Tip-ups are simple yet invaluable ice-fishing tools. They save us from hypnotically staring down a hole, and get us looking across the ice at multiple devices for the next bite. They expand our options and increase catch rates. Knowing current options and selecting the right styles can be critical to success and enjoyment on the ice.
Tip-ups are force multipliers. Where regulations allow for more than one line per person, they give you the advantage of increasing the number of baits in the water. This provides several benefits, including covering productive areas with as many baits as possible and experimenting with different types of baits simultaneously, upping the odds of determining what fish want.
Tip-ups also allow you to explore more territory. With extra lines, some baits can be fished high in the water column, others suspended middepth, and some tight to the bottom. In addition, they expand your range, perhaps fishing shallower or deeper than you typically would with one jigging rod. This helps locate fish more quickly and track their movements, potentially allowing you to "head them off" with more active presentations.
Standard Rail Tip-Ups
The most widely used style of tip-up is the T-shape design, consisting of a horizontal support frame (rail) with a pivoting water-tight cylinder approximately the diameter of a large straw. A stainless-steel shaft runs through the cylinder, which folds parallel to the tip-up base for storage and swings out at a 90-degree angle to the base when in use, forming a T. At one end of the shaft is the spool of line that's submerged; at the other end is a notched spindle bar that remains above the water at the middle of the frame. A spring-loaded metal flag pole is secured at one end of the base. The flag is lowered parallel to the base and placed under a notch in the spindle bar. When a fish takes the bait, the spindle bar turns, releasing the strike indicator flag. The free-spinning spool allows fish to move off with minimal resistance.
More than a dozen manufacturers make this style of tip-up. The largest variation in this design depends on the base material used — wood or plastic. The most iconic wooden rail tip-up is the Beaver Dam Tip-Up. It boasts the same bullet-proof, made-in-the-USA construction as it did more than 50 years ago. They remain among the most coveted tip-ups for hardcore ice anglers. The wood grain and finishes are slightly different on each tip-up and make each distinctive. In time, each Beaver Dam carries its own fish stories.
For those who demand a sturdy tip-up that lasts decades and has ultra-smooth tripping mechanics, the Beaver Dam is tough to beat. Other brands with wooden construction and high-quality components include the Clam Lunker Deluxe, Celsius Wooden Deluxe, Eagle Claw Grand Master, and HT Polar Deluxe Husky. Each of these models withstands more abuse than their plastic counterparts and are top choices for anglers looking for a stationary tip-up design. The biggest trade-off with wooden rail tip-ups are their added weight, bulk, and cost.
Extra-large wooden models like the Frabill Big Foot offer advantages for fishing in deep water and deep snow. The Big Foot has an oversized spool that holds 500 feet of line — more than twice that of a standard tip-up. The large spool allows you to fish at greater depths and permits trophy fish like lake trout to make long runs without fear of getting spooled or having to exert too much pressure on a fish. The oversize flag is positioned on an extendable pole for visibility in deep snow. HT Enterprises also makes a 38-inch telescopic extendable flag pole that can be interchanged on any of their models.
The first plastic rail tip-up in my ice fishing arsenal was the HT Polar. There are likely more HT Polars in use today than all other rail-types combined, due to their cost and dependable performance. Plastic rail tip-ups have the same basic design as their wooden counterparts but at a fraction of the weight and bulk. Models include the Berkley Tip-Up, HT Polar, Clam Blue Ice Pike, Frabill Arctic Ice, and Eagle Claw Ice Coyote. Standard models hold 200 feet of line, which is sufficient for most gamefish, and typically retail for less than $15. This makes them a mainstay across the ice belt and a great tool for getting kids involved in the sport as they enjoy running to tripped flags.
These lightweight plastic tip-ups are handy when you need to carry gear long distances. Their sleek profile is helpful when fishing with a large group of anglers as 15 rigged tip-ups fit snugly into a 6-gallon bucket. Keep lines tidy without burying hooks into the Dacron backing material by using an Eagle Claw Spool Keeper on each tip-up. These Velcro wraps are secured tightly on each spool and the hook is placed in a convenient metal loop at the end of the Velcro strap.
A new variation on this tip-up design is the Firehouse R-Tek Claw. The base on this tip-up is hinged in the middle to fold when not in use. This saves room and reduces tangles by keeping the spool and hook within the folded hard shell when not in use. The top of the shell contains a magnet to secure the loose hook in place.
Holes freeze quickly in extremely cold conditions, making it difficult to quickly remove a tip-up from a hole when a fish bites and reduces the size of the hole each time it's chipped out. Thermal tip-ups are round and generally designed to cover a 9-inch or smaller hole. They're constructed with an insulated foam insert, and when packed with snow around their edges they can keep holes from freezing for hours in sub-freezing temperatures. They're effective in blowing snow, but since they sit low, placing tall markers by each tip-up helps avoid losing them under drifting snow.
Tip-ups in this category include the Beaver Dam Arctic Circle Thermal, Frabill Pro-Thermal, HT Polar Thermal, Clam Trophy Thermal, Firehouse Tip-Up, and Celsius Round Tip-Master. Each brand has its own distinctive traits and generally six of them stack neatly in a 5-gallon bucket.
