February 03, 2020
With liberal regulations in Kansas, the number of tip-ups in my sled can rise quickly. If my boys and their friends join me, I might spend half a day setting 40 lines, and the second half picking them up. Without some foresight it’s an overloaded sled at the beginning of the day and a tangled mess at the end. Of course, certain designs rise to the top for different situations. A few of the classics still often rule the day.
Modern plank-and-stick tip-ups hit the scene more than 50 years ago. The Beaver Dam was one of the first, an exceptional design, a story for another day. In the 1970s, HT Enterprises founder Paul Grahl produced the molded plastic HT Polar tip-up. The plastic was lighter than wood and didn’t warp. Grahl made the edges angled so they wouldn’t freeze into the ice. The black color helped when the sun is out. And two tapered flag rests gave the angler at least two and potentially four levels of bite detection.
My first fish this year came through a hole armed with an HT Polar. The day was warm and the clear ice had puddles from a touch of rain, mist, and fog. We also caught fish on a Clam Thermal and an HT Windlass. Each design holds deadbait below the ice with ease.
Generally, I believe in the shadow effect and choose a tip-up to keep the light on my baits as natural as possible. Deep snow over shallow water in bright sun requires hole covers; clear ice the opposite.
I used to lead an after-work ice-fishing group and it was easy to throw in a single HT Polar or a Clam Thermal tip-up into the sled. My first hole on the night’s chosen spot, be it reef, weededge, road bed, or point would support the tip-up and a minnow while I drilled 30 to 60 additional holes for the group. Often a trout, perch, or walleye would interrupt my duties. When the rest of the anglers arrived, I reeled in the tip-up in order to hole hop with a Jigging Rap.
When the Jason Mitchell Meat Stick entered the market, I stopped packing a tip-up and used a bucket deadstick instead. A traditional noodle design, the Meat Stick has three inches of highly flexible fiberglass at the tip designed to allow a minnow to play tug-of-war. Balance the rod on the bucket opening and when a fish bites, the rod falls into the bucket and lightly sets the hook. The clamor of the drop is loud enough to signal the strike. The cone-shaped knob on the split handle allows enough adjustment to make sets for walleyes, bluegills, or perch. Chatfield (Colorado) doesn’t have pike so I didn’t worry about the rig being pulled down the hole.
On the HT Windlass tip-up, another classic, the line is stored above water and the frame doesn’t block the hole, so your sonar transducer sits in the hole while the operator loosens the spool nut and drops the bait to a precise depth measured by the zoom function on the flasher. Catfishing is a great time for precision because they often prefer a bait to be 1 to 3 inches above bottom. With the Windlass, it’s easy to lock out the spring-loaded wind feature so the bait hovers at a precise depth.
The Windlass has an exposed line. If the spool spins, there’s no need to pick up the rig, just grab the line and set the hook in the same motion. The somewhat complex design is, however, tough to pack, store, transport, and it’s more time-consuming to set. Plus, in frigid temperatures, the exposed reel can freeze, fail to spin, and find other ways to ruin a bite. Living on the fringe of the ice belt, I rarely find this a problem.
But these days, 75 percent of my setline fishing is with plastic-disk thermals. I like the Clam Trophy but use Frabill and HT designs as well. The hook fits inside the spool cut-out and stays separated nicely in a bucket for transport. I can’t lose them down a hole and the flags deploy with a satisfying click-thump spring that’s music to the ears. The HT Polar Extreme has an extra-long flag for long-distance bite observation, but otherwise the designs are similar from company to company.
My first step is to use vinyl electrical tape and packing material to build up the spool so it doesn’t take 300 yards of line to fill. No fish in my area pulls that much line. Meanwhile, I can reel in lines quickly—as in from geometry class, a small change in the diameter of the spool creates a 3.14 X change in retrieve rate.
A few years ago, a 4-pound rainbow trout made a big initial run and by the time I landed the football my 20-pound Dacron had tangled into an impossible mess. I switched to the heaviest possible line, meaning the new 50-pound Sufix Performance Metered Tip-Up Braid. The line changes from white to black every 5 feet to help set the depth of suspended baits without the help of a sonar. The thicker line is a lot more tangle-proof. Line thickness has no effect on the final presentation when running a fluorocarbon leader. I also use Dacron string bobber stops to mark depths on my lines.
Some tip-ups come with a small tackle box. I pack a slightly larger version with rigging components. Barrel weights in 1/8- and 1/4-ounce sizes slide well on the Dacron or leader for deeper presentations and anchoring large baits. Swivels are handy as well as crimps for coated wire rigs. I also stock the box with Berkley Fusion 19 treble hooks in sizes 2, 4, 6, 8, and the tiny size 12 for Berkley PowerBait and small minnows. I stock a few VMC red treble hooks in the same sizes. A selection of 1/0 to 4/0 L776 circle hooks from Eagle Claw work to pin bluegills or suckers through the lips or back for effective livebait presentations.
