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While some ice-fishing anglers use only rods and reels, the vast majority make tip-ups and rattle reels an important part of their arsenal. In fact, some ice-fishing enthusiasts prefer watching the flag fly on a tip-up or hear the bells ring on a rattle reel over feeling a fish strike on an ice rod.


Catching fish with tip-ups is a deep-rooted ice-fishing tradition, dating back many years. In fact, it's been speculated that tip-ups of some form may have been used by early Native Americans using ice fishing as a means of sustenance which, if true, would make tip-ups one of the earliest forms of ice tackle.

The basic concept behind the term "tip-up" is simply a device consisting of a body supporting a reel of line. Attached to the reel is a loaded trip mechanism that causes a signal to flip upright when a fish strikes. Early models are thought to have consisted of a tapered branch frozen into surface snow, a length of gut string and a baited bone or claw hook. The gut string could be tied to the branch tip with a fore-length of backing and the opposite, baited end lowered into the hole; strikes could be detected when the branch jiggled up and down.

Today, tip-ups are used as a means of recreation, and many technological advances have made them much more effective and easier to use. Most consist of a framework of some sort that rests on the ice to support a reel of line and a spring-loaded trip mechanism that flips up a flag when the reel is turned by a biting fish. To prevent the reel, line and flag mechanism from freezing, most quality designs now feature underwater reels and sealed, lubricated trip mechanisms. While many tip-up anglers spool with dacron backing, the experts prefer nylon or teflon-coated dacron which don't soak up water and help prevent freezing. Fish are caught by pulling on the line to set the hook, then hand over handing the fish to the surface.

As various innovations have spawned new ideas over the generations, different tip-up models have appeared, offering various features such as multiple reel sizes, freeze-proof trips, built-in hole covers, reel drag and adjustable tension settings, but all can be grouped into seven basic classifications:

Basic cross member tip-ups consist of two interlocking, horizontal bars supporting a centerpiece. The centerpiece has an underwater reel filled with dacron line and a leader tipped with a baited hook tied at the end. The centerpiece and reel are placed in the water to prevent the reel and line from freezing, and a greased wire trip mechanism leading from the reel to the flag is angled so when a fish strikes and the reel spins, the wire turns, releasing a spring-loaded flag, indicating the strike to anglers. While cross member designs are typically the most economical, the release mechanisms are seldom sealed, they're prone to freeze up, and there is no way to adjust reel tension on most models.

Underwater tip-ups consist of a rectangular, horizontal body supporting a centerpiece. Like the cross member tip-up, this centerpiece features an underwater reel-but the reel is directly connected to a shaft leading to a flag trip mechanism, so when the reel turns and line is peeled off, the flag is released to indicate a strike. On high quality models, the shaft is placed within a sealed, lubricated cylinder that is unlikely to freeze, and the frames are "V" shaped to prevent freeze-down. Trip tension can be increased or decreased by setting the flag on the heavy or light trips, or on high quality models, adjusting the spindle mechanism to increase the angle of the flag wire against the trip. The one disadvantage to rectangular underwater tip-ups is that the frame allows light and snow to enter hole around the centerpiece, and leaves the hole around the trip cylinder subject to freezing.

Thermal tip-ups consist of a flat horizontal body that supports a centerpiece and completely covers your hole, thereby blocking light and snow from entering the hole and resisting hole freeze-up. With the large, wide bodies of these models, however, transportation on the ice is often bulky.

Wind tip-ups consist of a tall, upright body supporting a movable arm outfitted with a reel of dacron line, leader and a baited hook or lure on one end, and a large, flat plate on the other. The line extends from the reel through a hole in this plate and down into the water. A strip of spring steel is bent over to the reel from the end the arm, so when the reel turns, the flag trips up, indicating the strike.

A spring-loaded tension bracket leading from the center body to the reel end of the arm allows tension on the arm to be made lighter for smaller baits, and stronger for larger ones. The same bracket also allows the arm to be directed higher to achieve a wider, more aggressive jigging motion, or lower to create less movement. While the jigging motion keeps your bait moving, which can increase your productivity, these tip-ups only function during warm winter days when the hole and exposed reel aren't subject to freeze up.

