Easy Guide to Tip-up Ice Fishing for Lake Trout

Lake trout are a staple among avid ice anglers for their beauty, size and delicious meat.  Every year thousands of anglers target lakers through the ice hoping for their chance to catch a trophy.

Most of us grab our jigging rods and drop down flashy spoons and minnow mimics.  Yet, few anglers attempt to catch them on a tip-up.  

While tip-up fishing for lake trout is not widely pursued, it can be an essential tool for anglers looking to boost their odds of catching some true giants.

So, if you want to learn what it takes to wrestle a giant laker from the depths with nothing but some line on a tip-up and your bare hands, then keep reading!

How to find lake trout under the ice

Lake trout are built for cold water.  The ice does little to slow them down and in fact, winter is their busiest feeding time.  Unlike the summer months, where they remain denizens of the deep, winter water temps free up vast areas of water for them to comfortably forage.

Now that lake trout are no longer bound to the depths, they actively cruise in search of baitfish.  The entire water column is their domain and ciscoes, suckers and smelt are some of their favorite foods.  Where you find baitfish, you’ll find lake trout.  

Look for breaks, points, reefs and humps in 20 to 60 feet of water.  Focus in on key structure like inside turns where baitfish congregate.  Rarely do we exceed 100 feet in search of hard water lake trout.  

Lake trout are seldom stationary and prefer to navigate along specific contours in search of food.  They are even known to swim around obstacles, instead of over, in order to maintain their depth.

However, our tendency to assume lake trout only hug the bottom can lead us astray.  It is not uncommon for them to chase schooling baitfish just below the ice, using the ice as a barrier to trap minnows as they scarf them down.  Always start shallow and work your gear slowly down to the depths.

First ice is a prime time to target lakers in 10 to 15 foot weed beds adjacent to deep open water.  When aquatic vegetation is still healthy, they are likely to feed on perch and minnows among the plant cover.

Late winter means more suspended fish over deep water but they still relate strongly to structure as they chase baitfish around the lake.

How deep do you ice fish for lake trout

Generally, 20 to 60 feet is the sweet spot for these mobile predators.  Although, it is not uncommon to find them in 10 feet or a 100 feet.  Those are the exceptions so key in on structure in the 20 to 60 foot zone.  

Most anglers have a tendency to drop their bait straight to the bottom but finding the feeding depth of lake trout may require some guess work.

With tip-ups, try suspending your bait 5 to 6 feet off the bottom.  Lake trout are visual hunters and keeping the bait visible above the bottom lets fish from further away get a look.  

Best tip-ups and line for lake trout

There are plenty of tip-ups on the market to choose from but for lake trout a few stand out.  

Insulated tip-ups that cover the hole are ideal for a couple reasons.  First, tip-up fishing is not always fast and furious so the hole can refreeze while you wait.  Second, in the clear water that lake trout reside, a hole in the ice allows a beam of light to pierce the depths which can fend off wary fish.  

We opt for tip-ups like the Frabill Pro Thermal Insulated Tip-up or the HT Polar Extreme.  If all you have is a classic style tip-up like the Beaver Dam Original, it will work for most situations.  Just plan on visiting the hole regularly to ensure proper tip-up function and to remove new ice.

The line of choice for most tip-ups is Dacron line.  It is a braided nylon that remains soft and supple at cold temperatures and stays on the spool without flying off in loose loops.  

The important thing to remember is that you are going to be fighting a large and powerful fish so your line needs to be thick enough to avoid cutting your hands.  Lake trout anglers often opt for heavy, 20 to 30 pound test, mono.  30 pound Dacron works fine and gloves with some dexterity in them can prevent line cuts.

Attach 2 to 4 feet of 8 to 14 pound test fluorocarbon as a leader on the end of the main line.  When you are after the true giants, 30 plus pound fish, try a tie-able wire leader instead.  You will appreciate the added strength. 