I like two more specialty hooks. The VMC Drop Dead Weighted hook is a wide-gap hook for many types of bait. The small weight holds the minnow or sucker horizontal and sometimes a single hook is preferred in reeds or standing timber. Baitholder hooks like the Berkley Fusion 19 in sizes 4 to 2/0 also allow smaller presentations of cutbait that work when larger offerings soak. My largest pike this year came on a 1-inch-square piece of cutbait on a baitholder hook. Having a selection of tackle handy when working tip-ups makes it easy to tweak riggings throughout the day.
Riggers and the Rise of the JawJacker
At some point in the past, someone nailed a rod holder to a board and put it on the ice. Eventually a clip and a small flag indicated strikes better than a bobbing rod tip. The “rigger “was born. Riggers like the HT allow anglers to fight fish on a rod and reel instead of hand-over-hand. The most recent HT Rigger has an adjustable rod holder, making it more effective with split-handle rod designs and larger reels.
Each species feeds differently, but trout tend to mouth baits in ways that evade traditional tip-up sets. Colorado anglers used to spread dead rods for trout and watch tips bend a few times before running to set the hook. The catch ratio was poor until the JawJacker appeared in 2012. The tripod system holds a loaded rod in a way that releases to set the hook. While more traditional ice gear languishes in Denver stores, the JawJacker and the similar Automatic Fisherman sell out by October with additional shipments barely surviving the holidays.
Milwaukee-based guide Eric Haataja uses JawJackers when fishing for torpedo-sized brown trout in the harbor. Pairing the right rod with the system is crucial, so he desiged his own line of rods. He explains: “A parabolic bend reacts smoothly and the right rod length makes setting up the system easier. I designed the HaatRod line to increase hookups with the JawJacker and similar systems.”
His favorite is the 40-inch medium action. He also uses the system for channel catfish that mouth baits long enough to trigger the trap and increase hookup rates.
Meawhile, professional angler Keith Kavajecz uses a setline system he calls “a remote jigging station.” He explains: “We use JT Outdoor Products Hot Boxes to hold rods for setting outside of our shelters. When we set up on the top of a reef we use the Hot Box along with a JT Walleye Snare rod rigged with a minnow, setting it at the bottom of the drop or on the other side of a flat.”
He also integrates electronics: “Lowrance initially introduced sonars with Wi-Fi capabilities to send data to a cell phone or tablet so we used those to monitor the Hot Box. Now, the Lowrance EliteTi2 and Gen3 Series fishfinders allow picture-in-picture monitoring of a second unit so we can see both presentations at once. We call this the ‘planer board of jigging systems,’ because you can monitor and work a wide area near you.”
The Hot Box is a metal box with a propane heater to keep the hole open and ready for hook-sets. Kavajecz: “Sitting in a shelter and monitoring a remote line on the Lowrance indicates when a fish shows interest in the remote station. The heater guarantees the hole is open and the second Lowrance sonar sits right outside the box ready for us to tempt the fish with additional jigging or reel in a fish that has hooked itself.” This setup pushes deadstick presentations to the max; no flag required.
Magnetics and Tents
The advantage of magnetic systems like the HT is adjustability. Moving the magnet closer to the release strengthens the trip level; moving it farther away lightens the bite. This variability helps when switching bait types from minnows to smaller jigs and species from pike to perch to walleye. The tall design is easy to spot at a distance and folds for easy storage. The tripod-and-tent design protects the mechanism from the elements to help keep the hole open.
Firehouse offers another tent design with a powerful light. Paired with an audible bite alarm, this system excels at night or when monitoring a long line of tip-ups across a big flat. Their R-Tec Claw Tip-Up incorporates a hard case to protect the spool as well as your rigging when running and gunning fish throughout the day. Both products feature a magnet to secure your rig inside the system.
Longtime Devils Lake guide and television host Jason Mitchell tosses another idea into the mix. With three or four clients in a group he might end up managing 12 to 16 baits at a time. Leaving a hole uncovered in North Dakota means about 10 minutes of fishing before the hole freezes over, leaving Mitchell to become a connoisseur of hole covers.
His ideas on keeping holes cleared takes an alternative path. Mitchell: “Plastic-disc thermal tip-ups work, but after clearing the snow around a hole, they rarely sit perfectly on the frozen slush. Drafts slowly close the hole and the short arm to the spool sits only a few inches under water. This is when largest of the plank-style tip-ups shine, in conjunction with or without an auxiliary hole cover. The extra few inches on the metal spindle keep the spool deeper in the water and free of ice. If the tip-up needs to be chipped from the ice, that’s okay as long as the spindle is spinning and the fish stays pinned.”
Storage might be the final determining factor in your choice of tip-up or setlines. If you need 20 rigs for a big group, traditional plank and thermal designs are easy to pack and carry. If limited to one or two rods, the JT Outdoors Hot Box may be the Cadillac of unattended presentations. Then again if the group switches between jigging and deadsticks, riggers take up the least space.
So today, technology and setlines go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean a Beaver Dam plank from grandpa’s day is out of date. If fact it’s as good today as it was back then and a lot of anglers prefer that option. Overall, to stay ahead of the curve, mind the details and get picky about presentation approaches with setlines given the situations you face.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a regular contributor to Ice Fishing Guide—Tactical Gear.