Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Ice auger options: To pistol or to powerhead?

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer

Whether I’m at a sport show or in a retail store, I hear the lament, especially from older anglers: “It’s all so complicated now.” One step removed from, “What will they think of next,” it’s frustration they’re expressing about all the options out there now – in this instance, just to drill a hole in the ice. 

But we really do live in a golden age of technological advancement of the sport of ice fishing. When I first started to hit the ice as a kid, gas-powered ice augers were just arriving on the scene. Within a few years, they were lighter than previous models, but still entirely made of steel and quite heavy compared with today’s options.

The lithium advantage

Today, gas augers are the rarity, with lightweight lithium ion options now the best choice for anglers across the ice belt. There’s a lot to love, with batteries that last for many dozens of holes, even in mid- to late-winter fishing. Add one more battery to the mix and you’ve got an auger that will drill as many holes in the ice as you could fish in any one day.  

Very quickly, gas augers, while still useful, are becoming a relic of the past as lightweight lithium options move to the fore.
Photo by Matt Addington

Not to mention, they’re extremely lightweight compared with their gas-powered brethren. Hole-hopping is easier now than it ever was, due almost entirely to the lithium revolution.

Of course, lithium extends to the cordless drill-powered pistol bits or lightweight flighting attached to them. There’s a growing cadre of anglers who like the thought of being able to build a deck one weekend, and drill a hole in the ice with that same tool the following weekend. 

As lithium has revolutionized the power-tool trade, it has made its way into our flashers, making them extremely lightweight, long-lasting, and durable. The same could be said for ice augers, whether settling on a lithium ion powerhead or relying on the existing lithium-powered cordless drill you may already own.

To pistol …

I must admit, my first experience with a cordless drill-powered ice auger was less than stellar. I experienced the negatives of a product that wasn’t quite in full swing with the technology pushing it.  

My drill batteries didn’t last long, and the flighting was steel, offering only a nominal decrease in overall weight. Yet the maneuverability of the entire setup, along with the value brought by not having to purchase a separate power source, revealed some promise.

Now, most of those downsides are behind us. The lithium battery technology works better in cold weather and you get more holes per charge. Updated cutting systems give anglers options, as do the polycarbonate flighting systems that are a durable plastic-like material that stands up to all the abuse I can give them.  

What’s more is that they’re literally half the weight or less of the lightest full powerhead options out there. Shrink the diameter size of the flighting for, say, panfish, and you’ve got something that’s even lighter still, not to mention extremely fast. I can’t think of a better way to prowl for perch or bluegills in shallow water, or to roam across open ice during warm weather.  

Of course, there are a few downsides, especially when trying to power through thick ice while using bigger diameters (8 inches or more). Cordless drills can fail over time, especially when they see hard use both on and off the ice. Because of the torque generated, I’ve even see people break or sprain wrists by being unprepared for the sheer snap that can occur when blades bind or they bite some serious ice.  

Still, for my money and the value these options provide, they’re a cheap add-on to my gear that always hits the ice with me when I’m chasing panfish.

To powerhead …

There’s just something to be said for the substantial feel and control you get when drilling a hole in the ice with a dedicated powerhead and flighting system. I feel that I can drill more precisely, when the situation calls for it.  

A prime example would be inside of a wheelhouse shelter, when you’re attempting to center the hole in the sleeve or catch-cover ring. Variable-speed drilling, new this year to certain manufacturers’ drills, really takes precision drilling up a notch. Feather the switch to start slowly and get good bite into the ice, then press down fully to accelerate.

Especially when I’m roaming the open ice for predator species, there’s no other auger I’d rather carry than a lithium-powered, dedicated ice drill. Walleyes, lakers, or pike, it matters not. Eight- or 10-inch diameter holes and their associated flightings are simply harder to turn around in a circle with drills that can be underpowered for their use.  

A dedicated powerhead gives you optimum opportunity to grip the drill properly, control the drilling portion of the process, and really get through thick ice.

I’ll admit that this opinion is educated both by experience and preference, and to each their own. Although lightweight flighting and drill combinations are cheaper and lighter overall, it’s amazing how lightweight flighting on dedicated lithium drill units have made their weight shrink as well. For a few more pounds, I’ll carry the real thing when seeking bigger fish and drilling more holes. 

Other considerations

I’m of the belief that unless you’re looking for a drill unit that can withstand lots of abuse in the bed of a bouncing truck, you’re going to enjoy the weight savings of poly, lightweight flighting systems, whether powered by a drill or powerhead.  

The next thing to consider is the cutting system, and I’m a fan of the newer hybrid-style cut. Shaver blades can be fast, especially when compared with chipper blades that crush the ice versus cutting it. Yet, I like the versatility of angled blades that don’t curve, because they’re harder to knock out of tune, and when paired with an appropriate powerhead, they cut even faster than the shaver-blade systems of old. 

If your aim is to find the best dedicated powerhead and drill, pay careful attention to the design. You’re looking for something that grips easily and comfortably, without having too wide a stance such that it fits in tight places. A variable-speed trigger is a truly premium option that makes everything easier when cutting inside a hard-house or portable. 

You want a powerhead that’s sold with the option of one or two batteries, because there’s typically a price discount if you know you’ll need two, when buying them together.

If you’re looking for the best flighting for a cordless drill system, you’ll want something with a hexagonal main shaft. That allows strength to the structure that the poly flighting attaches to, including the ice-cutting portion of the head that does the dirty work.  

Strive for something that’s as light as possible, and consider a 6-inch hole for most of your panfish needs. It’s amazing how even trophy panfish have very little problem fitting their way topside through 6-inch-diameter ice holes.  

In the end, there’s only a small additional cost for having both, so you may consider choosing the dedicated powerhead system if you know you’re attached to those older ways of drilling. Add the pistol later if you feel like you want something light and more portable.  

Conversely, it can be nice to save some cash at the outset and see if the cordless drill option works well for you. But I caution against it if you’re drilling lots of holes for predators across the open ice. Truth be told, it’s hard to make a bad choice right now, and you’ll be happy to have either once it’s time to hit the ice.

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