Looking to catch more panfish through the ice? I’m going to tell you what to look for in an inexpensive but very versatile ice fishing combo that will you serve you well through the entire ice fishing season.
Best Budget Ice Fishing Combo For Panfish
Let’s get right to it. This is my pick for the best all-around budget-friendly ice fishing combo for bluegill, crappie, and other panfish.
I own it. I use it. I love it.
Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 Ice Fishing Reel & Rod Combo
This is a great “all-purpose” combo. Sensitive enough at the tip for light panfish bites, with enough backbone to haul up the occasional catfish or bass.
And it’s super-affordable!
GX2 Ugly Stik Models
The GX2 series is available in 4 different configurations. Here are all the options:
LengthWeightReviews & Pricing26″LightCheck On Amazon28″MediumCheck On Amazon30″Medium-HeavyCheck On Amazon
Specialized ice rods are great (and I own a bunch of them) in various lengths and weights. But I don’t want to drag a case full of all my rods with me on every outing. Especially since I usually end up just using one or two rods all day.
I like to have a couple of all-purpose ice combos best suited for panfishing, but strong enough to handle the occasional walleye or catfish. The GX2 fits the bill nicely.
I personally chose the 26″ light action rod for panfishing adventures.
As you can see from the photo, the backbone is quite sturdy until about midway up the blank, where it really becomes quite flexible.
It’s got more bend than shown in the photo, but I didn’t want to risk snapping it.
The rod is definitely the best part of this combo. Here’s what I like best about it:
- Sensitive Tip – The rod tip changes to a translucent-white color towards the tip, and it is at that point where it begins to become quite flexible and sensitive. Good for bite detection (even without a spring bobber), and easy to maintain contact with your jig or lure.
- Solid Backbone – The rod blank appears to extend through the handle, and has a good, stiff backbone. If I happen to hook up with the occasional bass, walleye, or a nice-sized channel cat (my home lake has a ton of those) even this light action rod has enough power to handle the fight.
- Screw-On Reel Seat – I own a lot of expensive ice rods with no reel seat at all. You have to use tape or rubber bands to put a reel on those. The screw-on reel seat on the GX2 rod has enough travel to accept any of my ice reels (most of which cost more than this entire combo)
Considering the fact that I have purchased many standalone ice rods (some that cost double the price of this entire combo), I feel really good about this rod, and I can pair it with any of my reels if I want to.
Honestly, the reel itself is really nothing special. In a way, that’s a good thing at this price point. If it’s truly noteworthy in any way, it’s that’s it’s not total trash. I’ve got ice reels that cost more than this combo that perform worse.
It has a single ball-bearing, so it isn’t as smooth as some of my other reels. However, it has a few important things going for it:
- It’s Not Garbage – For such an inexpensive reel, the mechanism is surprisingly solid. The bail clicks firmly, and there isn’t really any noticeable play in any of the moving components
- The Drag – I haven’t taken it apart to see the drag components, but the adjustment knob works well. A lot of super-cheap spinning reels seem to have an “all or nothing” drag behavior, but I’ve had good luck easily dialing in the drag for the fish I’m catching with this reel.
- It Catches Fish – I’ve iced quite a few fish with this reel, and it’s holding up great. Drag works, bail doesn’t snap open when I set the hook. It just plain works.
Like I said, the reel isn’t a world-beater, but it’s definitely not junk. That in and of itself is kind remarkable at this price point.
Pair it with some good quality ice fishing line and the right lure for the job, and you’ve got a great setup for hammering those crappies and bluegills.
About Panfishing In Winter
Now that you’ve seen my pick, let me show you why it works so well in so many ice fishing situations.
First let’s talk about how panfish behave during ice fishing season. That will help me explain how useful it is to have a combo that can be used all season long, for multiple species.
I love fishing for panfish. Bluegill, Crappie, you name it. I also live in the Midwest, so I get ample opportunities to chase these feisty and delicious fish both on open water and through the ice.
Granted, things like temperature, atmospheric pressure, and other factors affect the fish just like they do during open water, but there’s more going on when the lake freezes over.
