider adding an inline reel to their inventory.  

Inline reels pros and cons

There is a lot of good things to be said about inline reels but don’t stop reading yet.  Inlines have their fair share of quirks that spinning reels do not.  The basic pros and cons list should help illuminate some key features of inline reels.

Inline reel pros

  • Reduced line memory:  As I alluded to earlier, line twist is much more manageable on inline reels than with spinning reels.  The argument is that excessive jig spin is reduced which translates to more bites with panfish.  I can’t say I have noticed a huge difference in the number of bites as opposed to spinning reels but sometimes you’ve got to trust the pros.
  • Lure drop:  You have two options to drop your lure through the ice with a spinning reel.  Either you hand pull line out or open the bail and flick the rod tip.  In both cases, slack is introduced in the line.  That’s a problem when fish strike on the drop.  By the time you notice, you’ve missed your chance.  With inline reels, the free spool system gives you a nice steady drop all the way down without slack.
  • Freeze up:  No reel is immune from freezing in the elements.  However, inline reels suffer far less than spinning reels.  Line icing may occasionally cause sticking when trying to drop baits with an inline.  Yet, a few seconds next to your heater or a couple warm breaths are enough to get it working smoothly.  Spinning reels have multiple freeze points around the bail that might lead to ineffective drag or line failure.  Thawing a spinning reel takes more time.

Inline reel cons

  • Not for big fish:  Unfortunately, inline reels are relegated to the panfish spectrum of ice fishing.  The achilles heel for inlines is the sub-par drag system.  New models like the 13 Fishing Freefall have improved drag systems but they still pale in comparison to the superior big fish handling drag on spinning reels.  For right now, trophy pike and lakers are off limits for inlines. 
  • Not user friendly:  It takes a bit to get comfortable using an inline reel on the ice.  The adjustments are finicky and tough to manage on the fly for inexperienced ice anglers.  If you are already used to working a spinning reel, switching to an inline might be more frustration than it’s worth.
  • Slow retrieval:  By design, inline reels have much lower retrieve ratios.  For some, it’s even 1:1.  That equates to one rotation of the spool for each full turn on the reel handle.  More inline manufacturers have now stepped up the ratios to 2:1 or 3:1 but it still falls short of the average spinning reel with a 5,6 or 7:1 ratio.  It’s nice to have a boost in retrieval speed when a fired up fish makes a big run straight at you.  Lose the tension and fish throw the hook.
  • Versatility:  Inline reelsstruggle with big fish and they are of little use in open water.  On top of that, they are best suited for shallow depths.  That sounds pretty limited to me.  A spinning reel is far more versatile for all gamefish on the ice and in open water.  Inlines are also not ambidextrous like spinning reels and must be purchased as either left or right handed models.
  • Costly:  When it comes to inlines, quality matters.  Which means for a panfish setup, the $100 plus price tag is a bit steep for all but the most dedicated panfish gurus.  Sure, there are loads of spinning reels that cost well over $150.  Yet, there are even more fine quality spinning reels under $75.

When is a spinning reel better for ice fishing

Well, here is the obvious answer.  Spinning reels are better for everything but fishing  for shallow water panfish with light tackle.  It is still pretty hard to surpass the functionality of a spinning reel.  Inline reels certainly deliver better presentations with small baits but their powers stop there.

I’m sure some anglers would disagree and I am not saying inline reels don’t have a place.  But, for the bulk of your average ice anglers, the benefits of inline reels fall short.  

For everything an inline reel can do, a spinning reel can do also and then some.  Spinning reels have superior drag, are more user friendly and have open water versatility.  So it stands to reason that most of us getting on the ice for the first time should start with a spinning reel.

By all means, give an inline reel a try.  It’s one of those deals where you either love it or hate it and you just have to try it out to find where you stand.  Remember, if you decide to go for it, buy a good quality inline reel.  You may find a niche for it on the ice that a spinning reel can’t fill.

Best inline ice fishing reels

Inline reels don’t yet have the same popularity as spinning reels and it shows in the limited selection.  Even so, there are some very high quality inlines that will certainly suit your needs and budget.  All three reels listed are high quality and widely available.  

Top of the line

13 Fishing Black Betty XL Freefall:  For the highest capabilities an inline reel can provide, get the Black Betty.  The newly designed Freefall handles more line and incorporates a smoother, more powerful drag system.  That equates to better versatility for bigger fish.

