By Joe Shead
Tip-ups, whether they’re of the smooth-spinning spindle variety or the ancient but effective stick style, are a staple for ice anglers. But far fewer anglers have tip-downs in their five-gallon buckets of ice-fishing goodies. If you want to catch more fish on late ice, especially the finicky ones, you might want to try tip-downs.
Although they have similar names, tip-downs are quite different from tip-ups. They are similar in that they allow anglers to fish a line from quite a distance away, but that’s where the similarities end.
Myriad styles of tip-downs are available. Well, actually, although there are a few commercial manufacturers of tip-downs, most are homemade jobs. And the way to build them is up to the individual angler, probably based on what your friends have or what you’ve seen in stores.
The concept is basically the same as tip-ups, however. A tip-down consists of an ice-fishing rod balanced horizontally on a fulcrum. When a fish bites, it upsets the balance and the tug causes the rod to tip down.
Hmm, wonder where they came up with the name?
Making and rigging tip-downs is half art and half science. It takes a lot of experimentation to get your rod to balance horizontally. Most tip-down rods are the old-school variety with either a simple peg system around which the line is wrapped, or with the old, flat-spool reels. The reason for this is that you want a lightweight reel that makes the rod balance more easily.
Spinning reels can be used, but they are heavy and I think they make finding a balance point more difficult.
You’ll need some sort of base to support the rod. This is where you can get creative.
Boards, PVC pipe, or plastic or metal contraptions that clamp to a bucket are most commonly used. A Google search will show you that the sky’s the limit when it comes to base designs. However you build your mousetrap, what you need is a base that supports the rod horizontally and allows the rod to swing down unencumbered when a fish bites.
A really simple design that I’ve employed involves either a 1 X 4 board or a 2-inch-diameter length of PVC pipe. In either case, the top end, which will support the rod, is hollowed out – sort of like football goal posts. The tops of the posts will support the rod, while the hollowed-out area provides room for the rod to swing.
The fulcrum is the most critical part of the whole process. My brother is a tinkerer, and he is constantly building a better mousetrap – or in this case, a fish trap. He drills a hole through the rod handle, then inserts stiff wire such as coat-hanger wire through the hole, allowing it to stick out an inch or two on either side. The wire should fit snugly inside the rod so it doesn’t twist easily, keeping the rod and wire as one unit.
At the top of the “goal posts,” he cuts a shallow groove in which the wire will rest. The wire and rod together will pivot in this groove.
Often, it takes several drilling attempts in the rod to find the right balance point. That point of balance will change depending on the size of minnow you use and the amount of split shot you use to weigh down the minnow (yes, the rig is that sensitive). Making multiple holes right away just makes sense so that you can adjust to changing conditions on the ice.
Another option is to add split shot or other weights along the rod. With some electrical or duct tape, you can adjust the weight positioning on the fly.
It will take some experimenting to get the rod to balance correctly, and even when you think you’ve got it on your test run, it always changes when you add bait.
Our simple board or pipe bases are simply placed in slush or snow near the hole. Set the base back from the ice hole so the rod tip is centered over the hole.
We always fish for crappies with tip-downs. These sensitive contraptions let us suspend minnows and then let crappies take the bait with little resistance.
For crappies, we go with 4-pound-test line, a single small split shot, and a tiny treble hook. Fathead minnows usually gets the nod as bait because they are hardy.
Watching tip-downs is exciting. Often, they will start bobbing as the minnow gets excited. This usually makes me stop my own jigging so I can watch the drama unfold. After several tips and bobs, wham! The rod slams down toward the ice and the race is on for the tip-down.
We set the hook, then usually retrieve the line hand over hand, given the primitive nature of the reel. Painting the butt of the rods orange can be a good idea for times when you don’t see the rod go down. The orange stands out if you have a field of several tip-downs working for you and your partners.
For all their effectiveness at catching finicky crappies, tip-downs do have their drawbacks.
For one thing, they can test your patience when you’re trying to find the tipping point. Also, they are bothersome to fish with on windy days because you’ll constantly see false tips. Also, on really cold days, the line freezes into the hole rapidly, preventing fish from pulling the rod downward.
However, tip-downs are a fun and effective way to catch crappies. You can spread them out if you’ve got fishing partners and keep track of a roaming school. Plus, it’s downright exciting to watch the rod bounce, then slam ice-ward. You never know what’s waiting on the other end of that line!