Magnetic tip-ups feature a hollow centerpiece with an internal spring-loaded flag shaft, all supported by a tripod. The bottom portion of the centerpiece holds the underwater reel. A magnet on the reel and another just opposite the reel at the base of the internal spring-loaded flag mechanism are aligned to hold the reel in place by magnetic tension. When a fish bites and the reel turns, this magnetic tension is broken, allowing the flag to release and indicates the strike to an angler. Reel tension can be adjusted by raising or lowering the reel, thereby increasing or decreasing the magnetic force between the magnets.

Tip-downs and balance tip-ups feature an upright body style much like a wind tip-up, but the body supports either a fulcrum-balanced jig stick, rod and reel, or movable rod. With a jig rod or rod and reel, the rod simply "tips down" off balance when a fish strikes, and left in free spool, line is fed to the fish until the angler arrives to set the hook. The rod can then be removed and the fish fought freely with the rod and reel. On movable rod designs, line simply runs through a wire loop at the arm's tip, and down to a free-spooled rattle reel attached to the side of the body. When a fish strikes, the arm tips down and the spool feeds line. Tension can be controlled using the reel's drag.

Popular Tip-up rigs. Standard tip-up riggings consist of a barrel or ball-bearing swivel connecting the dacron backing to a monofilament, Spectra-or in the case of fishing toothy species like pike or pickerel-wire, leader. A baited (usually a live minnow) single or treble hook weighted with an appropriate number of split shot to lower and hold the bait at the desired depth rounds out the rig.

At times, it pays to add painted hooks, metal or plastic spinners, spoons, flashers or other attractors to draw fish. With moving, wind-style tip-ups, some innovative winter anglers have even begun using colorful jigs or small flutter spoons to increase their attractive qualities.

At the end of the day, attach tip-up line holders (right) to the tip-up spools to prevent the line from unraveling and becoming tangled during storage and transport.

Rattle Reels

In large permanent houses, those equipped with beds for sleeping, anglers often use rattle reels to keep lines in the water throughout the entire night. In fact, few things in winter angling are as exciting as waking to the sound of a spinning rattle reel.

Most models are simple free-spooling plastic (right) or wood spools featuring an internal or external rattle that makes noise when they turn as a fish strikes, alerting anglers to a bite. They are usually fastened to the walls of a ice shanty, but can also be attached to a bucket or stand for outside use. When used outside, however, rattle reels are subject to freeze up much like wind tip-ups.

Anglers usually load the spool of the rattle reel with dacron line, a fixed bobber, and a live- or dead-bait rig identical to the type used for tip-up fishing. The best rattle reels feature adjustable spool tension knobs that can be set light enough so a fish doesn't feel any resistance as it takes line, but tight enough so as to not get a backlash if a fish makes a hard initial run and then stops abruptly.

The best method to play and land a fish hooked on a rattle reel system is for one angler to fight the fish and take in line by hand while a second angler simultaneously winds in the slack line onto the rattle reel. This way, the line doesn't become entangled and resetting the bait is easy.

How to Use an Underwater Tip-Up

Set the flag arm under the T-shaped spindle after lowering your bait to the desired depth (left). For walleye fishing, set the arm under the smooth side of the spindle so it will trip easily. Set the arm under the grooved side for northern pike fishing with large minnows. A bite is signalled by a tripped flag (center). You can tell how fast a fish is moving with your bait by how fast the spindle is turning (inset). If the spindle isn't turning, gently pull on the line until you feel resistance. Set the hook with a sharp snap of your wrist (right).

How to Use a Wind Tip-Up

Bend the metal plate upward so it catches more wind if you want the bait to bob more intensely (left). The tension of the coil spring (arrow) also regulates the action. Loosen the wing nut, then slide the spring downward for more action; slide it upward for less action. Set the flag by bending the thin metal flag spring so that it presses against the back side of the spool (center). Pressure from the spring prevents the spool from turning and fixes the depth. When a fish bites, friction from the turning spool springs the flag (right).