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Gear can make all the difference when it comes to fishing, particularly panfishing. Light fish means using light gear for a light presentation. However, learning how to find the right gear isn’t always easy. That’s why I’ve put together my ultimate gear guide for ice fishing panfish. In this article we will cover:

  • Rods
  • Reels
  • Line
  • Lures
  • Plastics/Baits
  • & More for success this season

How to Choose the Right Setup

When it comes to panfish, the key is to understand the baits you want to use and then match the line and rod to it. Light bait is best paired with a lighter setup – allowing better control and better bite detection.

In fact, the number one thing that I see affects panfish success is the lack of a light enough setup. People either can’t control the bait well enough or they can’t see when the fish bite.

So how do you choose the right rod? We know it needs to be light, but what about the rest?

Choosing the Right Panfish Rod

So as mentioned, we need to first decide our bait size. If you are going to be going super light, then you will want something close to a noodle rod – A LOT of flex, to allow you to manipulate those 4 or 5mm tungsten.

Fishing for something bigger? Chasing large crappie? Then you might be working with 1/16 oz spoons, and a little added back bone will do the trick – these will be light to ultra light rods with a little slower action.

Next let’s talk about your budget. The best rod is the one that fits your budget AND has a light enough action to detect the light bites. One way to work around a low budget is to take the rod you have and add a spring bobber to it. This lets you detect the lightest bites and gives you enough flex for those smaller baits even if you are using a stiffer rod.

If you have a little bit higher budget to work with then you need to ask yourself about quality. Your higher-end rods are going to be ultra-sensitive to detecting the lightest bite (superior to a spring IMO), have a quick transition to a heavier backbone for hooking those bigger fish and give you significantly more control over the presentation. The best pan fisherman know exactly how to entice a bite, and having a rod that allows for this control can be key.

As for length, it depends on where you like to fish. Short rods (think 23 – 24″ rods) work great in tight spaces like flip-over shelters. Longer rods (30″ +) work better for leverage and can be advantageous when fishing outside. Of course, you can’t go wrong with something in between, especially on a budget.

Best Ice Fishing Rod for Panfish: TUCR Bullwhip
The sensitivity at the end of the rod is key in detecting panfish bites.

Thankfully, brands understand the benefit of having options for panfish anglers at these price points. St Croix is definitely one of them, as they have high end rods in their Custom and Tundra series, or budget-friendly options such as their $90 panfish combos (rod and reel combos for the price of a rod).

My go-tos are:

The Pan-Finesse is my go-to for bluegill and my Pan Dancer is my go-to for crappie, however, depending on the size of the fish and the bite – they are very interchangeable. A great quality panfish rod can go a long ways for working smaller finesse baits and detecting the lightest bites. It can also be beneficial for pinning down those accidental trophy fish.

Light Line is Key for Panfish

Next, let’s talk about line. There are 3 types: monofilament, braid, and fluorocarbon. Mono is affordable, has stretch, and is less visible than braid. Braid is the toughest, most sensitive with no stretch, and very visible – while fluorocarbon is invisible with less stretch and more strength than mono.

I have found over time that the stretch of mono is very valuable when retrieving panfish. However, it isn’t the end all be all when you are struggling with line twists.

The lighter the better in most instances. 2lb can be deadly for bluegill and 4 or 6 lb I’ve found are ideal for crappie. When I’m ambitious I’ll use monofilament, as I find it less likely to be detected when the fish breathe it in. However, when I don’t feel like respooling line, I’ll go to braid with a fluorocarbon leader – it requires less maintenance and of course has less line twists.

Choosing a Reel

When choosing a reel you have to decide between a few things:

  1. Inline or Spinning?
  2. Size/Weight?
  3. Quality

InLine vs. Spinning Reels for Ice Fishing

The biggest benefit of the inline reel is more control when working finesse baits and that it can help reduce line twists. In my opinion, its benefits are working small baits in shallow water. As for the line twists, a spinning reel with braid will be just as good as a inline with mono or fluoro.

Spinning reels on the other hand are more reliable and versatile and at this point the only type of reel I choose to rely on.

We have an entire piece breaking down inline vs spinning reels you can see here. It will help you decide which option is right for you.

Reel Size

Every brand is going to have a different system for sizing. Generally a 500 series reel (depending on the brand’s sizing system) is one of the lightest and most compact reel options you can find. When looking at something like a Pflueger Trion look for a 20 or 25 series reel, for a Daiwa check out their 750 series reels. I currently use a Pfluegar TRIONSP20X !

