What Are Ice Fishing Tip-Ups? | In-Depth Guide


Ice fishing tip-ups are a common tool used by anglers to have multiple lines in the water while remaining hands-free. Many anglers new to ice fishing might be curious about what an ice fishing tip-up is and how they work.

An ice fishing tip-up is a simple device that uses a spool of fishing line, a flag, and a simple trigger mechanism to alert anglers when a fish takes the bait. From there, the angler can set the hook and pull the fish in by hand. Tip-ups come in several designs to best suit different needs.

Below is more information about ice fishing tip-ups, how it works, who should use them, and more.

What Is An Ice Fishing Tip-Up?

Ice fishing tip-ups are simple devices created to place over a hole in the ice that suspends the bait in the water column and alerts the fisherman when a fish takes it.

Often these devices use brightly colored flags that “tip up” to draw attention, although some devices will tip the flag down.

Ice fishing tip-ups come in a few different designs; each has pros and cons, and the individual must choose what best suits their needs.

Price, ease of use, materials, and other functions separate each of them.

Without covering too much of the history of the tip-ups, they became popularized in the 1930s, and since then, many companies have come up with their own versions.

Anywhere you go ice fishing, you’re likely to find people using tip-ups to maximize their catches.

1. What Are The Different Parts Of An Ice Fishing Tip-Up?

Depending on the design of the specific tip-up, it may have parts different from another model, but for the most part, tip-ups will have a few features shared between devices.

a. Flag/Indicator

 The flag is usually a bright orange color, although other brightly colored indicators can also be used.

Most flags rely on a flexible support pole held down with friction; when the trigger is activated, it springs up.

b. Spool

The spool can hold up to 500’ of fishing line and can be at the bottom of the tip-up, under the ice, or above the ice. Some models rely on handlining, while others have a more traditional style reel.

A handful of models use an ice fishing pole instead of an integrated spool, which is uncommon.

c. Fishing Line

The fishing line is spooled up on the provided spool and can be anywhere from 50-500’ in length. A minimum of 75’ is usually recommended, although this can vary depending on your target species.

Many ice anglers also choose to use a leader to reduce line visibility or prevent breakage from toothy fish.

d. Trigger Mechanism

All tip-ups use some form of trigger mechanism that releases the flag when the spool moves with a fish.

Some mechanisms are adjustable, so you can set the tension needed to trigger it at a point where the ice fishing live bait can swim without setting off the tip-up.

e. Base

Bases on ice fishing tip-ups come in four main designs, which are outlined below. Bases can be made of a simple piece of wood or made with insulating properties to prevent the ice from refreezing.

What Are The Different Parts Of An Ice Fishing Tip-Up

2. Cross-Stick Tip-Ups

Cross-stick models are some of the most simple designs and, as a result, are some of the most inexpensive options to get started.

As the name suggests, the base of these models uses two sticks crossed like a plus sign to rest above the hole in the ice and one vertical stick to which the flag and spool are attached.

These models are great for individuals looking to try a tip-up without investing much into a more expensive model.

The base offers enough support and versatility to use on any standard-size ice fishing hole.

These tip-ups also offer a lot of height, making them visual from a further distance or deep snow. However, the larger the model, the more expensive it will be.

The lack of moving parts on this style tip-up makes them durable and unlikely to fail. While the simplicity is a plus and makes these models a great option, it also has drawbacks.

The first drawback is you’ll need to check that the water is not freezing, and you’ll likely have to clear out the hole often.

Another negative to using this type of tip-up is that it can get heavy and hard to transport for large models.

Overall, cross-stick tip-ups are popular due to their durability, relatively low cost, and versatility.

3. Flat Board Style Tip-Ups

Flat board tip-ups include the popular Beaver Dam and many other models following the success of that model.

Instead of relying on a base made of crossed sticks, these use a large flat piece of lumber that rests across the hole in the ice.

A round toggle with a groove in it holds down the flag on this style of tip-up.

For small fish, the flag can be set outside the groove to make it easier to trigger, while putting it in the groove requires more force to spring up.

Similar to the cross-stick models, the spool sits about a foot under the top of the ice, submerged in the water.

When the fish takes the bait, the spool spins, causing the toggle to rotate and release the flag, alerting the angler.

Flat board tip-ups are usually made with a two-foot-long board of wood or a similarly sized plastic base. Wooden models will be heavier but more durable and inexpensive than quality plastics.

Still, if packability and transportability are essential, you may want to look at plastic models.

4. Thermal Tip-Ups

Thermal tip-ups, also called insulated tip-ups, are a newer innovation in the world of ice fishing and offer the lowest maintenance option for the savvy ice fisherman.

Thermal tip-ups use an insulated base that completely fits over the ice fishing hole, preventing freezing and lowering the time needed to maintain the tip-up.

If you run five or more tip-ups, then not needing to check and scoop out the ice can be a huge time saver. These models are, however, the most expensive and heaviest option.

Using a sled and an ATV makes a couple of pounds of extra weight a non-issue, but this may be a consideration for someone pulling their sled by hand.

Another drawback to this style is they are not as versatile as other bases, requiring a specific size hole in the ice rather than being adaptable to any size hole.

Thermal Tip-Ups

5. Wind Tip-Ups

Wind tip-ups are a bit different than the other models and will offer hands-free fishing and use the wind’s power to jig for you.

