January 26, 2024
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Tip-ups, tip-downs, auto-setters, deadsticks, and other setlines optimize hardwater time while jigging with another rod. In Minnesota, ice anglers are allowed to fish two lines, so the practice is typically to jig one rod and use a secondary setline. In both Dakotas, ice anglers are allowed four lines, which really expands setline coverage. On Wisconsin waters, ice anglers can fish three lines. First thing’s first—let’s start with tip-ups.
Pat Kalmerton of Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based Wolf Pack Adventures will be the first to tell you tip-up fishing is a surefire way to cover lots of water quickly and ice more walleyes and perch. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn tip-up secrets from seasoned ice angers that would have taken years to figure out by trial and error,” Kalmerton says.
He says there’s a time and place for big hooks, but when fishing for numbers of “eater” walleyes and perch, go smaller, like his favorite—a flashy, gold Eagle Claw #16 treble. “I load the tip-up spool with 30-pound tip-up line and tie on 8 to 10 feet of 8-pound Trilene 100% fluorocarbon to a smaller barrel swivel. Make sure to tie the fluoro side first so you don’t have to run the whole tip-up through the Palomar knot loop. Then I slide one Owner glow bead up the fluoro and connect the #16 gold treble with another Palomar, sliding the bead over the knot. I attach a split-shot just heavy enough to keep the bait in a small strike window 6 to 10 inches above the hook.
“Again, with regard to small treble hooks, the fish doesn’t spit the bait because it doesn’t feel the metal. As s oon as I feel weight, I reef on ‘em hard. Chances are you’re going to get a good gullet or corner-of-the-mouth hook-set because that fish is committed to your bait.
“A lot of people get turned off to tip-ups because they spend all day in no-man’s land,” he says. “Or setting tip-ups right on top of weeds, which can result in a tangled mess that fish pass up 9 times out 10. So study your body of water and formulate a game plan with the Navionics or Humminbird app.”
Locations like green vegetation, breaks, river currents, bottom transitions, wood/brush, and rockpiles draw baitfish. Where you’re allowed more than one setline by law, fish different locations along any given structure, spreading them out as far as your state regs allow. Imagine the ice as a grid, and position your setlines out from your base along a break at different depths.
Kalmerton also uses electronics to find baitfish to pinpoint where in the water column fish are feeding. For example, in late winter you may find that fish are up high and close to the ice, looking for water with more oxygen.
Neustrom’s Tip-Up Tactics
“Beaver Dam rail-style tip-ups are time-proven and smooth,” offers veteran Minnesota fishing guide Tom Neustrom. "You don’t have to alter them at all—a good choice for new setline anglers.” While newer tip-up designs feature thermal sleeves to prevent holes from freezing in sub-zero temps, Neustrom has an old-school hack to alleviate the problem with rail-style tip-ups. “Pour a little fish frying oil in the hole and stir it around. That solves the freezing issues,” he says.
Tip-up anglers also experience line coiling in the cold. “To combat coils, I use 30- to 40-pound braid, which lays on the ice nicely and doesn’t freeze,” he says. “I wear Fish Monkey gloves so the line doesn’t burn into my hands when fighting a fish hand-over-hand.”
In terms of the rig itself, Neustrom uses 6 to 15 feet of 10-pound fluoro as a leader attached to a small barrel swivel. He adds a small cone sinker to the braided mainline above the swivel, and occasionally a split-shot to keep the minnow in a narrow strike window.
“If walleyes are lethargic, don’t let that minnow run far,” he says. “I’ll even pinch a split-shot right above the eye of the hook or onto the hook shank of the treble. That adds a little bit of weight and keeps the minnow pinned.”
He’s also a fan of “bare bones” rigging for ‘eyes and perch—no glow bead, spinner, or other jewelry—just a plain treble hook and a lively minnow. “Fishing setlines shouldn’t be jazz—it’s three-chord rock ‘n’ roll to get the fish moving,” he says.
Bro’s SetLine Juice
How long should you wait to set the hook on a tip-up? Old-timers will tell you to smoke an entire cigarette after the flag trips, then set the hook. Of course, this can lead to gut-hooked fish, making release difficult. But there is a kernel of wisdom in this old-school approach.
“When a walleye hits, you need to give it a little time, especially if you’re using large shiners, suckers, or rainbows,” says veteran ice-fishing guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. “Walleyes kill their prey, but they don’t have crusher pads in their throats like bass or catfish. Their throats are just a soft membrane, so they take their time killing prey before they swallow it. Often, during the killing process they squeeze the minnow until it stops moving, turn it in their mouth, then swallow it.”
