I would have called you crazy if you told me I could use a bobber for ice fishing. That is, until I tried it out for myself. Now I see the error of my ways. But surely, I can be forgiven since many anglers share the same narrow definition of how to fish with bobbers.
On open water, a bobber lets you cast out your line and suspend bait at a predetermined depth. That makes sense. Yet, on the ice there is no need to cast and you control the depth of your bait by simply letting out more or less line. After all, you are already fishing vertically through a hole. So what good is a bobber for ice fishing?
Well, this is where I finally put two and two together. A bobber’s second purpose is to detect when fish bite. And when rigged up right, a slip bobber is one of the most sensitive and obvious strike indicators there is on the ice.
I won’t blame you if you still doubt me. However, hear me out and I am sure by the end of this article you’ll see that a slip bobber for ice fishing is a killer tactic that you don’t want to miss out on.
What is a slip bobber setup
At its core, a slip bobber setup allows you to set your bait at any depth while still having a bobber as a visual bite indicator. As the name implies, a slip bobber slides up and down freely on the line.
When you drop your bait down, the slip bobber slides up the line and stops when it makes contact with a bobber stop that is tied on the line at a set point. This allows you to catch a fish and quickly drop back down to the exact same point without fussing around.
Here is a simplified drawing of a typical slip bobber rig we use on the ice. It varies slightly depending on your bait choice and what species you’re after. But for the most part, it’s a standard setup.
There are all sorts of slip bobbers out there but not all work for ice fishing. Stay away from the ones that have a hollow core where your line slides all the way through. These freeze up really easy and are a pain.
Instead, get these Ice Buster Bobbers at Scheels or Bass Pro Shops.
You’ll also need bobber stops. We prefer Thill Premium Bobber Stops. They hold tight, are easy to put on and are adjustable.
Why are slip bobbers a killer tactic for ice fishing
To sell the idea that slip bobbers are a killer ice fishing tactic, we need to discuss their merits. Let’s start by looking at the main advantages.
- Accurately fish a specific depth with a rapid reset time. The genius of slip bobbers lies in the bobber stop. Once you tie a bobber stop on your line at a set point, your slip bobber will always slide to the same spot without any extra adjustments. Ultimately, this equates to a faster reset time between fish. When the bite is hot, you can quickly drop back down on an open bail without worrying about your depth.
- Highly visible bite detection with adjustable sensitivity. As you’ll see later in this article, there is some debate about relative bite sensitivity between spring bobbers, tightline or slip bobbers. Yet, slip bobbers win out on bite visibility. Even the most sensitive spring bobbers need a keen eye to detect a bite. And tightline relies more on feel. Only a slip bobber shows subtle bites in the most obvious manner possible. Plus, by adding and removing weight, you can adjust the relative buoyancy of the bobber, which controls the sensitivity.
- Slip bobber tactics are easy to implement and even easier to use. Above all other attributes, the key advantage of slip bobbers is the ease of use. Anyone can boost their catch rate with a slip bobber, which makes it an ideal tactic for anglers just getting started. All things being equal, ice anglers that don’t want to spend a small fortune on countless custom rods or fuss with spring bobbers, can level the playing field with slip bobbers. It’s also an awesome setup to use on a second rod since it requires little effort and a less watchful eye than even a deadstick setup.
Is a slip bobber more sensitive than a spring bobber
Among the most sensitive ways to detect light bites on the ice is a spring bobber. So how does the sensitivity of a slip bobber stack up against a spring bobber?
Don’t know what a spring bobber is? Or have you never used one? Check out our article to find out all about spring bobbers.
Having used both spring bobbers and slip bobbers, I can tell you this. Sensitivity depends on how you fish and what fish you are targeting. In general, a spring bobber is more sensitive but it can be easier to see a bite on a slip bobber for some panfish and trout.
Quality titanium spring bobbers are insanely sensitive. But if you don’t have a steady hand, any vibration makes it hard to detect all but the most obvious bites. However, a spring bobber on perch is hard to beat in practiced hands or on a stationary deadstick rod.
A slip bobber, on the other hand, is not influenced by you holding the rod since the bobber, and not the rod tip, is providing support to your bait. Yet, if you have ever seen perch eat on video, they barely move your bait as they slurp it in. You’ll probably miss a few bites with a slip bobber. The technique you choose just depends on your preference. For crappie, I would choose a slip bobber over a spring bobber most of the time.
Tightline versus Slip bobber
If you aren’t using a bobber then it means you are ice fishing with a tightline. In other words, you are vertical fishing with nothing supporting your lure or bait other than the line that’s routed through the rod tip.
