Equipment January 2020

Straight-Line Reels for Winter Crappie

Straight-Line Reels for Winter Crappie

by Mike Gnatkowski

They might look like a fly fishing reel but many ice fishermen say straight-line reels catch them more fish. Many ice fishermen have reverted to old school ways using straight-line reels rather than spinning reels. Here’s why.

Straight-line reels prevent line twist that causes lures to spin and make winter crappies suspicious. (Photo courtesy

Straight-line reels have been around as long as the wheel when it comes to ice-fishing history. Unlike conventional spinning reels where the line sometimes twists, on straight-line reels the line travels on and off the spool as the name says – in a straight line. Therefore, the line does not twist as often happens with spinning reels. It is only recently that the concept of straight-line reels has been taken to new levels.

Rudimentary Schooley ice rods and reels were the first straight-line combos that ice-anglers used. “We first learned why the Schooley reels worked so well when we were sight fishing,” said ice-fishing tournament pro Myron Gilbert. “We learned watching fish approach our jigs that a madly spinning lure usually turned the fish off. More importantly, when the lure wasn’t spinning our hook-up percentage went way up.”

Ice-fishing guru Brian “Bro” Brosdahl remembers ice anglers using primitive straight-line reels when he was growing up. “I remember when I was 12 years old using fly reels on Mille Lacs Lake,” he said. “The Schooley reels were always popular because they were light and eliminated the spin the many discovered was counterproductive.”

“Now that the mainstream is getting up to speed the interest in straight-line reels has skyrocketed,” explained Brosdahl. “There’s still a place for spinning reels. They’re a good choice when you’re fishing live bait, braid or targeting predators in deep water, but I now find myself using straight-line reels about 90% of the time.”

Brosdahl has been on the cutting edge of developing Frabill’s expansive line of straight-line reels. Frabill’s Black Ops outfits are a modern day version of the original Schooley combos.  Combining titanium components with a superlight rod blank and a high-performance one-piece reel, the manufacturer says Black Ops combos provide the most sensitive bite detection available. No need for spring bobbers here.

The Bro Series Straight Line 371 reel is Frabill’s flagship offering in the company’s extensive line of straight-line reels. Other straight-line reels in the Frabill line include the 101XLA that offers lightweight composition, a 1:1 gear ratio and classic, no-frills dependability. Ice-fishing legend Dave Genz remembers using small aluminum disc straight-line reels as early as the 1960’s.

“They had a nut for a drag adjustment, but once the Schooley reels came out they were a big improvement,” said Genz.

Genz agrees that the major advantage of today’s straight-line reels are that tiny lures don’t spin when lowered into the water and you can measure pulls off the reel. Most reels have a free spool feature, better drags and you can actually fight the fish using the rod and reel. Genz said straight-line reels are made of plastic, carbon fiber or aluminum, which makes them lighter and warmer. Most reels feature 2 or 3:1 gear ratios.

Genz has had a major hand in developing Clam Outdoors ice-fishing products. The Ice Spooler is the centerpiece of Clam’s straight-line reels. The Ice Spooler has a wide arbor design to reduce line coiling.

“I’m not a big fan of fluorocarbon for ice fishing,” said Genz. “It kinks more and it’s stiff.”

Steve Arbour used a straight-line to fool this winter crappie. (Photo courtesy

Clam upped the retrieve ratio on the Spooler Elite to a quick 2.3 to 1 to keep up with bulldogging crappie. Both the Ice Spooler 200 and the Spooler Elite come in combos with matching rod designed by Genz to maximize performance. Tom Gruenwald and HT Enterprises are always on the edge of ice-fishing technology and evolution.

“I think straight-line reels go back to the 70’s and the original Schooley ice reels,” said Gruenwald. “Some of the first straight-line reels I can recall were Slater reels. HT made its first straight-line reel, the TR-10B, back in the mid-80’s.

“The biggest changes in straight-line reels has been the drag systems,” shared Gruenwald.

HT has two multipliers in their straight-line offerings. The PFI-5000 has a quick 2:1 gear ratio. The TL-100D goes one step further offering a 3.5:1 gear ratio. With any straight-line reel Gruenwald said adding backing will help prevent line snarls.

“When using extremely light line on tight-line reels I would recommend adding some backing instead of just filling the reel with thin line. If you’re going to be fishing 1- or 2-pound test line, use some larger diameter 4- or 6-pound test line for backing and attach the two with a tiny barrel swivel to help prevent line twist. The drags on straight-line reels are just not as smooth as a spinning reel.”


Here’s a video from Brosdahl demonstrating more about straight-line reels.

(Mike “Gnat” Gnatkowski has worn a lot of different hats during his years in the out-of-doors. He has been an outdoor writer/photographer/book author for more than 40 years. He continues to contribute to an array of outdoor publications as a freelance writer/photographer. He also scribes a very successful blog at

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