When in doubt check the stats for reel weight and drag and remember you don’t need a lot of line for ice.

Picking the Perfect Jigs for Panfish

Early Ice Trophy Crappie
16″ Early ice crappie caught on a Mo Glo jig tipped with a crappie minnow.

Tungsten is all the rage right now – but there is a place for lead and glass jigs too. Why? Because they all fall at different rates.

The one person that convinced me that the tungsten standard wasn’t the end all be all for fishing was Ana -who oftentimes outfished people by slowing down techniques and fall rates. When it’s a tough bite she could outfish me 10:1. Times have changed of course ;), but great thanks to her sharing some of her more finesse techniques I’ve become a much better panfish angler.

Tungsten: Tungsten is great because you can get a smaller jig to fall faster. This means getting down to the school of fish faster, downsizing when you can’t connect on a fish, and the ability to have a little bit more sensitivity and control with the added weight. Tungsten jigs should be part of every angler’s arsenal. Below are a few of my favorites, but it’s always good to have a diversity of tungsten jigs on hand.

Lead: The perks of lead include a slower fall rate, lighter (less ability to detect the jig when biting), and cheaper price. Also, I find that lead jigs come with a greater variety of sizes and shapes than its tungsten counterparts. This gives you more options when trying to match the hatch.

  • Crappie Mo Glo’ Jig: The exact jig I got my biggest fish on last season. Also great for open water tipped with minnows (thanks to it’s horizontal presentation). Use code nicole15 for discounts.
  • Impulse Rigged ZooPlankton: The number one bait crappie seem to eat all winter long – zooplankton. Perfect to have on hand during early hours and midday before the zooplankton show up.

Glass: Glass jigs are the latest push in the fishing world – they are going to flow slowly like lead, be less toxic than lead but have a larger size. Again, plenty of trade-offs here, but one more tool to add to the kit. I don’t have much for glass in my tackle box but what I have used I’ve been happy with.

Ice Fishing With Live Bait AND Plastics

Bobby Garland crappie baits are highly effective for both open water and ice.

Both plastics and live bait have their place for panfish. When there is an aggressive bite, plastics allow you to turnover fish faster by eliminating the need for rebating. They are much tougher, and therefore you are less likely to be fishing without bait after a nibble.

However, when there is a tough bite, be sure to dig out the live bait. Crappie minnows and spikes have their place on those tougher days.

A few of my favorite plastics include:

  • Itty Bit Slab Slay R (nicole15 for discount): Now down to 1.25″, this a perfect complement to any lead jig, and perfect for both open water and ice.
  • Bobby Garland® 2″ Swimming Minnow (nicole15 for discount): Perfect match with the Mo’ Glo jig for that perfectly horizontal presentation.
  • Itty Bit Mind R (nicole15 for discount): Another option for the finesse fisherman – pair this with a tungsten toad or Mo Glo jig.
  • Freedom Baitz Hellcat: The softest most lifelike plastics on the market.

Understand WHY You Need the Gear Before Shopping For It

It’s easy to get caught up in wanting a certain bait, rod, or brand after seeing it on social media or TV, BUT it’s imperative that you understand why first. Changing conditions means changing situations, presentations, and gear and being able to effectively choose the right gear in your situation will help you make better decisions not only on the ice but also in the store. The more you know the farther your dollar can go.

Ice Fishing Panfish Shopping List

Below is a quick summary of all of the gear for panfish.

Rods: I’m a big fan of St Croix, they have a wide variety of options at numerous price points. My 2 favorite:

Reel: No preference – just makes sure it fits. What I’m using:

Line: I like mono or fluoro for panfish (especially mono). Just watch line memory and change it often.

Tungsten: Tungsten is great because you can get a smaller jig to fall faster. This means getting down to the school of fish faster, downsizing when you can’t connect on a fish, and the ability to have a little bit more sensitivity and control with the added weight. Tungsten jigs should be part of every angler’s arsenal.

Lead: The perks of lead include a slower fall rate, lighter (less ability to detect the jig when biting), and cheaper price. Also, I find that lead jigs come with a greater variety of size and shape than it’s tungsten counterparts.

  • Crappie Mo Glo’ Jig: The exact jig I got my biggest fish on last season. Also great for open water tipped with minnows (thanks to it’s horizontal presentation). Use code nicole15 for discount.
  • Impulse Rigged ZooPlankton: The number one bait crappie seem to eat all winter long – zooplankton. Perfect to have on hand during early hours and midday before the zooplankton show up.
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