December 13, 2021
By Bill Wenzel
Like many hardwater panfish anglers, I thoroughly enjoy having my favorite jigging rod in hand while the flasher unit reveals a large red mark rising up to my lure. However, there are days when trying all of your best jigs and breaking out even your most deadly jigging cadence can still lead to a frustrating day on the ice. When fish are fussy, tip downs can often save the day.
Hanging In The Balance
Tip downs have become an increasingly popular addition to many ice anglers’ equipment list. I have heard people describe a wide variety of ice fishing devices as tip downs. For the purposes of this article, I will define a tip down as an ice fishing device that utilizes a carefully balanced rod on some type of stand so there is practically no resistance felt by the fish when it initially takes the bait.
Tip downs such as the Sure Strike and Innovative Tip Down models have small, lightweight rods with basic plastic reels. The reels are intended for line storage, not for reeling in a fish. Such tip downs generally rely on the hook being set with the rod, but the line is retrieved using the same basic hand-over-hand retrieval technique as traditional tip ups. Both of these tip downs can be set up to allow line to free spool after the rod is fully tipped down. For this reason, it is necessary to momentarily lock the reel by placing your thumb against the reel when you set the hook.
Sullivan Tip Downs utilize a unique sliding rod holder that allows a rod with a spinning reel to act like a balanced tip down for the most part. Without the ability to slide, many other devices that attempt to balance a rod with a spinning reel are not as effective as a true balanced tip down. The issue is one of weight and geometry. If a rod with a spinning wheel is balanced, as soon as the rod tip begins to move downward, the weight of the spinning reel moves behind the pivot point and begins to create resistance for the fish attempting to take the bait. In my experience a dedicated tip down with a well-balanced rod or the Sullivan sliding design is more effective at catching light biting panfish.
Tip Downs To The Rescue
This past winter my wife, brother-in-law and I hit the hard water on a lake in the Eagle River, Wisconsin area where, a few years prior, my brother-in-law had an exceptionally good day of crappie fishing.
As I typically do, once we reached our spot, I drilled about a dozen holes, I fired up my flasher unit and began working a tungsten jig tipped with a waxworm with my favorite ice rod. We were in 22 feet of water and I was consistently marking fish that would approach the jig but nothing I tried could coerce the fish to bite.>
My wife and her brother methodically went about setting-up a spread of six Innovative tip downs in a line that started about 10 feet from my jigging location. By the time they had started setting up the third and fourth tip downs, the first two were beginning to tip downward as crappies lazily ate the small minnows hooked on No. 14 treble hooks suspended from the tip-down line.
After my wife and brother-in-law had iced a half dozen nice eater crappies in the span of about 20 minutes, I retired my jigging pole, turned off the flasher and began to help them keep up with the tip-down action. My wife prefers to fish with tip-downs and I’d rather not admit how many days each winter that she out fishes me when we are targeting panfish, yet I stubbornly stick to my preferred jigging and flasher technique. Even when I put a minnow on my jigging rod or try dead sticking a minnow, the lack of jigging action and “no-resistance” bite allowed by a tip down often causes them to outperform my ice rod and spinning reel minnow presentations—especially when fish are not aggressive.
While tip downs are becoming increasing popular in many areas of the ice belt, I live in north central Wisconsin, and this region seems to be the epicenter for the growth in popularity of these simple, yet efficient, devices. On any given Saturday or Sunday during ice season, it would be a safe bet that on a popular lake we fish regularly, of the hundreds of lines being fished in this lake, over two-thirds of the lines being wet are using tip downs. Nearly all are using live minnows for bait and targeting primarily crappies.
Tip downs are also equally effective on perch. By using a single hook and a waxworm, tip downs can also be effective on light-biting bluegills. With heavier line, it is possible to take walleye and northern pike with tip downs as well, but one needs to be cautious to not allow these larger fish to pull the entire rod into the hole. Larger minnows may require additional weight to be added to the rod handle. Between their slightly greater weight and stronger swimming action, larger minnows will frequently be able to pull down carefully balanced tip down unless additional counterbalance weight is added.
Over the past 10 years of using tip downs, I have tried a variety of different setups. Like most tinkering attempts, some things work well and others are chalked up as “learning experiences.”
I started out buying six of the Sure-Strike brand tip downs manufactured just a few miles from my home. These tip downs use a simple oak collapsible stand and a fairly typical “old school” jigging rod with a horizontally positioned open spool plastic reel on top of the rod. These tip downs are effective and durable and are by far the most popular type of tip down I see on the lakes that I fish.
One of the first changes we made to the tip downs was to switch the monofilament line to 30-pound Dacron with a 3-foot leader of monofilament. The reason I switched to the heavy line was to improve line management on the ice when hand lining in a fish and quickly laying line onto the ice. Unlike lightweight monofilament line, the heavy-duty main line did not tangle very easily on windy days, and it snagged (or broke) significantly less often on the small ice shards that inevitably become frozen to the ice near drilled fishing holes. The main drawback of the heavy-duty main line was that it was more susceptible to freezing in place when the hole began to skim over in below freezing temperatures.
