Ice fishing

Brian Mulherin photo

Tip-ups aren’t just great for pike. You can also catch walleyes with them if you pay attention to details when setting them up.

The ice got a little soft locally this week. When that happens, you want to be careful in your travels and you also want to stay away from the pack. A great way to do that is to set a few tip-ups.

There are two schools of tip-up fishing: The people who just throw one out for insurance and the dedicated tip-up anglers. More often than not, the people who catch 15-20-pound pike on tip-ups are people who are dedicated tip-up anglers who pay attention to the little things. They check their leaders and re-tie them year after year. They make sure they have only the weight they need and no more. They set their depths with care.

What follows are some tips for tip-up fishing.

Tip-up types

Tip-ups are ancient technology. Aboriginal peoples would set lines under crossed sticks on the ice for fish. Modern people still do this, we just add some fancy parts like a spool of line and a flag to notify us of bites.

When the ice is new and soft and only a damn fool would take out a snowmobile or quad, the “polar” style tip-ups are a great option. These lay flat on the ice and are less susceptible to being tripped by the wind. The drawbacks to them are that the tiny spools sit horizontal in the water and the line just always seems to foul as you’re trying to wind line back on. But as I said, in high wind — and we see a lot of those days — you can’t beat these tip-ups.

A traditional three-stick tip-up, which has two crossed horizontal sticks one vertical stick, is the choice of most anglers for two reasons — first, they are more visible to snowmobilers and second, they are more visible to their owners when the snow gets deep. The largest of these are sought-after and pricey, but they are worth their weight in gold.

Regardless of the type of tip-up you choose, you’ll want to make sure that, once set, the sticks and spools stay in position and that the spools feed line smoothly when a fish takes the bait.


What line is always a question. Black Dacron or green Dacron line is used for two reasons: first, it’s visible on the ice and second, it handles relatively easily, even when wet and freezing. A friend taught me to just use plain old 20-pound-test monofilament line on my tip-ups and it hasn’t disappointed me, except in the wind. When it’s windy, you definitely want a line you can see and keep track of. Also, when it’s bitter cold and every splash of water turns into a jagged knife-edge, you’re better off with Dacron. Superlines are not recommended for tip-ups. I just haven’t had good luck handling them in the cold.

All of the above refers to running lines, though. For leaders, you want fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon sinks while monofilament floats. Especially when you’re walleye fishing, this is important, as you can end up with some pretty small, lively bait. Fluorocarbon also is less visible in water than monofilament.

Your leader strength should be determined by your intended quarry. If you’re fishing for hammerhandle pike on a local lake with a high bag limit, you can probably get away with 8-pound-test fluoro leader. However, if there’s a chance of 10-to-15-pound pike you’ll want to have at least a 12-pound-test leader. On waters connected to Lake Michigan, you might want as high as 15-pound-test or even 20-pound-test. Having said that, though, my good friends Pat Bentley and Dan Zatarga have landed multiple 15-plus-pound pike on tip-ups set for walleye with 6-pound-test leaders. Always attach any leader with a small, high-quality ball-bearing swivel.

Hooking up

Choosing a hook for a tip-up is a decision driven by your bait. If you’re using dead bait like smelt or herring, you’ll want to use a Swedish hook. These hooks help your bait lie horizontal in the water, giving your dead bait a more natural appearance. That’s the theory, anyway. Pike take a bait head first, traditionally, so set your hook up with the barb behind the head of your dead bait.

Treble hooks are far more common for tip-ups and you can vary the size of your treble hook with your bait, but you should always think small. With Mark Martin’s ice schools we use size 10 and 12 trebles to hook emerald shiners or “blues.” The aforementioned catches by Bentley and Zatarga were largely on these tiny trebles baited with blues.

Now, if I am planning to fish Pere Marquette Lake or Manistee Lake or Portage Lake for trophy pike, am I using a size 12 treble? No, probably not. I will use the smallest treble that I think has the strength to stand up to 20 pounds of angry pike. This may be a size 10 or an 8. You don’t know until you have the hook in your hand and try to bend off the individual point of the hook.

One final tip, no matter what size or shape hook, no matter how old, always touch them up with a hook file before you put them into the bait.


Suckers? Golden shiners? Blues? Smelt?

Sometimes your bait is chosen for you by bait-shop availability. That’s why many anglers keep a stock of frozen smelt on hand. You don’t want your Sunday ruined by the bait truck running late. And honestly, if you talk to the trophy fishermen, they will choose a dead smelt over other live bait.

However, my personal preference is golden shiners over all others, unless I’m in a lake with a good chance of catching a walleye. If I think I can get a walleye and I can get some blues longer than 2 inches, I’ll actually use those. You’d be surprised at the size of perch you can catch on a big emerald shiner, too.

Suckers work, but I’ve rarely seen truly big pike caught on four-inch suckers available at local tackle shops.

The conventional wisdom is that suckers swim down when they’re on the hook, while shiners swim up. In reality, it probably doesn’t matter as long as they’re swimming. Check your bait often by just feeling the line to make sure your bait is moving. This is part of why it’s important not to put too much weight on the line. Conversely, too little weight can have your bait swimming up under the surface of the ice. Don’t use more than a quarter-ounce of lead on your line unless required by large bait or water deeper than 20 feet.

Going fishing

First, you’ll want to set the depth on your tip-up with a plummet or clip-on sinker. Once you get that to bottom, clip on a tiny red-and-white bobber. Now, you’ll move your bobber down the line however far you want your bait off bottom, remembering to add about a foot for the length of the tip-up’s vertical post. So if you want your bait 18 inches off bottom, you’ll move the bobber down the line 30 inches from the surface of the water.

Then, you’ll bring up your plummet, remove it from the line and clip it onto your jacket so you can remember where you put it.

Remember we talked about moving bait? Hook your live bait closer to the tail than the dorsal fin. This does two things: it keeps your bait swimming to stay horizontal instead of just hanging on the hook, but it also puts your hook just inside the mouth of the fish rather than down the gullet if they eat the bait head first. This results in more corner-of-the-mouth hookups, which is where you want to hook any fish, especially toothy ones.

But back to setting up. Lower your bait down the hole slowly so that your line plays out rather than bunches up.

When you get your little bobber down to the surface of the ice, set your flag and lower the spool into the hole.

Now turn your tip-up so that the flag is less likely to trip from the prevailing wind and be patient.

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