The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Tip-up Ice Fishing

Once considered a lazy form of fishing, tip-up ice fishing is fast becoming a key tactic among amateur and professional anglers alike.  Tip-ups are a powerful tool for combing large areas to find trophy fish.  

If you ever thought of adding tip-ups to your repertoire of angling skills, now is the time.  From schools of big bluegill to monster northern pike, tip-ups will help you become a better ice angler.

In this guide, we focus on everything you need to know to effectively use tip-ups on the ice this winter.

What is tip-up ice fishing and how does it work

The basics of using a tip-up are easy enough for anglers of all skill levels to master.  They are far from being a lazy way to fish.  Using tip-ups requires attentiveness and plenty of exercise as you run from hole to hole.

Tip-up ice fishing is a method of fishing that allows anglers to set multiple baited lines below the ice.  Strikes are detected without the need to be in the immediate area of the equipment.  A trigger mechanism flips up a flag, indicating a fish has taken the bait.  Fish are pulled up by hand through the hole in the ice. 

That’s tip-up fishing in a nut shell.  Keep reading if you’re ready to become an expert at all things tip-up.

Best tip-ups for ice fishing

A tip-up is a fairly simple device but even so, countless styles of tip-ups litter the ice fishing market.  Everyone has their favorite for various reasons.  

When you are getting started, keep it simple and buy a good quality tip-up the first time around.  Don’t get discouraged by the frustration of cheap equipment.

A quality tip-up should have an adjustable trigger mechanism with a stable base and freeze proof components.  

Here are 5 of the best tip-ups you should consider for this ice fishing season:

  • Beaver Dam– Widely considered the most reliable classic tip-up.  A bit pricey but worth every penny.
  • HT Husky Deluxe – Another great wood tip-up.  Made with quality components for freeze-free use.
  • Ifish Pro Ice – Designed for an ice fishing rod and reel.  A great option for those who want the benefit of a tip-up and the fun of fighting the fish on a rod.
  • HT Polar Therm Extreme – When the conditions are extreme, this insulated tip-up prevents your ice hole from freezing up.  

10 steps to fish with a tip-up the right way

1. Find the best spots and spread out

Location, location, location.  Whether you are actively jigging or tip-up fishing, you need to put your bait where the fish are.  Spend some time learning which spots on the lake will be most productive.  

Use contour maps and other online mapping tools to find points, drop-offs, reefs and submerged humps that will concentrate fish.  

You can also try setting up on the same spots you fish during open water seasons.  This is especially true during early ice before depleting oxygen levels push fish to deeper water.  

Once you establish a few good spots, spread out your tip-ups.  The more you have set up, the better your odds of catching fish.  However, too many guys make the mistake of placing their tip-ups too close together.  30 yards or more between tip-ups is not uncommon. 

If you are allowed multiple tip-ups in the state you’re fishing, use them to your advantage.  Tip-up fishing is about covering water fast and finding the bite.  

2. Drill holes in the ice

Each tip-up needs its own hole drilled in the ice.  A manual ice auger works if you have a just a couple tip-ups.  For more tip-ups, save some time and invest in a gas or electric auger.  Spend more time fishing and less time drilling. 

An 8 inch auger is most commonly used by anglers using tip-ups.  Everything from perch to fat northern pike can fit through an 8 inch hole.  

3. Spool up with good line

Like any fishing, choosing the right line is a big component to your success on the ice.  

Dacron (braided nylon) line is the “bread and butter” of tip-up ice fishing.  Some anglers are switching to braided ice lines like PowerPro or Fireline for lower stretch options.  I suggest sticking with the tried and true Dacron.  

Unlike the no-stretch braids designed for conventional fishing, Dacron stays flexible on the spool without kinking.  The supple line free-spools better when fish take the bait which leads to more hook ups.

Dacron comes in many strengths.  Anything from 15 pound test to 60 pound test works depending on the fish species you are after.  30 pound test is a good, middle of the road, line.  It’s sensitive enough for panfish and strong enough for pike and lake trout.

Black and green Dacron are standard colors that work great in almost all water conditions and clarity.  I find that 60 to 75 yards of line is plenty for most situations.  For deep water lake trout, you may want to add additional line. 

It’s a good idea to use at least 3 to 4 feet of fluorocarbon as leader attached to the Dacron via a snap swivel.  The invisibility of fluorocarbon gives your setup a natural presentation on high pressured lakes with finicky fish.

Tie on a 6-10 pound fluoro leader for walleye and 20-30 pound leader for pike and lake trout.  When fishing lakes with trophy class pike, use wire leader material or you risk loosing fish.  Their sharp teeth cut through fluorocarbon with ease.

4. Check the depth

Leave out as much guess work as possible when tip-up fishing.  Avoid wasting time fishing dead parts of the water column by measuring the exact depth of the water.  

