Reel Seat or Tape for Ice Fishing Rods: Which is Better

For those just getting into ice fishing or looking to upgrade to custom ice rods, you have surely noticed that not all ice rods come with reel seats.

Without a reel seat, you have to attach your reel with tape or pressure bands.  Seems odd to pay top dollar for a custom ice rod and not get a solid reel seat, right? 

It’s hard enough to pick the size, action and brand of ice rod.  Now, you also need to decide whether you want a conventional reel seat or a blank handle that requires taping the reel on.  Which is better?

Generally, experienced ice anglers prefer ice rods without a reel seat and opt instead to tape their reels to the rod handle using electrical tape, silicone tape or pressure bands.  The lack of a reel seat is exactly what makes an ice rod truly customizable since you can fine tune balance and grip position before taping a reel in place.  

But that is not necessarily the final verdict.  That’s why we are going to dive deep into the rabbit hole on this article and figure out which kind of reel mount on a custom ice rod is right for you.  

Reel seat versus tape on an ice rod

So, what is the difference between ice rods with a reel seat and those with a straight cork handle?  

The easiest way to start this comparison is the trusty pros and cons list.  Each way of mounting a reel comes with draw backs so let’s take a look.

Reel seat pros

  • Quick reel attachment
  • Easy to swap between reels
  • Relatively secure
  • No guess work for reel placement
  • Often less expensive and usually sold as a combo with reel
  • Simple to setup for beginner ice anglers

Reel seat cons

  • Added bulk makes certain grip styles, like the pistol grip, less comfortable
  • Less sensitivity than a solid cork or graphite grip without a reel seat
  • Ice rod balance is not customizable
  • Not all reels fit securely
  • Reel seats on budget models are not as durable

Taped on reel pros

  • Reel placement is customizable for better balance and maximum grip comfort
  • Handle is directly connected to rod blank for ultimate sensitivity so you feel every bite
  • Lightweight 
  • Works with any grip style
  • Reel is rock solid if taped correctly (never worry about it coming loose again)
  • Any reel will fit

Taped on reel cons

  • Hard to swap between reels while fishing
  • Requires more time to attach and line up on the rod
  • Custom ice rods without reel seats are more expensive 

Well, there you have it.  The quick and dirty comparison to help you decide.  Still not sure what you need?  Let’s go over some of the important differences that cause some debate.   

Are reel seats stronger than tape

Hook into a 40 inch laker or a trophy pike and your gear is going to be put to the test.  Having your reel suddenly tear loose as a fish makes a big run is the last thing you want to happen.

Think that can’t happen?  Think again.  Not all reel seats are created equal and cheap, low quality gear does fail in extreme circumstances.  However, it’s fair to question whether a reel taped to a rod will hold up any better.  

With my open water rods, I know my reel seats are rock solid.  That’s why my first instinct is to trust that an ice rod with a reel seat will handle big fish better than any tape job.

But the truth is, taped reels hold up just as well under stress as ice rods with a reel seat.  In fact, many pro’s argue that it is even stronger.  Although there’s one caveat to that statement.  Your tape job has got to be done right.  And there is a right way to do it, which we will cover later.

There are a few reasons why taping a reel to your ice rod is actually stronger.  

First, to keep ice rods balanced and light in your hand, manufacturers use lightweight material on the reel seats.  These just don’t hold up over time on the ice and occasionally plastic parts become brittle and break in the cold.

Second, reel seats that screw down to lock a reel in place easily work themselves loose as you handle the rod.  If you don’t notice this, you’ll be in for a surprise the next time you hook into a big one.

Finally, not all reels have the same foot size.  Therefore, reel seats on ice rods often don’t secure all reels equally well.  Smaller reels typically have a smaller foot leaving undesirable wiggle room between the foot and the reel seat.  

While reel seats are generally plenty strong for most situations, taping a reel on solves all of these problems.  

What about switching out reels

I can see why some ice anglers like the idea of being able to quickly switch out reels.  However, how often do you really need to switch out reels on your ice rod while fishing?  

Most ice rods are tailored for a narrow application in the ice fishing spectrum.  One rod is not going to be suitable for yarding in monster pike while also detecting subtle panfish bites.

Avid hardwater anglers have several rods for a variety of fishing situations and they also have reels to match.  That means you won’t be switching reels unless you bought a new one to try.  

It’s unlikely that you’ll have reason to swap out a reel mid-day while on the ice.  Sure, on occasion a reel freezes up or it breaks.  In that case, a reel seat would allow you to quickly switch to a backup reel if you had one handy.  Otherwise, a taped reel is seldom a hassle to switch out at home. 

