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New Gear and Early Ice

Finally, ice season is upon us here in the upper Midwest. I have a couple new reels to review and some interesting early ice bites to dissect.

First off, the new gear! I decided to try a couple inline reels this season because of the good reviews these products have been getting from other anglers. The first one I picked up was the new Eagle Claw inline for this year. At about $27 shipped to my house, the price was right for me to see how I like this style of reel. After using this reel for a day, I could already see some of the advantages. The free spool was smooth and when paired with a tungsten jig, you could get your bait down extremely fast. Not only did I not have to pull line out by hand like you do on a spinning reel, but the larger spool seemed to eliminate those annoying coils created from the memory of the line. This first trip was more of an ice checking mission than a fishing outing, but I had seen enough to want to try the 6061 Black Betty that seems to be the most popular inline.

I was lucky enough to pick up a Black Betty on sale at Gander for about $50. Right out of the box you could tell the Black Betty is better quality than the Eagle Claw. My next outing I got a chance to land a few fish on each of the reels and really put them to the test.

My first impression of the reels was bulky and awkward. I say bulky because they are heavier than all of my spinning reels and awkward because I am not use to the bait-caster style drag adjustment. I was wondering how many fish I would lose before I got the hang of adjusting the drag and the answer was three. The first two fish I caught after losing those three were a 12”, followed by a 13” crappie, so I was really kicking myself for missing those first ones. Since then, I haven’t had any problems and using them is becoming more comfortable each outing. As I alluded to earlier, the benefits of these inline reels include less noticeable memory coils, faster bait drop rate, easier to operate with one hand and of course less spinning of your jig, especially in deeper water.

The drawbacks I can see are a “touchy” drag, more moving parts that can be affected by cold weather and a little more difficult to pistol grip your rod when jigging. I say a “touchy” drag because it seems over a period of use, the drag seems to walk a little bit. I’m not sure if I am bumping it when reeling, or if it does in fact loosen up over time. This is what caused me to lose my first few fish. I quickly found out that the drag had to be adjusted on the fly and wasn’t just a “set it and forget it” type thing. The additional moving parts made using this type of reel difficult in cold weather. The bearings that allow the reel to free spool as well as the handles on each of the inline models I tried became difficult to operate in the cold. I plan to lubricate these with some tip-up lube and I’m sure that will take care of the problem. It just seems odd that reels designed for ice fishing wouldn’t be ready to deal with cold temperatures right out of the box. My last gripe on these reels is it is a little bit more difficult to pistol grip these new reels. I see on the new Eagle Claw they extended the distance between the spool and the rod, but if you have big hands or are wearing gloves it will still be a little cumbersome. The other thing that is kind of in the way is the additional handle on the reel. I think I would really like these reels better if they only had one handle like a spinning reel. Again, guys used to bait-casters might like the double handle, but to me it’s in the way. I guess I don’t see the point in having two when you only use one at a time anyway.

Due to the issues I was having with the inline reels in cold weather I ended up using my trusty spinning reel while searching for fish. I had more confidence in the drag on my spinning reel in the cold, and because I am more used to that style, I was able to fish faster. Once I got in the shanty with the heater going it was back to the inline (once they thawed out) because I do like how smooth they operate and I was gaining trust in the drag with every additional fish.

As for a comparison of the two models, of course the Black Betty 6061 was the superior model. The drag is smoother and it is better built. I did have just as many issues with the Black Betty in the cold as the Eagle Claw, but the free spool on both models was comparable. For the price I paid for them, I wouldn’t have a problem recommending either to a friend, but with the only caution being the Eagle Claw just doesn’t seem like a reel that’s going to last more than a couple years, but I could be wrong.

If anyone has any tips for me on using these new inlines I would love to hear them. Leave them in the comments below. From what I can see the benefits do outweigh the negatives so I will be using them more and more as my comfort level increases. Maybe some of you have some tips that will help me out.

Now, getting to a couple very different early ice bites that I experienced in very different parts of the state that I thought were interesting. The first one occurred in northern Wisconsin on a deep clear inland lake. I was expecting a good bite after a couple days of stable weather, but it still took 38 holes with the Nils hand auger before I found what I was looking for. Once located, I was catching fish of good size, but was getting turned down more times than I was hooking up. After cycling through a bunch of colors of a B-Y Baits MayFly, I found that the Pearl Pink was attracting the most attention. I was getting fish that would come in, take a long hard look at my offering and then sink back to the bottom. Normally, when I see this behavior you need to do one of two things. Check on how your plastic is hooked by make sure it’s straight (not dancing in a circle) and that your jig is sitting nice and horizontal. If that isn’t the issue you usually need to downsize. So, I tied on my trusty small gold jig and went with a BloodWorm. While I was still getting bites, it wasn’t any better than before. Finally, I figured it out by accident really. I switched poles because I had a MegaMudBug on a heavier jig that I was using as a search bait earlier in the day. First drop yielded a nice crappie that came out of nowhere and smacked it. Then it slowed, but once I went back to that Pearl Pink color in the MegaMudBug style, pretty much every fish I could get to look at my bait was caught. Big gills, little gills, big crappies and little crappies, it didn’t matter. They all hit it. Moral of the story is, downsizing isn’t always the key and sometimes, especially early or late ice those fish are looking for a little bit bigger meal and that was definitely the ticket on this day.

The second bite I want to talk about was on a river system backwater in central Wisconsin. While walking out, I talked to a guy who was excited to be back after doing very well there the day before. I didn’t share in his excitement because I knew it was a much different weather day and that it is rare to experience the type of bite he was describing two days in a row. A cold front had moved in since the previous day and it was dominated by high pressure and bluebird skies. There were several other fisherman around and I hardly seen any fish being caught as I drilled a grid of holes. After fishing about two dozen different holes, I only had one fish hit the MegaMudBug I was using as a search bait, but I had located some fish. The fish were tight to the bottom and not moving around much at all. It was apparent they had gorged themselves the day before and were content on hanging out until the weather pattern had passed. To most, this is had the makings of a bad day of fishing. To me, this was a B-Y Baits day! So, I sat down at a hole with a couple fish on the flasher and started to cycle through baits. I must have tried 20 different color/style combinations of plastics on at least three different types of jigs without so much as a nibble. In the first hour I had only seen two other fish caught by other fisherman so it’s not like I was missing out on anything, but I could tell those marks on the locator were quality fish, just in a negative mood. I have seen this exact bite on the Mississippi River many times. The trick is an annoyingly small jig and B-Y Baits MudBug! The jig I used was a 3mm gold and the color MudBug I settled on was minnow silver. Boom! Big bluegill on the first drop. I was grinning ear to ear because I had just cracked the code. I proceeded to catch two more nice gills out of the same hole before it went dead. On days like this, when the fish aren’t moving around it is critical to go to them. I could catch one, maybe two holes out of the same hole, but then you would have to go find a new hole with fish below it. After making a few rounds to the grid of holes I had drilled I had eight very nice bluegills and two nice crappies in my pail. It is a great feeling walking off the ice on a day you know is a tough fishing day with some quality fish in your pail. The moral of this story is, sometimes it takes a lot of experimenting to figure out what the fish want, but once you figure it out you can have a successful day even with a terrible bite. I was probably on setup number 25 or so by the time I figured out what they wanted to see, once I found it, it was like a light switch had been flipped and the fish just came alive when they saw it. It was a great feeling.

Hope you enjoyed my take on those inline reels and the observations I made on a couple of my first fishing trips of the year. Here’s to many more successful days to come this winter!

- Darrin Anderson

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