On a tightline, any strike is going to register immediately on the tip of your rod. With a high quality rod, you can even feel a bite transmitted down the rod and into your hand. Plenty of ice junkies feel that tight lining with a good rod is all the sensitivity you need.
I really can’t argue with that because often it’s the truth. At least, in our experience. However, there are frequent situations where there is an obvious difference in success between anglers using a slip bobber and those that are not.
So what is the better tactic on the ice? Tightline or slip bobbers?
Honestly, tightline is far more versatile and more often than not, all the sensitivity you really need. That is assuming you buy quality rods and line. However, when the bite is light and fish are ultra finicky, a slip bobber rig definitely wins. And sometimes by a wide margin.
We have seen many occasions where anglers using a tightline approach can’t seem to get any crappie on the ice. But our slip bobbers are just crushing the fish. It all boils down to strike visibility.
If we are fishing for walleye or trout, we’ll probably opt for tightline tactics or even a deadstick without a bobber. Yet, for panfish like crappie, bluegill and sometimes perch, an ice rod setup with a slip bobber is our first choice.
When does a bobber work best for ice fishing
Slip bobbers are not the answer for every ice fishing situation. But there are enough times that a slip bobber excels to warrant having one or two on hand.
The best time to use a slip bobber is when you are targeting panfish. Specifically, crappie. A slip bobber rig could work for almost any species of fish that swims beneath the ice. However, with crappie, a slip bobber gives you a notable advantage.
Crappie feed in packs and often have an upward bite that is super light. No matter how experienced an angler is, a tough crappie bite results in missed hook sets. But with a slip bobber, those bites are just visible enough to minimize missed bites.
Along with species specific times to break out the slip bobber, also try using this setup when any type of fish you’re after seems to be in a negative feeding mood. This often happens later during ice fishing season when the water temperatures are at their coldest.
Fish seldom stop feeding altogether, even in the winter. While their metabolism certainly slows down and they feed less aggressively, they are always on the prowl. When it comes time to chomp down on your bait, negative feeding fish tend to sip and bump your bait instead.
A slip bobber gives these finicky feeders zero resistance when they finally commit and you’ll be able to see the action unfold.
How to use a slip bobber for ice fishing
At this point, hopefully you realize that a slip bobber rig is something to keep in your ice fishing arsenal. The scenario where you use it might not arise but if it does, slip bobbers are a killer way to capitalize on a tough bite. So, without further delay, let’s go over step by step how to use slip bobbers most effectively.
Find the fish and find the depth. To really get the most out of slip bobbers on the ice, you need to accurately locate the fish. Otherwise, you are just guessing the depth to put your bobber stop. A flasher or fish finder is priceless on the ice for this reason.
Choose your bait. Live bait such as minnows, wax worms, maggots, mealworms and nightcrawlers are great options. (Read all about the best baits for ice fishing for a head to head comparison.)
Small live minnows work awesome on crappie (if they are legal to use in your area) and are particularly well suited for a slip bobber rig. Even the movement of the smallest live minnow shows on a slip bobber so you can tell what is going on and you’ll also know when your bait needs to be refreshed.
Set the bobber stop and set the sensitivity. Once you track down fish, it’s time to get your bait in the water. We like to set the bobber stop so that our bait hangs a foot or so above where fish are suspended.
Once you dial that in, you also need to add or remove weights so that half to two-thirds of the bobber sits under the water. This serves two purposes. First, this is the sensitivity sweet spot and second, it keeps the slip portion of the bobber under water so it doesn’t freeze up.
Watch for bites and give fish time. Because this setup is so sensitive, the tendency is to set the hook too soon. Even a whisper from the lips of a skittish perch can send your bobber wiggling. Wait for a steady pull on the bobber before giving it a gentle hook set.
For crappie, you’ll typically see a tap-tap followed by a slow pull. Wait for that steady pull on your bobber and set the hook when it is nearly below the surface.
Master the quick reset. Sometimes the bite is hot and every second your hook isn’t in the water is a lost opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, slip bobbers are easy to reset quickly. But minimizing your reset time takes preparation. Keep your bait close by so you can bait the hook faster. Then, you can drop your rig back in the hole on an open spool so the bait gets back down fast.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. Slip bobbers are pretty fool-proof and forgiving. Don’t be afraid to customize your setup to work best for you. To learn more, check out this video by Roger’s Rigs. He does a good job explaining slip bobber tactics as well.
When it comes to ice fishing, a slip bobber is not always the answer. Yet, it has proven to be another tactic that you shouldn’t hesitate to try out. From personal experience, we can assure you that there are times and places when a slip bobber blows away the competition. It is definitely a killer tactic that you can keep handy for a day when nothing else seems to work.