Brosdahl believes too many ice anglers set the hook when the walleye is still in the killing stage and then the fish swims away unhooked, leading to frustration. While the walleye fully intended on eating the bait, it was just going through its feeding routine, and the hook was set prematurely. “Give the walleye anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute, depending on the size of the minnow,” he advises.
He uses 50-pound braid so it doesn’t burn fingers when retrieving hand-over-hand. To the braid he attaches a barrel swivel, a 6- to 8-foot, 5- or 6-pound Sunline fluoro leader, and a neon-colored slipbobber knot to mark his depth positioning. He also uses a medium-sized split-shot to pin the minnow in place.
At the business end, he snells a Gamakatsu Octopus hook for smaller- to medium-sized minnows; with bigger bait, he uses a Gamakatsu Walleye Wide Gap hook. “I like fluorescent and red hooks,” he says. “Sometimes I add a little bead above the hook for added attraction. You’re fishing vertically so you don’t have to tie the bead in. It just sinks down to the hook. Dorsal-hook a minnow and set it 6 inches off bottom. In gin-clear, zebra mussel-infested waters, I might run the minnow a foot and a half off bottom.”
But walleyes don’t always feed near bottom. Especially if you’re using forward-facing sonar like Humminbird MEGA Live, you might notice that walleyes are cruising 4 to 5 feet off the bottom, so you need to set your bait accordingly. “You don’t want to fish under the walleyes,” Brosdahl advises. “You want your bait at their level or slightly above.
“And here’s the kicker tip. If you’re fishing an 8- to 10-foot flat, don’t be afraid to set one of your tip-ups just off the nearest drop-off over the 30- to 40-foot water at the same depth as the shallower, adjacent flat. You’d be surprised how many walleyes don’t run along the bottom of the break into the basin. Instead, they suspend high in the water column at the same depth as the nearby flat.
“If I’m on Red Lake or Lake of the Woods, or darker-stained lakes, I use a Northland Bro Bug Spoon and dorsal-hook a fathead or rainbow on the treble hook, letting it dangle firmly in place.”
If Brosdahl is fishing a clear lake where walleyes are fussy, he’ll rig a deadstick with a red #4 Gamakatsu Octopus Hook, often sizing down to a #6 or #8 if the fish are spooky.
For his deadsticking routine, he’s been using the same simple and economical technique for over 30 years. “While deadstick-assisting devices and baitfeeder reels have become all the rage, I prefer to deadstick the cheap and old-fashioned way. I put a rubber band on the handle of my St. Croix Dead Eye rod, flip the bail open, take a little bit of the line out, and tuck it under the rubber band—then, when the fish hits, it pulls the line out from under the rubber band and can run freely with the minnow.”
DeadSticks & Bait-feeders
An angler instrumental in bringing the bait-feeder-reel/deadstick combo into the limelight is ice guru and In-Fisherman contributor Joel Nelson.
“Tony Roach and I started fishing deadsticks and bait-feeder spinning reels when first testing designs for St. Croix deadsticks,” Nelson says. “We were looking for the best rod-and-reel combo to set in a rod holder on the ice and simply catch fish. Of course, this led to St. Croix’s Dead Eye rod, which I use with an Okuma Ceymar baitfeeder reel.
“Jaw-Jackers, iFish Pros, Finicky Foolers, and tip-ups are great if you’re trying to cover a large area with a lot of people, but for me, especially on early ice in Minnesota, I can only run two lines. A lot of time I won’t even jig; I’ll just use two deadsticks. If I feel like a more natural presentation will win the day—such as if fish are a bit neutral to negative—I’ll just monitor two deadsticks. Sometimes I’ll use LiveScope to check the direction walleyes and perch are moving and set up my sticks in areas to intercept them.”
When it comes to leader material, he opts for 5-pound fluoro, or 7- to 8-pound test for areas with big walleyes.
As far as rod holders go, he uses angled holders for ease, but also likes tip-down holders—and occasionally, simply a bit of duct tape and a 5-gallon bucket top.
“The nice thing about horizontal, tip-down holders is they give more free range of motion, so if fish are finicky, there’s less resistance and the angle is right for them to peel line off the bait-feeder reel,” Nelson says.