The fastest way to do this is with a fish finder.  If you don’t have one, just clip a one or two ounce lead weight to the snap swivel on your line and lower it down until it hits bottom.  Decide how far off the bottom you want your bait suspended and pull up just enough line to get there.  Use either a bobber stop or small clip bobber to mark the spot on the line.

Now, when you’re ready to bait up, unspool the line to where you marked it and set the trigger to lock the depth in place.

5. Select your tip-up bait

Your bait of choice will depend on what species you are after.  Tip-up fishing is a still fishing method with some sort of live or scented bait.  

Live minnows like suckers and shiners are preferred by most anglers for walleye.  Whereas dead minnows are particularly effective for pike and sometimes lake trout. Even crappie find a small sized minnow hard to resist.  

Rigging up a live minnow is simple.  For the best action, hook a wiggly minnow just under the dorsal fin.  A struggling minnow is an irresistible treat for hungry fish.  

Going after big pike?  Use a quick strike rig for dead bait.  The quick strike rig has two treble hooks connected by a short length of leader or wire.  Hook the upper treble securely in the dorsal region and the other near the head.  Keep the hook points pointed towards the tail since fish eat dead bait headfirst most of the time. 

With live minnows, add a small split shot to the leader about 12-14 inches above the hook.  Add more weight when you are fishing deep water but not so much that the minnow can’t move freely.

If you’re fishing with large dead minnows like ciscoes or tullibee, weight is not always needed.  Just be sure to puncture the air bladder so it sinks.  The bladder is located mid-body between the spine and stomach.  Put the bait in the water and squeeze the air bladder.  You should see air bubbles coming out the puncture.  When the bubbles stop, it should sink right to the bottom without weight.

You can greatly increase your chances of hooking more fish by using different baits on each tip-up.  If one tip-up catches more fish, switch baits to match on the others.  It is an efficient way to test what works best at new locations.

6. Adjust your trigger sensitivity

Once your bait is set at the right depth and in the perfect location, it’s time to set the trigger mechanism that sends up the flag.  

Most tip-ups come with adjustable triggers.  That way you can match the sensitivity to the species you are after.  

Always set it to the minimum needed.  Too tight and the fish will feel the resistance.  Not tight enough and the flag gets tripped by the movement of the bait.  Nothing is worse than running a fifty yard dash to a tip-up for no reason.  

Get in the habit of testing the tension of your trigger before placing the tip-up.  

7. Keep an eye on the flags

Now it is time to sit back and wait for a bite.  This is a good time to toss a football, play cards or get warm next to the heater.  No matter how you fill the time, always keep one eye on the flags.  

When you are fishing in a group, take turns designating someone as the spotter.  Rotate the job so everyone can enjoy the fun and be part of the action.  

8. Move quick when a flag goes up

When the flag goes up, your blood start pumping and everyone rushes to the hole.  Time is your enemy in this game.  Let the fish hold the bait too long and he may spit it out.  The fish may also empty your spool and break loose.

Just remember to exercise caution.  You would not be the first person to end up in the ER after racing to a tip-up.

Keep your paths to the tip-ups clear and free of loose gear that act as a tripping hazard.  Also, never run on bare ice.  No fish is worth a head injury or broken bones.  If you need it, use micro spikes for more traction on slippery ice.  

9. Make sure the fish is still on

After sprinting to the hole, wait few second before grabbing the line.  Look first for movement in the line or the rotation of the spool.  This indicates the fish still has the bait.  

Yanking on the line prematurely is a common cause of missed opportunities.  Sometimes a fish strikes the bait without eating it and triggers the flag.  The fish may need another second to swing around and grab it.  You don’t want to pull the bait up before it has the chance to strike again.

10. Set the hook and pull in the fish

Everything is going good so far.  You found the fish and now something took your bait.  Gently take up the line and pull slowly until you feel just the slightest pressure from the fish.

Setting the hook with all your strength is a rookie mistake during the excitement of tip-up fishing.  A quick, smooth lift of the line is all that’s needed to drive the hook into the fish’s mouth.

The fight is on!  Pull line in using a hand over hand method until the fish comes to the surface.  Feel for the size and power of the fish.  It is important to let big fish run when they need to.  It is harder to prevent slack line while holding the line by hand.  Use gloves to avoid line cuts when a monster pike or lake trout needs to fight.  

Most fish can be brought to the hole quickly because of the heavy line.  It takes practice to manage big ones and there is no substitute for experience on the ice.

Tip-up fishing tips for walleye

Walleye are the most popular game fish and anglers love chasing them under the ice.  Tip-ups provide a great way to scour water in search of these awesome fish.  Claim your bragging rights with these walleye tip-up tips.

  • Early season walleye are aggressive.  Use a larger size hook, like a #1 wide gap and a lively 4-5 inch minnow.  As winter progresses, down size for picky fish.
  • Try quick strike rigs for better hook ups on big walleye.
  • Locate tip-ups near walleye spawning areas during late ice.  Look for breaks and flats near gravel bed and stream inlets. 
  • Set the trigger as light as possible.  Many walleye strike soft on live bait in winter.

