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Fine Tuning Tip Ups

By Mark Romanack

Walleye can be taken effectively using tip ups like the
disk model shown here.
It’s hard to beat the feeling when something at the end of of a fishing line makes its presence known. A tug on the end of the line is great, but this sensation isn’t the only way to make the most of ice fishing. The time honored tip up is another excellent way to target a wealth of fish species including trout, walleye, pike and burbot. 

A tip up doesn’t reward anglers with a sharp rap they can feel, but the colorful flag that pops up when a bite occurs is just as satisfying. The simple words “flag up” are enough to warm the cold fingers and toes of any angler.

Fishing tip ups run the gambit from simple and inexpensive devices to complicated machines. Some models are sophisticated enough you might want to brush up on the instruction booklet before trying to use one. Like just about everything else to do with fishing, the tip up has been invented, reinvented, improved and refined countless times over the years. It seems the dark of winter is a great time for would-be inventors to hone their craft.

The many types of tip ups on the market vary greatly in the materials used, the triggering systems involved, how the line is stored and many other aspects of their design. All tip ups however have one important characteristic in common. These fishing aids are designed to be used as set or stationary lines. The bait is suspended under the ice at a desired level in the water column. Hopefully something with fins will happen by and help itself to an easy meal.

Anglers in most states are allowed to use two fishing lines, but some states allow more and some less. Be sure to check with your local fishing regulations before setting out tip ups. 

Ironically, the tip up is often used as an after thought by anglers who are focused primarily on jigging. Treated as a bonus line, the tip up often ends up producing both the biggest fish and most action.

Tip ups are mostly used to target walleye, pike or trout, but just about any fish can be caught using a tip up. Savvy perch anglers sometimes use a tip up baited with a small minnow as a searching tool for yellowbellies. Rigging one of these set lines a ways away from a spot that’s being actively jigged helps to cover more water and search out roaming schools of perch. 

Tip ups are widely used for targeting pike, but
they can also be used to catch early winter
largemouth bass like this stud taken
by Jake Romanack.
The big news in tip ups isn’t the types of fish they are used to catch, but rather the new innovations that allow these devices to catch more fish. Tip up designs that completely cover the hole in the ice are a major improvement over the traditional designs that simply use a wooden or plastic arm to support a spool of line below the ice. 

Blocking light from entering the water makes for a more natural presentation and the tip up also helps to keep the hole from quickly freezing shut. With traditional style tip ups it’s necessary and important to frequently chip ice away from the hole so if a fish is hooked it can be landed easily.

This new style of tip up also has the advantage of being easy to set and transport. Several can be stacked in a five gallon pail without fear of tangled lines. Slick idea.

The types of lines used on tip ups has also seen major improvements in recent years. The traditional Dacron and nylon braided lines once popular with tip up fishermen are quickly being replaced with high tech fluorocarbon and coated lines that stay flexible and manageable even in ultra cold water. 

All my tip up spools are rigged with a coated low stretch line that doesn’t absorb water and freeze. To this coated line I add a six foot leader of premium fluorocarbon line. Depending on the species I’m targeting at the time, all I need to do is match the fluorocarbon line diameter to the situation.

For example, when targeting pike I use a 20 pound test fluorocarbon leader that’s tough enough to prevent pike from biting through the leader. For walleye and trout fishing I switch to a lighter and harder to see eight pound test leader. 

This simple set up allows me to quickly rig a tip up for a multitude of species and fishing situations. The best way to join the two lines is with a small barrel swivel tied to the end of the coated line using a Palomar knot. To learn how to tie this essential knot visit

I pre-rig different leaders of fluorocarbon line and store them on a leader wheel until I’m on the ice and ready to set a tip up rig. Most of these leaders are about six feet long. On one end I tie a simple snap that is attached to the barrel swivel at the end of the coated line. At the other end of my leader an appropriate hook type and size for the fishing at hand is tied on.

For bass, walleye and trout fishing a No. 6 or 8 treble hook is ideal for tip up fishing applications. For pike a larger No. 4 treble hook gets the nod. Tip ups are amazingly effective, but a couple simple rigging tips makes these fish traps even better. It’s important to use just enough weight to sink the bait when fishing a tip up. Pinch on weights such as split shot are a simple and easy way to add just the right amount of weight to a tip up line.

Big largemouth and even smallmouth bass are
easy pickings for tip up fishermen who get
out on first ice.
Tip ups also work best when a small float is used to mark the depth range being fished. The small foam floats used by panfishermen can be threaded onto the main line and held in place with a tooth pick or a tiny clip-on style bobber can be placed on the line at the surface after the desired lead is set.

When a fish strikes and pulls out line the float goes along for the ride. Once the fish is landed, the float quickly indicates the exact depth that was fished making it easy to reset  into the same strike zone again and again.

At the terminal end it’s tough to beat a very lively minnow for tip up fishing, but at times a dead smelt will work just as well. When small minnows are used such as for trout or walleye a single treble hook placed near the middle of the minnow’s back is ideal. If larger minnows are used for pike or muskie, a quick strike rig is recommended. These two hook rigs  position one hook in the nose of the minnow and a second in the middle of the back, increasing the chances that the fish will be hooked even if it doesn’t have the minnow down it’s mouth.

Tip ups are both fun and productive winter fishing tools. For the best results change the bait often, move the tip ups around to cover more water and don’t be afraid to put away the jigging stick and fish multiple tip ups!