Perhaps the biggest secret to success of a tip down is the near total lack of resistance that a fish feels as the tip down pole slowly pivots down toward the ice as the fish takes the bait. This key advantage is eliminated if the line freezes in the hole and creates resistance as the fish tries to take the bait. To remedy this issue, we began placing a small AA battery powered aerator on each tip down base and placed the diffuser stone in the fishing hole. The bubbles generated did an effective job of preventing the hole from freezing over. On brutally cold days, the combination of a foam hole cover and an aerator can go a long way toward preventing the hole from skimming over and freezing your line in place.
We have also successfully used Ice Stopper bobbers which immerse monofilament line in a non-toxic solution that prevents the line from freezing and allows the tip down to remain sensitive and work properly even when the water in the fishing hole skims over with ice.
To keep it simple, the holes can be frequently cleaned out to remove skim ice but on brutally cold days it can be difficult to keep up with Mother Nature’s desire to turn the water at the top of the hole into a new sheet of ice.
About two years ago, we began using a newer tube-style tip down called the Innovative Tip Down. These tube-style tip downs contain the entire rod/reel and leg assemblies inside the hollow tube that functions as the stand for the tip down. Ease of packing is a major advantage of the Innovative tip down when compared to the more traditional tip downs that utilize a folding wooden base. The tubular base is telescopic to allow the tip down to be set at different heights depending on wind conditions. When packaged up for travel, the entire tip down is contained in a rather durable plastic tube approximately 2 1/2-inch in diameter and 30 inches long. They don’t take up much room even in one-person, flip-over-style shelters.
My current set-up utilizes Innovative tip downs spooled with 4- or 6-pound monofilament, No. 12 or No. 14 treble hooks and just the right amount of split-shot weight 8 inches above the hook to achieve near perfect balance of the tip down pole. An added benefit of the Innovative tip down is that the rod has a hollow handle with a removable cap so split shot can be added inside the handle end to really fine tune the balance of the pole.
Setting Up for Success
The hook up success of a tip down is likely doubled if the hook is set before the rod tip reaches its downward limit. For this reason, being able to rapidly detect a possible bite and being able to quickly reach the tip down to set the hook are important factors in your overall success.
There are days when the winter weather is mild enough for ice anglers to remain out in the elements and visually monitor a spread of tip downs during day-long outings. However, once we reach mid-winter, my wife and I have found that having the right shelter is an important part of our success. I designed and built a hard sided ice shack that is optimized for tip-down fishing. The shack features a single large window (actually an old patio door turned on its side). By using skids, the shack sits close to the ice to allow for a fast and safe exit path at the first sign of tip down starting to move. Lastly the door of the permanent shelter is spring loaded with no latch and it opens toward the window side of the shack where the tip downs are located.
When we use this shelter, I will be in the end of the shack opposite the door jigging and watching my flasher unit and my wife is sitting in the shack next to me studying her tip downs through the large window for any signs of rod movement. Her quickness and excitement when she flies out of the shack door at the first sign of an active tip down is something I never tire of.
A couple of inexpensive LED spotlights mounted to the front of the ice shack are powered by a 12V jumpstart pack. The lights allow us to easily set up in the pre-dawn darkness and fish until well after dark. We added reflective tape to the tips and handles of our tip down rods. During low light conditions, the reflective material easily reveals any movement of the rod when illuminated with these lights.
There are a great many other tips and tricks I’ve learned about tip downs over the years. Because the poles are carefully balanced, it is generally best to set up the tip downs with the rod pointing into the wind. Doing the opposite will frequently cause the wind to tip the pole down and give a false strike indication.
In high winds, it may sometimes be necessary to use a softball size clump of slush from a freshly drilled hole on the base or leg of the tip down to prevent it from blowing over. Be sure to not overdo it and have some type of chisel to release the tip down from the slush ball once it freezes.
While a more randomly placed spread of tip downs may cover more area, we have found that placing the tip downs in a straight line improves bite detection as we are essentially able to watch all of them at the same time without the need to constantly move our heads and turn around to look back and forth through a widely spread group of tip downs. Often a small bob of the rod tip is the first indication that a tip down is going to be hit and frequently seeing that first small bob and getting to the tip down quickly is the difference between landing the fish or having another failed hook set.
If you are a high-tech angler, you can rig Blue Tipz devices made by Deep Freeze onto your tip down rod and, using Bluetooth, have your phone sound an alarm when your tip down is hit.
In terms of social fun when ice fishing, it is tough to beat the sometimes-frantic action of being out in the elements with friends and family on a nice winter day in the midst of bunch of active tip downs.
Like many other aspects of our lives, ice fishing has gotten increasingly sophisticated. Advanced scanning sonar, finely tuned flasher units, automatic hook setting devices as well as high-end rods and reels are just some of the ways technology has complimented our hobby. There is something refreshing about the simplicity of a basic rod on a pivot and hand-lining your fish topside.
If you’ve used tip downs in the past, enhance your success by continuing to fine tune your tip down tactics. If you have rarely or never used tip downs, give them a try—you’ll likely be surprised how these simple devices can enhance your success on the ice this winter.