Tip-up fishing tips for northern pike

Known as the wolf of the water, pike are a favorite among tip-up fishermen.  These easy to find and abundant fish can reach gigantic sizes.  You never know when a big one is on the line.  Here are a few tips for trophy pike tip-up fishing.

  • Most anglers have better luck with dead minnows for pike.  Big bait means bigger fish for these scavenging predators.
  • Use 30 pound wire leader on a quick strike rig.  Their mouthes full of sharp teeth cut standard leader material on a tip-up.
  • Shallows near healthy weed beds are the hunting grounds of big pike.  Sometimes fish move into 5 feet or less of water.  
  • As a rule of thumb, place your bait half way down in the water column.  For example, sink the bait 6 feet down in 12 foot deep water.

Tip-up fishing tips for lake trout

The leviathan of deep, clear water.  Trophy lake trout are on most anglers’ bucket list.  Tip-up fishing is particularly useful to locate a laker of a lifetime.  Use these tips to cross off “trophy lake trout” from your list.

  • Lake trout are known to cruise along contour lines without changing depth.  Find their travel routes by placing tip-ups at various depths.  They can be anywhere from 20 to 80 feet deep when the ice forms.
  • Get down deep using a jig and a minnow and adjust the minnow size if the fish prefer a subtle approach.
  • Keep a jigging rod handy.  A bright jigging spoon fished in a hole next to your tip-up is a great way to draw fish in and give them another option to bite.  
  • Use a tip-up system that lets you use a rod like the Ifish Pro Ice tip-up.  A rod and reel is better suited for tiring this big fish out.  

Want to learn more about tip-up fishing for lake trout? Read our complete guide to tip-up ice fishing for lake trout in this companion article.

Other common tip-up questions

Do ice fishing tip-ups work for panfish

Tip-ups are a great tool for panfish and are under-utilized by most ice anglers.  Todays tip-ups have the sensitivity to trigger and catch crappie, perch and bluegill.  

Use tip-ups to locate schools more efficiently than deadsticking or actively jigging with one rod.  Spread out your tip-ups to track schools of panfish as they roam around.  When a flag flips, quickly pull the fish up and drop a jigging bait in the hole to capitalize on the school while they are still milling about.

Panfish require light line spooled on the tip-up.  Either use a dedicated tip-up with 3-4 pound test mono or add a long 4 pound test fluoro leader to your standard Dacron line.

Use a small, size 8 octopus hook below a split shot and hook a small shiner minnow behind the dorsal fin.  For waters that restrict the use of live minnows, wax worms and dead minnows work fine.

How many tip-ups can you use

The number of tip-ups allowed depends on the local fishing regulations of each state.

Most states allow the use of one or more tip-ups in addition to your active jigging rod.  To find the exact rules for your area, check out your state’s fish and wildlife department website.

Keep in mind that it is unlawful in most states to set tip-ups and leave them for extended periods.  They must remain in your immediate control.

Can you make your own tip-up

Tip-ups are simple devices and can easily be homemade.  Be resourceful and find all the materials you need around home or at the local hardware store.  You can also use parts from old or broken tip-ups to fashion together a new one.

Building your own tip-up is a fun fall project while you wait for first ice.  Check out Youtube for ideas.

How do you keep a tip-up from freezing

One of the major problems that plague tip-up anglers is freeze-up.  Water gets on the spool, line and trigger mechanism building up a layer of ice.  The ice stops the spool from rotating and either a fish stays hooked and goes unnoticed or they feel too much resistance and spit the hook.  Regardless of the out come, it is a frustrating situation.  

Tip-ups like the ones listed at the beginning of this article are guaranteed to resist freeze-up.  If you have one that does not, there are a couple ways to prevent problems. 

First, check the spool often for smooth rotation and test the trigger for stiffness.  Also, dry the tip-up off with a clean rag after every fish.  

Thaw out frozen tip-ups in your ice house or vehicle before using again.  Have a couple spare tip-ups stored in a dry location when fishing in harsh conditions and swap them out when needed. 

A little bit of extra care should help avoid most freeze-up problems.  

Summing it up

There are many ways to use tip-ups and their use is not limited to just a few species of fish.  Almost any fish can be caught on a tip-up.  Take part in the fun and try it out.  

Ice fishing is a great way to enjoy quality time outdoors with friends and family and tip-ups make it even better.  Set it and forget it.  But not for too long because when the flags start waving, the action is fast and furious.  Bring on the fish!

Want to get the most out of your ice fishing season? Check out our Washington State Ice Fishing Secrets book. Our book highlights the 10 best lakes for ice fishing in Washington State with actual coordinates to some of our most productive holes. Plus, we thoroughly cover everything from gear selection, tactics and travel planning. To top it off, you also get information on 41 other lakes with superb ice fishing! Check it out before ice fishing season passes you by!