The 3:1 gear ratio picks up line quick for easier fishing in deeper water.  To top it off, the trigger freefall system delivers smooth jig drops more consistently than other inline reels out there.  If you are looking to get only one, make it the 13 Fishing Black Betty Freefall.  It’s priced a bit high at around $110 but it is the cream of the crop.

Get the Black Betty from these retailers.

Price balanced

Clam Gravity Inline Reel:  Coming in at nearly half the cost of the Black Betty, the Clam Gravity offers a superb balance between cost and quality.  The adjustable drag works fairly smooth for panfish and light walleye applications.  Additionally, the freespool trigger drops your baits quickly without slack.

Like Black Betty, the Clam Gravity also sports a 3:1 ratio that lets you adapt to what’s showing on your sonar.  Quickly bring up your jig to fish suspended mid-column or drop down fast on a big mark.  You give up a bearing and get a less refined drag system than a top-of-the-line inline but for $60 you get a nice package.

Quality budget

Eagle Claw Inline Reel:  As far as inline reels go, the Eagle Claw Inline gives exceptional quality for the money.  It’s a well-built package that includes a silky smooth 4 bearing system coupled with long lasting aluminum and nylon construction.  

The 2:1 gear ratio provides reasonable speed on the retrieve.  Plus, the drag system is decent with some adjustments.  There is a free spool release button which is much more cumbersome than the trigger drop on better inlines.  Although, the $30 price tag does warrant a second look.

Best spinning reels for ice fishing

You really can’t go wrong with a quality spinning reel for ice fishing.  The biggest perk with spinning reels is the huge selection to choose from.  We can simplify that choice for you and present the best 3 spinning reels to consider for your upcoming ice season.

Top of the line

Shimano Stradic FL Spinning Reel:  I can’t say I need this reel but boy, do I want one.  Shimano Stradic FL spinning reels feature superb quality Hagane style aluminum bodies that resist reel torque and are built with the best drag money can buy.  

Whether you are just pairing it with your ice rod or looking for an all-season ultra light setup, the Stradic delivers.  The 6:1 gear ratio takes up plenty of line for all situations and the fluid 6+1 bearing system creates an unparalleled package.  The $200 price tag is a bit steep for the average ice angler but it just might be the only reel you’ll ever need.  Consider getting the 1000 or 2500 series Shimano Stradic FL.

Check these sellers for the best price on this reel.

Price balanced

Pflueger President Spinning Reel:  I would argue that the Pflueger President is one of the best values out there.  Some of the best drag systems for the price point reside in this reel.  In addition, the 2000 series has a 6+1 bearing system while the 2500 boasts 9+1.  It’s all the reel you’ll ever need on the ice.

Quality material for every component was used to make the Pflueger President.  That equates to a longer lasting reel that will catch everything from panfish to pike for years to come.  At $60, it’s a no brainer.  For ice fishing and ultralight setups get the 2000 or 2500 series.  Nearly all my setups sport the President or the ICX 5 that we’ll discuss next. 

Check out these retailers for our go-to reel.

High quality budget

Piscifun ICX 5 Spinning Reel: Even as a relative new comer to the ice fishing scene, Piscifun hit a home run with the ICX 5 ice fishing spinning reel. Coming in at only $30 (or less when on sale), it is a phenomenal value for any ice angler. The light weight, yet durable construction makes it easy to use all day. Plus, the extended stem allows for use with gloves on, which is a huge deal.

The ICX 5 has a 5+1 bearing system that is reasonably smooth for the money. And the drag system isn’t bad either. However, it’s probably not suitable for big game species like lake trout or pike. What really makes this reel stand out is its cold weather operation. Reels costing twice as much seize up in single digit temperatures. The ICX 5 does not! This is our new favorite reel for targeting stocked trout and panfish. You won’t be disappointed!

Check it out here.

Final thoughts

In the end, it is less a spinning versus inline debate than it is a spinning plus inline debate.  Each reel occupies a unique niche with some overlap.  And there’s no reason you can’t use both.  There are a multitude of ice fishing situations where one reel may surpass the other in terms of success.  However, it’s entirely personal choice.  

For the bulk of ice fishing anglers, spinning reels are all you’ll ever need.  A well built spinning reel handles even the most extreme conditions on the ice for just about any gamefish.  Need some recommendations? Look at our list of 6 affordable spinning reels worth buying.

Inline reels have a narrower application but they excel at what they do.  When you are serious about panfish and ultra finesse bait delivery, by all means, experience the benefits of inline reels. 

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!