How to Use a Tip-Up for Ice Fishing (A complete beginner’s guide)

If you’re like me, you probably hadn’t heard of tip-ups before you became interested in ice fishing. Tip-ups are great tools unique to ice fishing that help you catch lots of fish, and they’re not hard to use. I’m writing this post to help a complete beginner understand how to use a tip-up for ice fishing.

1. Choose a Good Tip-Up

To use a tip-up, the first step is to obtain a tip-up.

First, if you aren’t yet sure what a tip-up is, I’ve written an article to simply answer that question. To summarize briefly, a tip-up is a little contraption that suspends bait beneath the ice to hook fish and alerts you with a flag when a fish is hooked.

So where do you find a tip-up? You can look online, of course. In my searches for tip-ups, I found many independent sellers who handcraft tip-ups themselves. If you want high-quality tip-ups with a personal touch, those will be great, but their prices are often not the lowest.

Mass-produced tip-ups are available online too, of course, and can be ordered from large outdoor or fishing stores.

Tip-ups will also be available in person at just about any fishing store, particularly in the winter.

So what should you look for to decide which one to get? Fortunately for you, it’s a fairly simple decision process.

One thing to consider is the material the tip-up is made of. Naturally, you want the tip-up to be as durable as it can be, so this might lead you to forego plastic ones. Plastics are not as good at handling sunlight and cold weather as wood and metal are, so a plastic tip-up is not going to last as long.

So, I recommend a durable wooden tip-up, or even a metal one.

Another aspect of the design that varies between tip-ups is the position of the spool. The vast majority of tip-ups position the spool to be underwater. With the spool underwater, there’s no way it can freeze. After all, the water below the ice is always going to be warmer than the air above.

A frozen line is pretty annoying. If you hook a fish, normally, the spool will spin and the flag will go up. But if the line is frozen, it might just get stuck there, and you’ll never know that you’ve hooked a fish. This is a problem that tip-ups that place the spool underwater avoid entirely. So, I would probably go for a tip-up with that design. Otherwise, you’ll need to watch very closely for freezing when you use your tip-up.

Now, the tip-ups that do keep the spool above the water are called windlass tip-ups. They are designed to make it so a breeze will jig the fishing line. This can attract more fish. So, there is definitely a good reason there to get this kind of tip-up. Some fish are unlikely to go for bait that’s just sitting there, so windlass tip-ups can attract them by jigging the line. Like I said before, though, just make sure the line doesn’t get stuck.

Make sure the tip-up you get has a flag that’s easy to see. You might be covering a large area through the use of multiple tip-ups (as this is one of the big advantages to using tip-ups), so you’re going to miss out on fish if you can’t see the flags when they pop up.

There may be tip-ups with cool extra features that can help you out, but to me, as long as the one you get is durable and works as it’s intended to, it’s going to be good for ice fishing.

2. Drill a Hole

To use a tip-up, just like with ice fishing with a rod, you need to drill a hole.

The tip-up will rest on top of the hole you make, dropping a fishing line into it.

I won’t describe in detail how to do this here since it’s not specific to using tip-ups, but you can see an article I wrote for more help on how to cut a hole for ice fishing.

Essentially, you will probably want to use an ice auger, either manual or gasoline-based, to drill into the ice and make a hole. There are other tools you can use for this, but augers are the easiest.

Make sure that you are not drilling a hole that is too wide for the tip-up you are using. Tip-ups are frequently built for eight-inch holes. You can use them on smaller holes too.

Well, that’s a pretty simple step, right? Now we’ll move on to actually getting the tip-up ready for action.

3. Spool the Line Onto the Tip-Up

The spool on your tip-up will hold all your fishing line, as you have probably guessed.

You should tie an arbor knot (how to tie an arbor knot) with the line around the tip-up reel. Then wrap the line evenly, going clockwise.

So, that’s how you spool the line. Very simple.

But you need to make sure before you head out to the lake that the line you get is well-suited for ice fishing and for the type of fish you hope to catch.

For ice fishing, it’s easiest if you use a braided or Dacron line. This is simply because these are easy to see against the snow. Trust me, you don’t want to have to search against a white backdrop for a flimsy little fishing line. Finding that could take all day.

The pound test (essentially the amount of weight a line can handle) you choose depends on what kind of fish you are targeting. 20 – 30-pound test line is fine for bass, but if you are going for heavier fish like pike, lake trout and salmon, you need heavier line.

You’ll want probably a hundred yards of line on there to make things easy.

Once you’ve obtained the line that’s best for the situation and put it on the spool, you are ready to move on to the next step.

4. Attach a Swivel and Leader

Technically, neither of these parts are absolute requirements, but they will make things easier.

You are going to want to attach a barrel swivel to the fishing line. A barrel swivel will make your fishing much easier because what it does is rotate, preventing the line from getting twisted. When you’re trying to pull the line out of the water to catch a fish, you definitely don’t want any tangles. That’d make your life a big headache. So I definitely wouldn’t skip on attaching a barrel swivel.

Use an improved clinch knot to attach it ( how to tie a clinch knot).

Now, again, this part is optional, but it will only make things easier or your fishing more effective, so but you should seriously consider it. If you don’t want to do this part but do want to use a swivel, just attach more line to the swivel.

