Hardwater Basics: A Guide to Tip-Up Fishing

Hardwater Basics: A Guide to Tip-Up Fishing

After augering 10 holes and clearing the slush, we moved on to setting tip-ups. My fingers were already losing function due to the cold, but the adrenaline kept me going. As usual, we were first on the frozen lake, my father and I. The sooner we set up, the sooner our jumbo shiners would swim at depths haunted by big northern pike. To break up down-time between pike bites, we would set a few smaller rigs tipped with tiny emerald shiners for white perch. They’d offer action and, if a school or two passed by, a tasty meal. I’ve been tasked with setting tip-ups on this lake ever since I was a boy, yet the experience still thrills me. I feel a charge of possibility with each tip-up placed—at any moment, the trap’s flag could fly, the spool spinning, and we’d run, dive, and come tight to one of the biggest fish in the lake.

My father selected the morning’s first tip-up—”trap,” in Maine vernacular—and handed it to me. “Pike trap,” he said, though the 4/0 J-hook fixed to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader made that pretty obvious. The old-school, cross-style Jack Trap he’d selected ran 31-inches and was fixed with a stainless steel spool holding three hundred feet of nylon line. The tip-up had endured more than 20 winters: dings and pockmarks dimpled its wooden beams. Still, it was perfectly functional, and the spool’s line capacity allowed for northern pike’s long, tell-tale runs. I pulled the flag up, spread the trap’s crossbeams, and tightened the wingnuts that held the trap together. I removed the hook from its holder—a simple, ingenious invention that prevents line damage and spool tangles—and got to work.

The Function of Tip-Ups
Those unfamiliar with ice fishing often imagine scenes from “Grumpy Old Men,” in which old dudes sit staring at holes in the ice, drinking and waiting for something to happen. For whatever reason, ice fishing is often portrayed as a mindless, idiotic endeavor, void of technical skill. Anyone can drill a hole in the ice, drop a line, and drink. The late writer Jim Harrison dubbed ice fishing “The Moronic Sport,” but I’m not sure he ever targeted big, wary pike, as my father and I did that morning, or tried to fool landlocked salmon a foot beneath the ice. In truth, successful ice fishing requires nuance and skill, preparation and technique. And it all starts with tip-ups.

The tip-up device itself is simple. There are many different models and variations available today, but most derive from the classic style which involves three crossed wood beams less than an inch thick. Two beams of about 15 inches are crossed in an X and lay horizontally over the hole in the ice. The vertical beam, usually about twice as long, intersects the other two beams at their connection. This vertical wood has the spool of line attached at the bottom to keep it submerged in the water (so it doesn’t freeze) and the flag on the other end extending into the air. A simple tripper mechanism holds the spool in place, and an O-ring or similar device keeps the flag down until a strike occurs. When a fish takes the offered bait (hooked and dropped to desired depth by the angler) the spool turns with the fish’s pulling, tripping the flag, which unclips and stands visibly above the trap. The tripped flag, swaying in the breeze, acts as beacon to the angler, alerting him or her that a fish has taken the bait. Once tripped, the trap’s spool turns without any resistance that might cause a fish to drop the bait.

Hardy, well-constructed tip-ups—not the cheap, plastic ones you find at big box stores, which often malfunction—allow anglers to cover water at various depths and maximize their chances. Well-made tip-ups remain functional even in severe weather. On bad-weather days—frequent in mid-winter—tip-ups also allow freedom of mobility. I can check for flags from the comfort of my pop-up shanty, prolonging my day and chances of landing a trophy.

Set-Up & Rigging
I fastened my sounder—a clip-on weight meant for quickly measuring depth—to the 4/0 pike hook, then dropped it down the hole. The three-foot leader disappeared, then nylon line ran through my fingers until the sounder hit bottom. I pulled the line tight and slid a small, white shirt button threaded onto the nylon line —which we fix on every trap’s line above the leader—to act as an accurate depth marker. I adjusted the button to mark exactly where I wanted my bait when I sent it down: 3 feet off the bottom. Then I pulled in the line hand-over-hand and pocketed the sounder.

My father picked out a lively shiner from the bait bucket. I hooked it just below its dorsal fin so that it could swim and flash naturally. I dropped the shiner, paying out line until I reached the white button, which put my bait within the cruising altitude of most pike. If a big northern ripped say, 75 yards of line, the button would still mark the exact depth at which it had taken my bait. Buttons are cheap, effective additions to the tip-up arsenal.

Button reached, I bent the flag down, clipping its O-ring to the tripper along the body of the trap. I pulled line to mimic a fish’s take—the tripper worked and the flag flew. I like to test each trap before setting it, thus identifying malfunctions and maximizing trap effectiveness. I gently lowered the trap down into the water, spool first. I made sure to rest the trap’s vertical beam firmly against the ice hole, spool facing out. That way, the spool had the entire 10-inch hole in front of it, free of obstructions. All too often, ice anglers place traps in the middle of the hole, or—for reasons beyond me—with spools nearly rubbing up against augered ice. Big northerns and lake trout hit hard enough that traps are sometimes jostled by the force—but a spool free of obstruction avoids jamming or rubbing against the ice.

At our second hole, my father selected a white perch set-up, this time a small Polar Tip-Up, a cheaper alternative to our Jack Traps and Heritage Lakers. Polar Tip-Ups have sensitive trippers and smaller spool capacity; they work well on early-season, fair-weather days for panfish and trout. I tipped the small hook with an emerald shiner and dropped it within a foot of bottom. Come mid-winter in Maine, Polar Tip-Up traps lose their convenience: with several feet of snow piled on the ice, and set on cleaned-out, ice-level holes, these low-lying traps are nearly impossible for anglers or snowmobilers to spot. Given their lack of weight (plastic), they’re also vulnerable to wind and wind-tripped flags.

We’d set seven traps when the first one tripped, its blaze-orange flag contrasting the white background. My father had the honors and, after giving the pike a few minutes to swallow the bait, I lifted the trap for him. The spool turned quickly, free of any drag. The pike hadn’t realized its predicament. My father took the line and pulled hand over hand until it tightened. He set the hook with an upward sweep, and I set the trap gently on the ice, tending the line coiling near his boots. “Not a big one, but definitely a pike,” he said.

The pike ran, pulling line, but not much of it. Before long, Dad had it close to the hole. With larger pike, or big lake trout or salmon, one angler should fight the fish while the other tends the loose line and spool; it’s vital to make sure piled line is loose and the spool free to turn at any moment, should a large fish run.

When the pike gave up, I reached into the water, slid my fingers under its jaw, and lifted. At around eight pounds, it was medium-sized, healthy and fat, with vermiculate patterns along its back. I removed the hook and released it. By noon, we’d landed a handful of hefty perch on the smaller traps and we kept them for dinner. I landed another smaller pike that fought harder than its size. The bite died down, and we called it a day.

When we picked up traps, I used the spool tripper (a small metallic or plastic nub) to wind up the line. Over time, wrapping by hand will twist nylon line, causing coils and kinks and taking up unnecessary spool room—not to mention increasing snag potential. I removed the bait, then placed the hooks in their holders, broke down the traps, and stowed the more expensive ones in handy trap sleeves for protection.

Back at my father’s house that evening, I helped him unpack from our day on the ice. We removed the traps from their sleeves and placed them around his roaring fireplace to let ice build-up melt and nylon line dry before we fished again. I checked the nuts and bolts of the wooden traps to make sure nothing had loosened on the ride home.

In the kitchen, I filleted white perch atop folded newspaper. I grabbed some eggs from the fridge and bread crumbs from the pantry while my father poured olive oil into a cast-iron skillet.

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