A Winning Deadstick Set-Up
While I’m a big fan of the St. Croix Dead Eye deadstick, this past winter I tested another deadstick, the JT Customs’ Walleye Snare, coupled with an Okuma Ceymar CBF-500 Bait Feeder Reel. This setup became even more deadly when combined with a JT Customs deadstick rod holder—a foldable, accordion-style frame that orients the Walleye Snare perfectly horizontal to the hole, with the built-in metal strike indicator rod tip bouncing with every kick of the minnow soaking below. Compared to fishing a rod oriented at a slight angle, I caught more fish with this setup than any other deadstick combo. There’s something to keeping the rod horizontal, and the play the Walleye Snare allows the minnow in this posture.
Bait-runners, Big Baits, & the iFish Pro
Longtime In-Depth Outdoors founder and TV host James Holst confides: “I couldn’t have done the In-Depth Outdoors TV show without iFish Pros. Having extra lines in the water and the way we fished them allowed us to catch more and bigger fish. It wasn’t unusual to catch the bigger fish of the day on an unattended iFish Pro soaking big bait. And honestly, there were a lot days where the only fish that were caught came on an iFish Pro. Some days walleyes are just buggers and won’t respond to jigging no matter what you do.”
“The iFish Pro saved our butts time and time again,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter if you’re fishing a tip-up, an iFish Pro, a Finicky Fooler, or a Jaw-Jacker. How I came about to fishing the iFish Pro specifically was I hated catching fish on a tip-up. Bringing fish in hand-over-hand wasn’t enjoyable to me. So I replaced the tip-up with an iFish Pro, which allowed fish to take the minnow—up goes the flag, just like a tip-up—but I was able to fight the fish on a rod and reel.
“So I got rid of every tip-up I owned. Sure, the guys that are really good at fishing tip-ups have spent time to learn how to do it well. Good for them. But same goes for anglers who invest time in learning how to use iFish Pros. Your fishing can get wickedly effective—and fun.”
But the iFish Pro is only part of Holst’s setline program.
“Our setline gig has never been a finesse thing—no fatheads or little shiners draped to 6-pound test and a micro octopus hook,” he says. “Our path to success was dropping down the quarter-pounder with cheese. We looked for the biggest redtails, shiners, and suckers we could find, which took care of the little walleyes that drive setline anglers nuts. Bigger baits do catch bigger fish. Sure, you might catch a 20-inch fish, for which even an 8-inch sucker is a Tic-Tac. We always went with big bait insurance—it definitely increases your odds of that next bite being a 6- or 8-pounder.”
As far as the rod-and-reel portion of Holst’s system, he gravitated early to Tuned Up Custom’s Lake Trout Precision spinning sticks with “some real snort to them,” paired with Okuma Ceymar bait-feeder reels spooled with 20-pound braid, a 15-pound fluoro leader, and a big treble hook.
“Too many anglers have the idea that you have to go with super-light line, tiny hooks, and little baits to catch winter walleyes,” he says. “And guys would say, well, early in the year that works, but in midwinter it won’t. I couldn’t disagree more. We filmed start-to-finish on ice, soon as you could walk on it, until it was falling apart in the spring. And we never changed our approach. We always had iFish Pros targeting big fish. And I don’t care if it’s the worst cold front in January, big fish still eat big baits.
“Some days, we would leave bails open and spool out extra line down on top of the iFish Pro base, and that would work best. Other days, we’d use the bait-feeder function on the reel—close the spool, roll the tension back on the secondary bait-feeder drag, and allow that fish to run with the line.
“There‘s experimentation that needs to be done each day to figure out how walleyes prefer to eat the bait, which is similar to Lindy-rigging a leech in open water,” Holst says. “Some days walleyes wonk it and all you have to do is drop the rod tip back, swing for the fences, and drive the hook home. But the next day they just barely grab it, you have to feed them line, let them eat it, then set the hook. Same approach with set-lines. You have to adjust each day and learn the walleye mood based on how the line goes down the hole when that flag trips—still a breathtaking moment after all these years.”
Joining the Jaw-Jacker, iFish Pro, Finicky Fooler, and more, Clam’s new Predator Tip-Up easily converts from an automatic hook-setting device to a traditional tip-up design. A two-way rod-and-reel-assisted fighting tip-up with hi-vis red flag, it’s adjustable to suit different rod lengths and actions, is compact for easy transport and storage, and features oversized spikes to avoid freezing.
Writer Jim Edlund is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.