BIG LAKE, Minn. — Sitting in an Ice Castle fish house parked in his driveway, veteran ice tournament angler Lawrence Luoma described the evolution of his tackle and fishing techniques during the past decade.

“I competed in my first ice fishing tournament in 2008 at Lake Osakis in west-central Minnesota,” Luoma said. “My family owned a cabin on the lake for decades and I was confident that I could find and catch enough fish to finish high on the leaderboard.”

He caught fish but also lost many others, including, he suspected, some of the largest fish he hooked. The tournament weigh-in proved to be an eye-opening experience as out-of-state teams that only spent a few hours pre-fishing the lake finished in the money.

After experiencing similar results at another event, Luoma noticed that the same group of Michigan anglers consistently brought big bags of bluegills and crappies to the weigh-in. Chuck Mason, of Ida, Mich., and Dave Young, of Lansing, Mich., were the ringleaders.

“I told them that I was losing fish and they asked to see my gear,” Luoma said. “I showed them my custom graphite rods and high-end spinning reels and immediately saw that they weren’t impressed. Then they showed me what they were using.”

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Tools for tight lining

The rods were 24-inch ultra-light Ice Blue models manufactured by HT Enterprises in Campbellsport, Wis. The suggested retail price is $15 but they can often be found on sale for half that price — especially toward the end of the ice season.

The Michigan anglers also used a De-Ma reel made by Schooley and Sons in their home state. The reels are molded from durable nylon, weigh almost nothing and cost less than $5 direct from the manufacturer. They, too, are often discounted by retailers during late winter.

“I was shocked,” Luoma admitted. “I could buy 10 of their combos for the price of one of mine, but their gear was producing better results. I pushed for details and they were like an open book. I’ve never met a group so willing to share what they knew.”

Mason and Young theorized that the stiff graphite rod Luoma used was responsible for many lost fish. They added that the fiberglass blank on the Ice Blue rod loaded easily, creating a bend that kept the fish hooked while the 1:1 gear ratio on the Schooley reel retrieved the line.

“If I were fishing in a shelter with bare hands, I might still prefer a graphite rod paired with a spinning or inline reel,” Luoma said. “But that’s not feasible in today’s fishing tournaments. It takes too long to move. Your clothing is your shelter and you have to be able to cover water quickly.”

Mason and Young also explained the reason they employed a high-visibility monofilament line. They used a technique called tight-lining. Watching the line as far down the hole as they could see for any movement. Any twitch they didn’t intentionally impart to the line was answered with a hookset.

“Monofilament line floats, which makes it an important part of this system,” Luoma said. “If I barely move the rod tip up then drop back to the starting position and the slack line floats on the surface, a fish has engulfed my jig.”

Tight-lining tournament anglers can fish with a glove on their rod hand and keep their other hand in a pocket with a handwarmer. Because they’re watching the line they don’t need to feel the often subtle bite of a sunfish or crappie.

Customizing rods and reels

The Michigan anglers also told Luoma that neither the HT rod or Schooley reel were suitable to use out of the package. The rod tip is too light to control a 3-mm or 4-mm tungsten jig, and the reel was designed to be used with a Schooley spring-bobber rod with a unique reel seat.

“I modify the reel by cutting off the two nylon wings off the back of the reel foot with a sheetrock saw,” Luoma said. “I also reduce the overall length of the foot by removing an inch or so from each side. This allows the foot to be securely attached to the rod handle with electrical tape.”

The first step to improving the rod is to snip off the orange tip with a pair of side-cutters, just above the first guide below the tip-top. Luoma then uses a knife to scrape the epoxy, thread and guide from the blank.

“Use the blue flame from a lighter to warm the tip of a hot-melt glue stick,” he added, “and put a small glob on the rod tip. Next, hold a 3-mm fly rod tip-top with a pair of pliers and warm it with the lighter before pushing it on the end of the rod. You will have several seconds to make sure it’s properly aligned.”

The final step is to insert a 16-mm spinning rod stripper guide into the space between the rod blank and the foam handle. This will guide the line onto the spool when retrieving the line and prevent tangles.

“I align the guide with the center of the reel spool then insert the guide foot behind the handle,” Luoma said. “Work it in and out a few times to create a small cavity then coat the tip of the guide foot with a bit of melted hot glue. Re-insert the guide and let the glue cure.”

Balancing lines and lures

When Young and Mason explained their system to Luoma, they recommended two- or four-pound-test Stren Ice line in the gold color. That’s no longer made but Stren Crappie line is available and works fine, despite not being formulated for ice fishing.

“The gold color is easy for me to see but doesn’t seem to deter fish,” Luoma said. “I use two-pound most often with a 3-mm tungsten jig, but won’t hesitate to step up to four-pound if I’m on a spot with big crappies or bass, or when using heavier jigs.”

Luoma also noted that he and his tournament partner Tad Westermann, of Otsego, Minn., make a good team because they have different fishing styles. Luoma tends to fish smaller jigs more subtly, while Westermann prefers heavier baits and more aggressive presentations.

“We each tend to stick to our own fishing style unless one of us is clearly out producing the other,” Luoma said. “I always start with a 3-mm jig, while Tad usually starts with a 4 mm. I tend to hold the jig almost motionless — sometimes gently rocking it up and down by slowly rotating the spool back and forth with my thumb. Tad usually imparts more movement to trigger a reaction from aggressive fish.”

Two modified panfish sticks: one for tight lining and one with a titanium spring bobber. Luomo uses the tight-lining version most often but has a spring bobber rod on hand at most tournaments. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service
Two modified panfish sticks: one for tight lining and one with a titanium spring bobber. Luomo uses the tight-lining version most often but has a spring bobber rod on hand at most tournaments. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service

A time for spring bobbers

Luoma usually prefers a tight lining presentation but said he’s also impressed by the success many tournament anglers have with spring bobbers, a lightweight titanium tip that’s attached to the end of the rod to reveal light bites.

“It’s important that the tip is balanced for the size of the jig,” he added. “I prefer the Ice Strong tips made by Michigan guide Matt Strong. They’re available in four sizes: pulse (for 2- to 3-mm jigs), ultra-light (3 to 4 mm), original (4 to 5 mm) and xl (5- to 6-mm jigs and small spoons). The ultra-light model is my most used size.”

When properly balanced the bobber should be at about a 45-degree angle under the weight of the jig. That allows anglers to see a bite when a fish pulls the spring down or when tension relaxes and the spring moves up.

“The Ice Strong bobbers come with a short section of shrink tubing,” Luoma said. “But I prefer to use about an inch of smaller diameter tubing that quickly shrinks to the size of the rod blank. I also put a small kink on the terminal end of the bobber and use a small dab of hot glue between the bobber and the blank to make sure it never moves.”

These combos might not be considered high-end fishing gear, but top tournament anglers across the ice belt have proven they consistently produce big panfish in a variety of fishing situations. Build a few yourself and try them out. It won’t cost you much time or money and you might find your new favorite rod and reel for winter panfish.