A leader is basically an extension of your fishing line. It is named as such because it goes underwater before the rest of your line. There are different types of leaders you may want to use depending on what fish you’re targeting.

If you are going for fish with sharp teeth, like northern pike or large pickerel, tie a braided steel leader to your line. The reason for doing this, as you might guess, is so these fish don’t bite through your line. It’s never fun pulling up your line and finding that the whole bottom was bitten off entirely, meaning you wasted time with a line that can’t catch anything in the water.

For fish like walleye, bass, trout, perch, and crappie, attach about three feet of fluorocarbon leader to your swivel. The purpose of this isn’t to protect your line, but to make it hard to see. If you were a fish, you’d be weirded out by an obvious line sitting there, but if all you could see was the bait, you’d be more likely to take it. So, it’s definitely worth using.

Once again, you technically can survive without attaching the swivel and leader, but it’s not recommended. You increase your chances of success by using them and probably make your fishing more enjoyable, or at least less difficult.

5. Tie on the Hook

We’ve come to the moment you were surely expecting: attaching the hook. After all, you can’t trap any fish without a hook, right? (Well, you can with a net or a spear, but that’s not what we’re doing here, so let’s not be too technical).

Once again, choosing a particular type of hook is a matter of what species of fish you want to target. As a beginner, this might not matter much to you, but when you get experienced, you will care more about this type of decision.

Species like crappie and bluegill, which are very common in ice fishing, can be caught with an Aberdeen hook. You’re going to want a lengthier one, as in a size 6 or size 8. With this type of hook, it’s easy to unhook the fish when you’ve brought them to the surface. That’s particularly nice for ice fishing since your hands aren’t usually as nimble as they would be in warm weather.

For walleye, a size 4 or size 6 hook will be good. For pike, use a size 2/0 to 6/0.

If you are looking to catch a specific type of fish, the smart thing to do is to do some research on it to know what hook to use.

You’re going to want to use bait, too, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. Once again, it’s best to do research on the species you’re after to know the ideal bait.

Most of the time, you can use minnows, shad, or suckers. Pieces of nightcrawlers are good for attracting bluegill, crappie, and perch. Entire nightcrawlers work on catfish or largemouth bass.

With the hook attached to the line, we are almost ready to put this line in the water.

6. Attach Split Shot

We need to keep the bait weighed down. For that, we use a split shot. A split shot is just a little ball used solely for this purpose: keeping bait weighed down.

Attach the split shot to the leader (or your line if you didn’t use a leader). Keep it far enough from the bait to sink it. It shouldn’t be so close, however, that the bait can’t swim. To be specific, 4 to 5 inches should be about the right distance.

Don’t use more split shots than necessary. If the bait is kept down, that’s all you need.

This is a very simple part. Complete it, and you are finally ready to put the bait in the water.

7. Place the Tip-up and Drop the Line

With the tip-up totally ready to go and a hole dug, you can begin fishing.

Whatever kind of tip-up you got, the flag will need to be in the down position for the tip-up to be useful to you, so make sure that’s where it is as you begin.

All you need to do at this point is lower the line beneath the water. How far down should you go? As is so often the case, it depends on what sort of fish you are targeting. For some help on that subject, I wrote an article about that. Whatever the answer, just pull the desired amount of line out from the spool and drop it into the hole.

Then you just place the tip-up right above the hole. The line will hang right from the center of the tip-up.

Your work is done. Well, it is at least until a fish bites.

8. Watch for the Flag

With the tip-up in place, much like a hunter’s trap, you now just need to wait for a fish to take the bait. Finding out where the fish are and choosing the correct bait is basically a whole other topic unto itself, but hopefully, you have done well enough with those things that you should see a flag pop up soon.

What should you do in the meantime? You could dig more holes to cover more ground. In those holes, you could set up more tip-ups, if you have them. With any luck, this could make your day of fishing very efficient.

Keep in mind, though, that many states and regions have regulations about how many holes you can have lines in at once, so you need to check those before you go too crazy.

If you don’t have additional tip-ups, you can still dig more holes and just use a rod, if you have one. As you do so, just keep a lookout for a flag. Hopefully, you chose a tip-up with a brightly-colored flag. That way, it will catch your eye when it goes up, so you can get to your catch quickly.

If you’d rather just relax and do none of that other stuff I just mentioned, that’s cool too. I’m not judging. There’s plenty of fun to be had in just sitting around and letting the tip-up do the hard work.

When the flag pops up though, the true battle begins.

9. Pull in Your Catch

When the flag goes up, I think you already know what you need to do. You must go to the tip-up and start pulling up your line.

There is not really much I can explain when it comes to this part. It’s basically just like a tug of war. Pull your line out. The fish will fight back. It could be quite a struggle if you’ve managed to hook a big one, which will be a thrilling contest of strength for you.

If you win this contest, congratulations! You’ve used a tip-up to catch a fish!

I got information for this article from farmandfleet.com and the article Set Up an Ice Fishing Tip Up.

Samuel Davis

I grew up in Colorful Colorado and spent a lot of time outdoors there. I love camping and hiking. I also love to read and write.

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