The perfect tip-up baits for lake trout

Most of the time tip-ups should be baited with some sort of live minnow.  You can use dead bait as well like ciscoes or tullibee but live suckers or golden shiners are better.  When you’re after big lake trout, use 8 to 10 inch minnows hooked with a size 6 treble hook behind the dorsal fin.  Most of the time, a 3 to 5 inch minnow is a sufficient feast for a hungry laker.

Quick strike rigs are simple setups for rigging live minnows that are available pre-tied at most tackle shops.  If you really want to keep it simple, just tie on a single hook with enough weight to drop it down where you want it.  Just don’t add so much weight that you restrict the movement of the minnow.

Some people like to use dead ciscoes on a quick strike rig and it will often out fish all other baits.  Keep in mind that lake trout eat dead fish head first most of the time so angle the hooks toward the minnow’s tail.  That way the hook gets imbedded when you set it. 

No matter what bait you like to use, let the fish tell you what they want.  Keep experimenting with minnow sizes or between dead and live bait.  Sometimes all the fish want is a piece of cut bait on a single hook.   

Tip-up tactics for lake trout

Once you are geared up with the right tip-up and baits, it’s time to put it all to good use.  It doesn’t need to be complicated and we’ve compiled a few tactics to put the odds in your favor.  

  • Spread out – Lake trout cover large areas when hunting for food.  Make the most of your time by setting up multiple lines (if legal) at least 30 yards apart.  Strategically placing tip-ups around structure and along likely travel routes is a wise move.
  • Cover the water column – If you’re allowed to use several lines at once, use them to your advantage.  Don’t make the mistake of setting each tip-up the same.  Vary the bait and especially, the depth.  Fish one bait shallow and work your way down in depth until you find the hot spot.
  • Actively jig while you wait – Depending on how many lines you’re allowed, it doesn’t hurt to actively jig next to a tip-up.  Sometimes the added flash from a jigging spoon draws in fish from further away than a live minnow.  Once they’re in the area they now have the option to eat your lure or the live minnow.  The added commotion can also draw in more lake trout.
  • Let them run when a flag goes up – It is very hard not to set the hook as soon as you see a flag pop up but give them time to eat.  When you first approach the tip-up make sure the spool is spinning.  Lake trout often run with the fish in their mouth then stop and readjust for a better hold.  When they start moving again, firmly set the hook.
  • Stay mobile – Setting tip-ups takes time so it can be difficult to move when things slow down.  But believe me, it is worth it.  If I don’t see action within 45 minutes, it’s time to move.  Covering water is the key to consistently finding fish.  Experiment with depth and structure until you get the formula down.
  • Ask the pros – You may not be buddies with the most seasoned pros, but you likely know someone who could offer some local tips.  Don’t be afraid to swallow your pride and ask for a few pointers when things get tough on the ice.  Watch what others are doing and replicate their success.  Most anglers love sharing their knowledge, so ask and listen before you go.

How to properly handle lake trout

Native lake trout are remarkable fish and should be treated with care.  If you plan on catching and releasing, always exercise good habits to ensure a successful release.  

  • When fishing deep water, pull the fish up slow to avoid barotrauma.
  • Limit the time fish are out of water to less than 30 seconds.  Measure it quick and snap a picture before the cold causes damage.
  • Let all the big fish go.  These are the breeding stock that will replenish the fishery.
  • Use barbless hooks for faster and cleaner releases.  You should not loose too many fish with good technique.
  • Know your local regulations before keeping fish to eat.  Smaller fish are more prolific, so keep fish under 20 inches if allowed.

Wrapping it up

Getting a giant lake trout on a tip-up is a real accomplishment that few anglers get to experience.  Tip-ups aren’t just for pike and walleye.  Next time you are on the ice chasing lake trout, give it a try.  

Have more questions?  Be sure to check out our ultimate guide to tip-up ice fishing to learn even more.