Tip Up Fishing 101

By Nick Johnson

When you break ice fishing down to a minimal level, a tip-up is about as simple and straightforward as it gets. This style of fishing dates back an awful long time and has, if anything, gained in popularity over the past two decades. Tip-ups come in a wide variety of styles ranging from homemade chunks of wood to seemingly high-tech devices which hold a rod and allow you to fight the fish on rod and reel when the flag trips. They can be used to target virtually any species and add a tremendous level of excitement to the sport.

The most common species targeted by tip-up anglers you could argue would be pike, followed by walleye. In Iowa we have a few great places to target pike, namely the Iowa Great Lakes region and a handful of other lakes and potholes along the upper tier of counties as well as the Mississippi river backwaters and various other pike stocked gravel pits and ponds. You can also use tip-ups to very effectively catch largemouth bass and even catfish. When using a tip-up, you get the added bonus of soaking live or dead bait for a big predator while poking around and fishing as you normally would. Or if you just want to get a bunch of family or buddies together and set tip-ups and hang out while you wait for a bite that is also a lot of fun.

If you’ve tip-up fished before then you have at least a general understanding of how they function and how to use them. The operation and concept is simple but with anything in fishing, there are some key tips and tricks that can help improve success with a given strategy.

The Rig
The type of rig you go with depends a lot on the target species in mind. What doesn’t change or shouldn’t have to change is the braided line you use to fill the spool with. If the tip-up doesn’t come pre-spooled with tip-up braid, most tackle shops should carry some through the ice season. In my opinion, 30 pound is more than enough to handle any fish you intend to tackle in the upper Midwest through the ice. Since you generally want to run some type of leader, this moderate braid doesn’t matter a whole lot to the fish and gives a fisherman enough to grip when fighting.

What matters the most is what’s on the end of that braid presenting the bait. In a walleye, bass or even trout scenario I will usually tie a small barrel swivel on the end of the braid and then attach 3-4 feet of 10-pound fluorocarbon leader to present the bait. If targeting pike, I will run the braid to an 80 or even 100-pound fluorocarbon leader, or simply a pre-rigged sucker harness. Make sure to read the regulations on this however depending on which state you are fishing. Multiple treble hooks on a rig may not be allowed.

Generally, I run just a single treble hook regardless, placed into the back of the baitfish I am using. Use enough weight to slowly sink the baitfish down but not too much in that it impedes the bait or possibly drags after a predator grabs the bait and swims away. Some anglers like to use a slip sinker but I’ve had equally good luck just crimping an appropriate sized split shot a foot or two above the bait. Be sure to size the hook to the bait you are using and make sure those barbs are sharp! Keep in mind what you want the baitfish to do also. In most cases I like to hook the baitfish just behind the dorsal fin with a single treble hook, leaving the other two exposed. If you are fishing with dead bait for pike, hook the bait so that it hangs horizontally when at rest.

Setting the Flag
This may seem elementary but it’s worth a quick mention. After you send the bait down to the right depth you will set the flag under a trip spindle. On most traditional tip-ups you will see two grooves, one on either side. One will be thin and shallow and the other much deeper. The shallow groove is designed for light baits and light biting fish and the deep groove is designed to offer more resistance against tripping for larger active baits.

If the larger groove isn’t enough resistance for your bait and the flag keeps tripping from that you can go an extra step further and tilt the whole spool assembly a little so that it sits slightly beyond a 90-degree angle to the tip-up frame. This will cause the trip spindle to work into the flag creating additional resistance. This can be a critical trick when fishing with big lively bait.

Setting the Hook and Fighting
When and how and angler sets the hook can become a big topic for debate and really what it boils down to is what you see and feel when you get to the tip up and begin to handle the line. First things first though, we’ll start off with what you should do when you get to the tip up after a flag has tripped. The flag trips, you run to it and the excitement is high. This is the time to take a deep breath and watch the spindle top to see if it is spinning or staying still. Wait for it to spin if it isn’t already and grab the body of the tip-up in one hand and carefully start to extract the whole assembly from the water. Once the spool clears the water, grab the line in your other hand. If the fish is running let it continue to take the line and set the tip-up down on its side with the spool facing the hole.

If the fish is still running go ahead and give a good hook set in an upward motion fully extending your arm if possible. If the fish has stopped, you can either do two things, slowly put tension on the line to check for weight and then set the hook or wait for the fish to move off with the bait again and then set. If I’m targeting pike I generally don’t like to set the hook on the pause unless I find a flag that has been tripped for quite some time that somehow got missed. Sometimes when a pike stops they will reposition the bait in their mouth and setting the hook can rip it right out.

If you do find a flag that has been tripped for a prolonged period of time, use the same caution when removing the tip-up from the water and set the hook if tension from the weight of a fish is felt once the line is brought tight. When fighting the fish if you are right handed, use your left hand as your drag tension and pull the line through with your right. Keep constant pressure on the fish and be prepared to allow it to run if it wants to. The opposite naturally for left handers. You can also use both hands to bring a fish in if you quickly determine its not large enough to need line given in a hurry.

Undoubtedly the bane of tip-up anglers is dealing with holes that freeze back over when its super cold out. This can be a real pain when a flag finally trips and you must break ice to get the spool out of the water, not to mention a potentially large fish. There are a couple tricks to use to help with this. The first would be to use a round tip-up that covers the entire circumference of the hole and lightly pack snow around it. This will prevent wind from carving through the hole and help to utilize the temperature of the water rather than the ambient air temp to insulate the hole.

A step further than this would be a round style tip up with foam insulation built in. This further helps to keep the temp between the tip-up and the water just barely above freezing. A third option would be to use round flexible foam cutouts that you can purchase from tackle shops or make yourself that the tip-up shaft slips through and the tip-up body sits on top. Pack snow around the edges of these mats as well.

Where this topic really comes into play is when you have a group of people out on the ice running a pile of tip-ups in shallower water. Everyone is having a good time as they should, maybe you have a grill going and some tunes rolling, just an excellent time. One thing I’ve learned from friends who are big time into this is to avoid having folks walking around too much and creating footstep noise in the proximity of tip-ups. Noise above the ice transfers very well below and this can be enough to spook predatory fish out of an area. Something to keep in mind anyhow.

Setting the Bait
Last thing to mention is what depth to set a bait at. Naturally for walleyes you will want to be at or near the bottom with a bait and the same goes for catfish. Pike, bass and especially trout however can be caught anywhere in the water column depending on the circumstances. If you are out with a group running nothing but tip-ups or at least more than a couple, put a few baits down 4-6 feet below the ice even in water that may be 15 feet or deeper. You’d be surprised at how far up a pike will travel to eat a baitfish and in clearer water these baits are highly visible from a distance.

Keep these simple tips in mind when venturing out to set tip-ups and be strategic in where you set them focusing on depth breaks, inside bends and weed lines as you normally would when fishing rod and reel. Good luck on the ice this season and stay safe!