Ice Fishing Tip Ups

By: Milton F. Whitmore

“Flag up!”
ice fishing with tip upsThe cry rang across the ice as every angler within earshot quickly scanned the surrounding ice to see who the lucky angler was. The blaze orange pennant was cheerily waving in the light westerly breeze moving across the frozen surface of Portage Lake. Without hesitation, I saw it was the single rig that I had set about two hours earlier. I was fishing for the dandy perch which inhabit the lake here in Manistee County, and had set out a large golden shiner hanging down from a tip-up that at one time my father used in the lakes around Grand Rapids when I was a kid.

I sprang from my seat on the ice (it’s amazing how, when one of my tip-up flags jumps to alert I can move into action with the fluid motion of my youth) and hurried toward the waving flag. The rig had been set along the top edge of a fifteen foot shelf that dove into deeper water. I knew that a large weed bed also adorned the bank and northern pike found the feeding in the area to their liking. The previous week I had scored with a bruising fish tipping the hand held scales at a bit over fourteen pounds. That fish had been slipped back into the inky black water to again swim and prey on the baitfish below.

I knew that even bigger fish cruised in the waters of that area.

Once again, the old reliable tip-up was proving to be in tune here in the early years of the 21st Century.

However it was no accident that the rig, whose years passed at least the half century mark, had worked flawlessly. If pre-season scouting is a must for the hopeful deer hunter, pre-season maintenance on equipment is just as crucial for the knowing ice angler. As simple as some of them seem to be, and indeed they are, tip-ups require some time and effort in order for them to perform when a trophy is on the other end of the line.

What’s right and what’s wrong, especially in an area of which type of tip-up is best suited for the task can get very involved. Suffice it to say that today’s ice anglers have a wide variety from which to choose. The one tip in this area I feel is crucial is to select a model that will insure the reel and line does not freeze up as it sits out on the lake in frigid temperatures.

Whatever tip-ups you use you’ll be well served to do some pre-fishing checking of your gear.

Dig out your tip-ups and check them over to see that they function the way they were designed to. All moving parts need to operate easily and smoothly. A wary lunker can feel the resistance caused by a faulty spool of line or tripping mechanism. Neglect and poor maintenance will eventually cost hard water anglers the stress of frustration and wasted time when setting out your tip-ups.

Replace last season’s line with new braided, fluorocarbon, or braided line. This is a key item that connects you to the fish and so it must be reliable. Wear and tear takes its toll on all gear and the fishing line is certainly no exception.

Over the years I’ve learned to avoid steel or other wire leaders, opting rather for a strand of 10 lb. test mono or fluorocarbon, tying whatever hook I use directly. Many anglers wail in protest over this. They point out that the toothy mouth gear of a northern pike or walleye can make quick work of slicing through mono and they don’t want to take that chance. In answer to them I mention that in many years of tip-up fishing I rarely (actually I can’t think of one) have had a toothy predator fish cut through mono. That’s been my experience.

The thinner mono, as opposed to a stout wire leader is less likely to be seen. Being softer, flexible, and weighing less than wire, monofilament will allow for a more natural swim of the baitfish.

Hooks? The usual setup is to use a treble hook of whatever size a fisherman prefers. Again, going against the grain, I’ve found that single hooks in size 4 or a bit larger will result in more hits without a lessen of hookups.

A smooth running spool is essential. Spray a light coating of WD40, or apply a thin layer of silicone gel or spray to all moving parts of the reel and flag release mechanism. If your tip-ups have folding “appendages,” be sure the screws, nuts, and/or bolts and other metal components are given a coat of corrosion/protective lubricant as well.

Buying New Tip-Ups

So, you can’t resist trying some of the newer style tip-ups or perhaps you’re just getting into ice fishing for the first time. If this is the case then you will find a huge selection of high-tech rigs from which to choose. Fancy frames, bright colors, gadgets, and claims of invincibility that practically guarantee that you’ll catch fish may claim your attention, however don’t be swayed by some of these mere cosmetics when choosing new tip-ups. The three most important qualities are durability, visibility, and functionality. Bargain basement tip-ups may do the trick for a year or two, but for real quality you’ll have to fork out a few more dollars. Solidly built units that will easily last a decade are available in many styles, including the old fashioned types that have proven their worth for the better part of a century. As long as they are constructed to be structurally sound those old style tip-ups work perfectly.

Durability refers not only to the materials from which the unit is made, but also the construction of the working parts. High-tech plastics and/or polymers are popular for the components and they serve well. Some of these newer materials are light in weight, easy to carry and set up, but they cannot take day after day of exposure to frigid temperatures and sunlight. Repeated use weakens them and eventually they crack.

Wooden tip-ups will not go through material fatigue that can be found in plastics and their metal parts are more durable. Metal parts may be colder on those sub-freezing days, but it outlasts and outperforms plastic. Whatever material you choose keep in mind that you will reap if you buy cheap and that reaping won’t necessarily be in fish caught.

Visibility! This is a feature of an effective tip-up that is given short shrift by too many ice anglers. You must be able to easily see your tip-up and especially a raised flag from upwards of 100 yards away regardless of wind driven snow (up to a point of course) and depth of snow on the ice. Can you pick out the upraised flag against a variety of backgrounds? Brightly colored flags are a must and keep in mind that variations of yellow will bleed out into what appears to be white at any distance. Larger flags are also easier to spot across a frozen lake so avoid those tip-ups with postage stamp flags.

Deep snow will require that the flag arm be tall. Short armed tip-up flags get lost in the depth of snow on a lake as is sometimes experienced. If you can’t see the upraised flag the tip-up is virtually useless.

The actual color of the rig will aid in its visibility. This can also prevent the unit from being accidentally stepped on while lying on the ice. Of course a well constructed wooden tip-up can be painted if it needs to be. Try that with plastic.

An “action indicator” is a valuable tool on any tip-up. Such a device can be viewed from a distance and actually registers line movement when a fish is swimming away with the bait. Most of the more modern rigs have such an indicator which is a great feature.

One last feature that some anglers prefer is the tip-up’s ability to keep a hole from freezing over. A few brands have a round cover that sits snugly over the ice hole and insulates it from the frigid air.

Ice fishing tip ups is a great way to spend a few hours or an entire day out on the ice. Inherent in this type of fishing is the mystery of what fish it is that surges on the other end of that hand held line as an angler kneels on the ice of a frozen lake. Get your tip-ups cranked up for some fast paced action on your favorite lake.

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