Like most of us, my first ice rod was a jiggle stick. I’d set the hook on suspended crappies, learning at a very young age that the tangled line resultant from hand-over-hand fighting was easily avoided if we’d just turn around and run. While looking back over my shoulder, I knew I could stop when we saw those panfish come flying up and out of the hole.
Reeling them in eventually became more practical, and fun, such that a new ice rod became a necessity. It needed a reel seat, and a few guides, but beyond that I was just happy to get a hand-me-down from my grandpa. Rug-beater that it was, I caught a pile of gills with that thing. I preferred to fish out on the open ice and feel for bites rather than use a bobber. Which means that while fishing for panfish with a rod better suited for pike, I missed as many as I caught.
Such is the case for many anglers today that fish ill-equipped rods for species they were never intended to target. As my own rod-buying habits brought me up the chain, both in terms of cost and in features, I came to know what I liked, but more importantly, which features suited the way I fished.
Think of a custom rod as just that, a tool that can be infinitely customized to the species and situations you fish. Just like you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to pound a nail, it makes sense to fit the tool to the direct application. For most people, custom rods sound nice, but their price tag prevents them from owning one, or owning as many rods as they’d like in the full arsenal. Much in the same way a fine guitar helps you play better because you want to play more, or a fitted-shotgun makes you shoot straighter because it’s specifically designed for your person, custom rods when fished correctly will yield more fish.
Due to long lead times however, and the fact that so many of today’s custom ice rods are simply built to a few lengths, powers, and actions, the word “custom” today more appropriately means “customized.” St. Croix has been doing technique specific rods customized for the way certain baits fish for about anything that swims going on many decades now.
Maybe you’re unsure which action, length, shape, and model to get? Let me go through a “rod-building” session with you for my own style of fishing a particular species to give an example. I’ll focus on St. Croix Custom Ice (CCI), as they offer a wide variety of modifications that make the most sense for the fishing I do. Perhaps I’m interested in finding a good walleye rod. The first thing I need to do is answer a few questions about the way I fish for ‘eyes. Let’s say that I primarily fish for walleyes in less than 20 feet of water, out on the open ice, using a good variety of 1/16 oz. to 1/8 oz. jigs and spoons. I’m 5’10”, am not much of a pistol gripper, but I do prefer to put a finger on the rod-blank for bite detection. For those reasons above, I’d be looking for a medium to medium light blank with a fast action taper, in 32”-36”es, with recoil or other ice-resistant guides, offering a split or smaller grip. The St. Croix CCI Perch/Eye Spoon (CC28MLF) with those specs fits the bill perfectly.
Break that information down, and you start to see how a custom rod is a precise tool for exact scenarios. While standing on the ice, 36” lengths for my height are perfect to jig low to the sheet, preventing wind from hampering bite detection, and giving me plenty of length to absorb wide head-shakes from bigger fish. If fishing primarily in a shelter however, I’d go no longer than a 32” rod to prevent catching the tip on canvas during a hookset. The medium light fast action fishes 1/8 oz. spoons primarily well, loading up the rod enough to create great feel without overloading the blank. A split grip seems more fancy than functional, but it allows me to grip the rod further forward and get a finger on the blank without it being too awkward. Quite simply, it fits better in my hand. The recoil guides allow me to fish in frigid conditions and clear the few ice droplets that form with a small flick.
At this point you might think that I’ve taken this too far. Surely you don’t need an artisanal rod just to catch a few fish? To that I’d answer that there are some great semi-custom or higher end ice rods on the market that are mass produced, yet still made in enough configurations to satisfy most anglers in the majority of the ice situations they face. That said, I can put a golf ball on the green from a hundred yards with my 3 wood, yet I can do so more consistently with a nine iron and some backspin. It’s less about spending up to a dollar amount, and more about getting the right tool for the job.
Some things to think about in analyzing your fishing include the following: depth, lure weight, species, sitting/standing/kneeling, inside shelter or outside, how you grip your ice rod, colors, and many others. Of course, sifting through all of these variables and coming up with the ultimate combination for any one situation is also part of the fun. Rod manufacturers are eager to give suggestions too, as more than likely if you’re trying to dream it, they’ve probably already built a similar one for another customer. Keep it fun and start small. Chances are, if you research and choose well, you’ll look to add more to the rod box in coming years and will know better what to look for with a bit of experience. No matter which one you choose, give some honest thought to the above variables and you can’t go wrong.