Using Palm Reels for Panfish

When finicky panfish are driving you nuts, try the ultra-subtle approach to make them bite.

palm reels for icefishing
A Black Ops palm combo made short work of this bluegill.Courtesy of Frabill

For many open-water fishermen, that first-ever foray onto the ice might have begun on a lark—with an ax or spud and the shortest rod in the collection. Once a hole was chopped, you lowered a panfish lure, and began to jig. Times—along with your dedication to icefishing—likely changed all that. Indeed, specialized icefishing tactics and gear have affected all ice anglers. Palm rods and reels just may take it one small step further—literally.

As the use of microbaits for panfishing through the ice has grown in popularity, so, too, has the use of the diminutive palm rod and reel. Commonly used by competitive anglers in Europe and Russia—where anglers often target tiny, light-biting fish—palm combos are catching on with mainstream fishermen here when precise presentations are needed for picky, shallow panfish.

Frabill pro staffer Jacek Gawlinski, North American Ice Fishing Circuit competitor and captain of the Polish National Ice Fishing Team, calls the palm rod an extension of his hand. Considering the palm-down grip that keeps the rod in line with the forearm, that’s hardly an exaggeration. The simple outfit consists of a small reel about the size of a pickle-jar lid, and a short rod. Spring bobbers serve as the rod’s tip and are interchangeable, depending on jig size. Line feeds off the tension-controlled reel and threads through the indicator’s tip, where the slightest interaction with fish lips transmits an unmistakable wiggle.

Nick Schertz of the USA Ice Team determines the proper-size spring bobber by hanging the selected jig on the tip of the indicator to check the balance. If well matched, the tip should fully flex, or load, under the jig’s weight. Deft rod work pulses or undulates the indicator to impart subtle bait action.

The Frabill Black Ops Palm Rod ($35; frabill.com), which Gawlinski designed, stretches the platform to 22-, 24-, and 26-inch models that incorporate a reel handle for greater leverage on larger fish.

A beefier outfit, for sure, Gawlinski’s creation still relies on direct hand connection. While holding the rod with the spool parallel to the ice, he imparts whisper-light action on a tiny jig by extending his forefinger and subtly tapping the forward edge of his reel.

palm reels
The Alaska Grizzle (above) and the Frabill Black Ops palm rod-and-reel combos.Justin Appenzeller

TARGET ACQUISITION

Micro-jig manufacturer Scott Brauer of Maki Plastics likes the palm rod for use in water of 12 feet or less, and anytime the fish need some serious sweet-talking. Inactive fish, he says, are still catchable, but it takes ultra-subtle persuasion you simply can’t create by bouncing a rod tip.

“I use these rods when I need to fine-tune my jigging techniques to slow everything down, or just impart a different action,” he says. “It’s easy to switch line weights and jig sizes because you can have six palm rods tied up and six of them don’t weigh what one traditional rod does.

“So, if you’re in a school of fish that require you to continually change to keep them interested, it’s a quick way to get back down to the fish and impart different actions.”

Brauer starts out kneeling with a 10-inch rod, and if he needs to move on fish, he’ll switch to a longer palm rod for hole hopping (standing position). His tip: Use different-colored marker pens to note each outfit’s line choice (poundage, and braid or monofilament).

THE GOOD FIGHT

Fishing-line management requires glove-free hands, so make sure you can handle the chill. If you’re good to go, you’ll find that the human touch prevents break-offs even with bigger fish.

“You almost never lose one by retrieving line with your fingers because you just can’t hold it as tightly as a traditional rod does,” says Brauer. “Also, a drag system in the wintertime can be a little touchy, so your fingers actually work very well. When a fish runs, you let the line go through, and once he stops, you just take in that line hand-over-hand.”

Noting that no tool allows the angler to more easily slow down their presentation and tantalize tough fish like the palm rod, Brauer says it often comes down to standing out in a crowd.

"Think about it," he says. "If a fish swims by six baits that are presented similarly, and number seven has a decidedly different look, guess who’s getting bit?"