The Beaver Dam Thermal incorporates an ultra-smooth shaft and freeze-proof lubricant, built-in 15-inch flag extension for better visibility, and a rubber washer on the spindle's light-bite setting for an ultra-sensitive release point. The telescopic flat on the HT Polar keeps it highly visible. The Frabill Pro-Thermal is molded with a built-in compartment for gear like spare hooks, split shots, line markers, and a depth finder. The Clam Trophy Thermal includes a removable six-compartment tackle box, a high capacity spool, and adjustable shaft, which changes the release tension and a larger overall diameter to fit over 10-inch holes when targeting pike and lake trout. The Celsius Round Tip-Master contains a built-in storage compartment, while the top of the unit contains four built-in rod holders.
The Firehouse Lighted Tip-Up has a unique fold-out tented design that keeps the hole free of snow and reduces the rate of ice freezing in the hole. The internal shaft, line spool, and triggering mechanism are incorporated under the durable tent material. Instead of a traditional tip-up flag, the Firehouse has a large red light on top. This LED has multiple flashing patterns from which to choose based on light conditions and personal preference.
When the bite alarm goes off, approach the device and open a small side flap to determine if the spindle is spinning. Tip the device on its side to access the line spool. Then fight the fish in the same manner as with any other tip-up. At the end of the day, the Firehouse collapses to a convenient size and the loose leader and hook attach to a magnet at the top of the device to reduce tangles.
Each of these models performs well not only in sub-freezing conditions but also under any weather conditions when targeting wary fish in shallow or clear water. By reducing light penetration down the hole, baits appear more natural. This can be especially beneficial when targeting trout and walleyes, and even big pike can become sensitive to light streaming down a hole in shallow water.
The HT Magnetic Pop-Up is a favorite of Doug Stange, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief, for early-ice walleyes. They have a sensitive release and eliminate a problematic component of tip-up designs — the flag. Flags are fundamental to most tip-ups, but they can catch wind and result in false trips. Instead of a spool, shaft, and spindle working in unison to trip a flag, the Magnetic Pop-Up has a magnet on its spool and one at the bottom of the tip-up shaft that goes into the water. When lined-up, the two magnets create enough force to keep the spool from spinning. When a fish bites, the spool turns, breaking the magnetic connection with the shaft. This releases a brightly colored spring-loaded internal shaft that pops up from the top of the unit. The spool contains an adjustable tension control spring to accommodate small or large baits.
This style of tip-up is a top choice for fishing in windy locations. They also excel for light-biting fish, including panfish. A minimal amount of force is needed to turn the spool and trigger these tip-ups. They also have a high profile, which makes them more visible in deep snow. The larger Magnum version comes with a 1,500-foot line capacity spool and a built-in circular black tarp to eliminate light penetration down the hole. The cover also helps retain heat from the sun to keep the hole free of snow and ice.
Wind tip-ups use wind to provide action to baits. The HT Windlass contains a second "arm" that's positioned perpendicular to the base. It has the line spool and flag at one end and an adjustable metal plate at the other end. The line runs from the spool through a hole in the wind plate, then down into the ice hole. The plate catches wind and jigs the line. The plate's position can be adjusted to generate more or less bait movement, and spool tension can be adjusted.
Wind tip-ups are especially effective when using deadbait. While the action on the bait is not constant or precise, occasional erratic movement can trigger strikes. Some movement to deadbaits can be critical during mid- and late winter when oxygen levels decrease and predators don't want to chase livebait, but a bit of movement on deadbait can be enough to attract them. Wind tip-ups can also be used to deploy light flutter spoons tipped with lively minnows for walleyes, trout, and crappies.
Auto-Set Rail Tip-Ups
The HT Hook Set Tip-Up looks like a traditional plastic rail tip-up but with a large spring below the trigger spindle. The spring is compressed by pushing down a firing pin and engaging it in one of three hook-setting notches. The least compressed setting delivers the lightest hook-set when the fish moves off with the line, thereby turning the swindle on top and releasing the spring. The most compressed setting delivers the hardest hook-set.
This style of tip-up works well on twrout that are notorious for running a short distance with a bait and then dropping it as soon as they feel resistance. The Hook Set Tip-Up also claims a higher hookup ratio with all fish species since it immediately sets the hook when a fish has the bait in its mouth and is swimming way from the device.
The basic three-piece cross style tip-up has endured for generations. Original models were made of wood, with plastic versions now becoming more popular. They're inexpensive and light, but prone to freezing and failing. Cross-style tip-ups are best in mild conditions and are a good option for by budget-minded anglers. Manufacturers such as Celsius, Frabill, and HT Enterprises make multiple cross-style tip-ups.
Wherever you ice fish and whatever species you target, there's a tip-up design that fits your needs. By selecting the optimal style, you'll not only increase your catch-rate but also add to your enjoyment on the ice.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an avid multispecies angler on ice and open water. He contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.