Balance and sensitivity

By far, the biggest perk to using an ice rod without a reel seat is customization and sensitivity.  

The plastic or metal components of a reel seat interfere with the connection of the rod blank and handle thereby reducing the feel of a bite.  

A blank cork handle with a reel taped on allows the slightest vibrations to pass into your hand.  When success depends on detecting the slightest nibble then get an ice rod without a reel seat and tape it instead.

Achieving the best balance between the rod and reel is crucial for all day fishability.  Everything from your grip style and bait control depends on reel placement.  

That’s why a minimalist grip is ideal for experienced anglers looking to maximize the precision and balance of their ice rod and reel.  Taping your reel gives you that control. Ice rods with a reel seat on the other hand, don’t allow for custom adjustments. 

Tape or pressure bands

The benefits of using custom ice rods without reel seats are hard to deny but is taping on a reel the only method of attaching it?

I have spent a great deal of time talking to experts and scouring the internet for all the best methods of securing a reel to an ice rod.  Pretty much the two preferred reel to rod connections are tape (of various kinds) and pressure bands.

Deciding between tape and pressure bands is more or less personal preference.  Although, keep in mind that pressure bands overtime leave dents in your nice cork handles.  

On the flip side, some anglers complain about tape residue left behind after they remove the tape.  However, there is a trick to get around that problem.

Despite the minor dent problem with pressure bands, they are fast and easy to use.  They also allow you to quickly swap reels when needed.  For all but the most powerful fish, pressure bands hold up well.

Cold Snap Outdoors makes pressure band kits that are super easy to install with the included installation tool.  Check it out on Amazon.

There is also adhesive-free tape available.  These silicone based tapes stick securely to themselves when wrapped tight.  If you don’t like fussing with electrical tape then silicone tape is an awesome alternative.  

Check out the Clam Pro Wrap tape for rods and reels on Amazon.  It will cost just a bit more than electrical tape but is worth it for many anglers.

In the majority of cases, conventional electrical tape is the best all around way to attach a reel to custom ice fishing rods.  

Tape your reel like a pro

Before you start slapping on some tape, take a moment to learn these few simple tricks to get the best results possible.  And yes, there is a correct way to tape a reel to your ice rod so that it’s secure, perfectly balanced and clean looking as well.

Additionally, the masking tape used in this method of taping keeps adhesive residue from marring the handle. 

Here is the quickest step by step taping process for locking down your reel.  All you need to start is masking tape, electrical tape and scissors.  Now let’s get started.  

Also, watch the video below if you prefer to see the taping process in action.

Step 1:

Cut two strips of masking tape long enough to wrap one and a half to two times around the handle.  Also, cut 4 strips of electrical tape 4-5 inches long.  Don’t tear the tape.  Use scissors for a smooth, finished product.

Step 2:

Now determine reel placement on the rod.  Place your reel where it feels good.  Experiment with various grips and figure out the best balance. 

Step 3:

Once everything is positioned just right and you like the feel, grip the reel tight to the rod and mark a spot with your thumb about 1/8 inch above the reel foot.  

Take the reel away and grab a piece of masking tape.  The top edge of the tape should go where your thumb is.  Wrap the tape cleanly around the handle.  Now put the reel back up to the same spot on the handle and mark with your thumb 1/8 inch below the bottom part of the reel foot.  

Once again, align the bottom edge of the masking tape at your thumb spot and wrap it evenly around the handle.

With that done, you now have a good base that the electrical tape can go around without leaving adhesive behind on your rod.

Step 4:

Next, put the reel back in position over the masking tape.  This time, line up the guides with the center line of the reel.  With a firm grip, grab one of the pre-cut pieces of electrical tape.  Line the edge up with the edge of the masking tape and wrap it tightly around the reel foot and handle.  It’s crucial that you stretch the tape as you attach it.

Repeat that step on the bottom of the reel foot.  If it all looks good, take the last two pieces of electrical tape and give each spot a second wrap that slightly over laps the first piece and also covers up the rest of the masking tape.

That’s all there is to it!  It’s a bit awkward the first time you try it but taping a reel gets easier each time.  You can also customize the color of electrical tape if you want to get fancy.

Final thoughts

Like most things, it’s entirely up to you whether you prefer ice fishing rods with or without a reel seat.  Both rod styles will catch fish and both have different qualities that could work best for you.