These models are generally the most expensive and complex but provide a unique tip-up experience.

Wind tip-ups rely on a sail-like piece to catch the wind and pull the arm down, and then a spring causes the line to pull back up, which provides a jigging action and will help draw the interest of nearby fish.

One of the drawbacks of this device style is that it requires some amount of wind to function properly.

However, they have adjustable springs to provide the right amount of tension for different wind speeds, and it is rare for there to be no wind out on the ice.

Another difference between wind tip-ups and other types is the spool stays out of the water and is at the top of the device.

Usually, the spool location doesn’t make much of a difference, but it could fail due to exposure to below-freezing temperatures.

Tips And Tricks For Setting Up A Tip-Up

Ice fishing tip-ups won’t do you much good if you don’t set them up correctly.

Proper placement on the lake, using the right bait, and ensuring you’ve set the tension correctly are all part of ensuring your tip-up functions properly.

Always read the manual that comes with the product you choose, as certain models will operate differently from one another.

Following manufacturer instructions will ensure that you are doing everything correctly.

1. Choosing The Right Location

Drilling holes randomly in the ice might catch a fish, but carefully choosing a spot ideal for your targeted species will increase your odds. There are several ways to select a spot with the best odds for your trip.

Most fish prefer to be in deeper water during winter and generally prefer to be near drop-offs, humps, or some kind of cover.

Some ways to find these areas include using a depth finder, looking at maps online, or visiting a body of water during summer when there is no ice.

Different species will have different habits during winter, some prefer staying in the deepest parts of the lake, and others patrol near ledges looking for food.

One benefit of tip-ups is that you can spread a few out in several different depths to find where the fish are.

Suspending your bait one to two feet above the bottom is the most likely place to get bites and can be easily done with an ounce or two of weight and a bobber.

Tie the weight on the end of your line, slowly let it fall until you feel it hit the bottom, and then pull up a couple of feet of line and hook your bobber onto it.

Using a bobber will ensure your bait is sitting in the right spot and means you can quickly reset it to the same consistent place.

Choosing The Right Location

2. Be Sure To Use Quality Fishing Line

Nothing can ruin a hooked fish faster than a cheap line. Using too light of a line or an old line that becomes brittle in the cold will break as soon as you hook into a decent fish.

To prevent this, select the right line for your needs. Some tip-ups will come with line pre-spooled with varying qualities of line used.

Many anglers will choose to replace this line with something they know is quality and appropriate for their uses.

The tip-up line should be designed to perform well in the cold, have low line memory, and can either be a standalone line or made for use with a leader.

If you plan on using a leader anyways, dark-colored lines are easy to see against the ice, which is a helpful perk.

3. Use The Right Bait For Your Target Species

Tip-ups don’t work well with artificial lures, so you will want to use live bait with your tip-ups. Minnows are the go-to choice, with shiners, suckers, and smelt all being popular options.

Targeting smaller species is best done with a wind tip-up that will jig for you, allowing you to use waxworms or other insects in a traditional setup.

The movement provided by the jig will attract fish under the ice, just as well as using live fish as bait. One tip to help improve your hook-up ratio is to use treble hooks.

The additional hooks help ensure that at least one of them will make contact with the fish after it takes the bait and can help snag those trickier species.

4. If Your Tip-Ups Are Adjustable, Set Them Accordingly

Check with your specific model of the tip-up device to understand which parts are adjustable, especially the amount of force it takes to trigger the flag.

Proper tension helps prevent false alarms from the bait movement or the wind activating the device.

However, you don’t want it to be too hard to set off the flag because the fish might feel resistance and get spooked.

It will take trial and error to dial in this process precisely, but once you get a feel for it, it’ll be second nature.

5. Check Your Tip-Ups Often

For the best odds of catching a fish in time, be sure to check your tip-ups often. Once that flag goes up, you’ll want to get to it quickly so you can set the hook and reel that sucker in.

If you are not using a thermal tip-up, you’ll also want to check for any ice forming in the hole and clear that out.

Your gear freezing to the ice can prevent it from functioning correctly at best and can break at worst.

Some areas require anglers to write their name and number on their tip-ups in case one gets lost, which is a good idea anyways.

Having your information on your tip-up device helps ensure it doesn’t get lost or accidentally taken.

6. Be Patient When Setting The hook

You might be tempted to yank the line immediately when you see that flag go up, but this can be a bad idea.

Instead, take your time to move the tip-up out of the way, and then gently remove any slack from the line.

Then if you feel tension, you can set the hook and handline it in or reel it in if your tip-up has a reel.

Once you have set the hook, either you’ll be able to pull that fish right in, or you’ll have to play it a bit to wear it out.

Be Patient When Setting The hook

Wrapping Up

When ice fishing, tip-ups can be an angler’s best friend. They’ve been a popular choice for nearly a hundred years and there is a reason that so many anglers use them during the ice fishing season.

They allow for hands-free fishing in several locations, making your fishing trip much more productive. Tip-ups have many different designs and uses, and you can often find one for any budget.

Using them can be one of the best ways to fish different depths and try new things without putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Shailen Vandeyar

A proud Indian origin Kiwi who loves to plant trees and play with my pet bunny when not freshwater fishing in the nearest creek or enjoying saltwater fishing by taking boats far in the ocean.

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