In areas that get cold enough for ice fishing, panfish seem to go through a number of ‘phases’ throughout the ice fishing season.
In a nutshell, the fish behave differently throughout the winter, so it’s great to have equipment that is well suited for all situations.
Check out my article on tungsten vs lead jigs to learn more about jig selection for ice fishing success.
Early Ice Fishing
Aside from the often brutal weather conditions that come with the first fishable ice of the year, the fishing action can be amazing.
I’ve found that the bluegill and crappie are often still feeding aggressively during early ice.
This is because there is often some weeds and vegetation around the edges, still producing oxygen and providing cover for small baitfish and other prey.
This makes for some great fishing action, and the fish are often a bit more forgiving than the weather. Aggress bites often lead to the fish hooking themselves, no real hookset required from the ice angler.
Early ice success can be found near shallower weedlines or other structure. Many of the places that worked in the fall will still hold fish during early ice.
Mid-Season Ice Fishing
By the time mid-winter rolls around, the lakes and ponds I fish have turned over. Shoreline vegetation will be dead or dying, which reduces available cover and consumes oxygen as the plant matter decomposes.
At this point, the warmest, most oxygenated water will be at the bottom, and this is where you are likely to find some fish. Especially if you can locate any submerged structure or cover in or near a deep hole.
In fact, on some lakes and ponds your best bet is to find the deepest hole and keep your bait tight to the bottom.
Fish want an easy meal at this stage. They want to take in as much food as they can while expending the least energy possible. Survival means consuming more calories than they expend.
This can lead to a neutral or even negative bite, where the smallest movement of your jig can make a lazy fish decide against taking a nip at it.
With the fish acting more timid in the middle of the season, you want a rod that can detect the slightest bite, yet provide enough stiffness to allow a fast hookset.
Late Season Ice Fishing
Late season can be just as exciting as early ice for anglers.
The days are longer, and the warming sub will be melting away snow cover from the ice. This leads to increased sunlight making its way into the lake or pond.
Some underwater vegetation may be showing signs of life, and start producing oxygen again.
This increase in oxygen leads to increased prey activity, which reminds panfish that they are hungry after a long winter without much food.
While tiny jigs are still effective, many anglers begin to use small, minnow-like spoons and jigs that mimic natural baitfish. Live minnows are also going to become more effective as the fish “wake up” and begin moving towards the feeding frenzy of early spring.
During late ice, the fish may begin to migrate back towards the shallower areas. These spots are the first on the lake to begin returning to spring and summer “lifestyles” for the entire underwater ecosystem.
During this period, the ice will start to undergo many freeze/thaw cycles as the sun and melt-off warms the ice from the top down.
This leads to “honeycombed” ice, with a milky appearance. The ice at this time will be far weaker than the clean, clear ice found during early and late seasons.
Underwater springs can begin to melt away aice from the bottom up, leading to potential thin spots that are undetectable from the surface.
While late ice can be just as exciting as early ice, caution is very important! The fishing can be excellent, but no panfish is worth a potentially lethal ice fishing accident!
Success Throughout The Ice Fishing Season
If you’ve made it this far, you know that the fish behave differently as the ice fishing season goes through its phases. The length of each phase will depend on your local climate, weather, and the size of your lake or pond.
But regardless of the length of season, I love having a go-to rod that I know will work well in all of these changing conditions.
Even though I have many specialized rods and reels of various lengths and weights, the versatility of the GX2 combo has me reaching for it all season. As mentioned before, I currently run the 26 inch light action, and I’ll probably be picking up a second one before the season is through.
The quick rod tip is great for those aggressive, self-hooking fish we so enjoy during early and late ice. It’s sensitive enough to detect those super-light bites in mid-season, especially when paired with a spring bobber.
In this article, I hope you learned that panfish behavior changes throughout the ice fishing season, With these changes, tactics may need to be adjusted, but it’s great to have an inexpensive ice fishing combo like the GX2 that can work in so many situations.
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Thanks for reading, now gear up and GO FISHING!