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

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10 tried-and-true tips for ice fishing with tip-ups

When you’re tip-up fishing for northern pike, it’s the little things that might mean more fish, especially placement of your bait. (Photo courtesy of Joe Shead)

Fishing with tip-ups is one of the most low-tech, enjoyable ways to ice fish.

When I was in high school, my buddies and I would set out a spread of tip-ups, then just wait for a flag while cooking brats or tossing a football. It was stupid simple. And very often effective.

I’m not trying to pretend that catching fish on tip-ups is complicated, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me chase more flags.

1) Cool your bait

Especially if you’re using bait from a previous outing that has been sitting in a warm fish house, I cool the water slowly so the minnows don’t experience shock when they hit near-freezing water. Upon leaving the bait shop or home, I add a few scoops of snow, which cools the water gradually, like an ice cube would.

I’ve seen minnows, particularly golden shiners, go belly-up when moved from warm to cold water.

2) Keep it high

Especially when fishing for pike, keep your bait high. At the very least, keep the minnow above the weeds to prevent it from getting fouled and to make it more visible.

If you set the bait a few feet above the weeds, it’s a lot easier to see, and pike won’t hesitate to chase it.

3) Check those lines

I can’t tell you how many times we fished for hours while huddled in the cab of a truck because it was too cold and nasty to periodically check our tip-ups.

Inevitably, we’d pull some lines at the end of the day that had been sitting for hours without bait, making them utterly useless.

Check your lines frequently to make sure your minnows are still attached (and alive, if it’s supposed to be alive). Also make sure it’s free of weeds. And checking tip-ups also keeps your hole open (or only slightly frozen) so you don’t have to chop out your tip-up at the end of the day.

Shead (above) with a pike caught via tip-up. At right: How you hook your bait depends on a number of variables, including bait size and whether it’s dead or alive. (Photo courtesy of Joe Shead)


4) Drill mindfully

Be thoughtful about where you drill your holes. I don’t know how easily spooked pike really are, but if it’s a sunny day and there’s a blanket of snow on the ice, and then suddenly there’s an 8-inch circle of light penetrating into the water, it probably seems odd to fish.

Maybe not, but I still like to cover my holes, and when there’s patchy snow on the ice, I like to pop the holes in the snow, rather than on glare ice. This also helps with traction.

Plus, using box tip-ups, insulated tip-ups, foam covers, or even notched cardboard over your hole keeps the snow out and helps slow ice buildup in the hole.

5) Trod up action

I firmly believe that walking around on the ice triggers more bites, which is another reason to check your tip-ups.

If I haven’t had a flag in a while, I walk in a circle around my spread, and then even walk within the spread. Especially in shallow water, I’m convinced this gets fish moving, and it’s not unusual to get a flag after walking around your spread, when, prior to that, no flag had tripped for hours.

6) Mark it!

When you’re fishing shallow water, it’s easy to reset your line after you get a flag. But when you’re fishing over deep water, use a line marker to quickly get your bait back in the water.

Drop your bait down with a depth bomb, pull it the desired distance off the bottom or above the weeds, and then slide a button or clip or a tiny red-and-white bobber to the line where it comes off the spool of the tip-up so you know how much line to put out after you get a bite.

It sure beats measuring out 25 feet of line every time when it’s below zero and the wind is ripping.

7) False flags; grrr …

Sometimes a big, lively minnow will trip the tip-up, which is annoying. There are a few ways to deal with this. You could cut off the minnow’s tail to give it less swimming power.

Or, wrap a rubber band around the spindle arm for more friction against the flag arm.

Also note which side of the spindle arm you tuck the flag under. If the spindle arm must rotate down the flag to trip, it will create slightly more resistance than if it must travel up the flag to trip. On some tip-ups you can adjust the spindle height with a set screw. Lower it way down to create more resistance.

8) Consider your hooks

Another consideration is the hook setup you use. Some people fish a multi-hook, quick-strike rig. Others use a single hook or a single treble hook.

The size of the bait, the size of your quarry, and whether you’re using dead or live bait affects hooking method.

Generally with live suckers or shiners measuring 3 to 6 inches, I use a single treble hook, hooked in the minnow’s back. Pike grab a bait sideways, then turn it to swallow it headfirst. If I plan to release fish, I place the treble hook in the bait’s back but closer to the tail so it’s less apt to be swallowed.

If I expect to keep fish, hooking fish deeply isn’t such a concern and you can place the hook farther forward on the minnow. My thought here is if the pike is going to swallow the bait headfirst, the hooking percentage should be better if the hook is farther forward.

9) A flag and a miss

If you get a flag but miss the fish, don’t fret. Often, if you reset your tip-up, the pike will return in a few minutes.

Sometimes it helps to punch a hole next to the tip-up and bring fish in by jigging a flashy spoon (you’ll have to remove another tip-up so you don’t have too many lines out). This is the ol’ one-two punch where the pike can hit the flashy spoon if desired, or go more subtle and hit the minnow.

10) But Joe, when?

When to set the hook is another consideration for tip-up anglers. Usually, a fish hits the bait and runs with it, then stops to swallow it, then runs again.

I was always taught to hit ‘em when they make the second run. Usually that gives you a pretty good hooking percentage, although sometimes it results in deeply hooked fish. It’s really just a guessing game.

Set too soon and the fish may not have the hook in its mouth. Wait too long and the fish may be deeply hooked. If you use a multi-treble, quick-strike rig, however, you should be able to set the hook right away.

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