Whether you’re after trophy pike or pocket-sized panfish, tip ups are one of the most effective ways to catch fish on the ice. Rather than being stuck babysitting one rod, ice fishing tip ups enable you to drop multiple lines in the water – greatly increasing your chances of scoring a nice catch!
Tip ups also enable you to fish different depths, baits, and locations simultaneously. You can take a shotgun approach and target pike, panfish, and walleye – all while sitting comfortably in your shelter or ice house.
Newer tip ups use the same basic design they have for decades but features several improvements that make them increasingly sensitive and durable – greatly improving their usefulness and versatility. I’ll break down some of the best tip ups on the market, plus how to pick the best ones for your needs and environment.
Quick Answer: 6 Best Ice Fishing Tip Ups
Why do you need tip ups?
Besides helping you catch more fish, ice fishing tip ups have several features that make them invaluable to many ice anglers.
Tip ups are great for when you want to cover a lot of ground. You can set them up in multiple locations on the same body of water, allowing you to fish shallow bays, deep open-water, and underwater structures of various depths.
Fishing with tip ups is also a lot of fun! It’s generally more fast-paced than fishing with just an ice rod and reel. Depending on your local laws and regulations, you may be able to set up half a dozen or more tip ups. That can translate to some seriously frantic action when the fish start biting!
Tip up Types
While all tip ups use the same basic mechanics, there’s quite a large variation between different types and designs. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular tip up types:
The classic tip up design utilizes a sturdy and durable hardwood base capable of withstanding the toughest weather conditions out there. They’re slightly more expensive than cheaper plastic versions, but they’ll last forever and won’t malfunction like cheaper ones sometimes do.
The mechanism is fairly straightforward. A pivoting shaft arm runs perpendicular to the board with a spool of line attached to the bottom and a trip bar attached to the top. When a fish takes your bait and pulls on the line, the spool rotates, tripping the flag and alerting you that a fish is on your line.
The entire tip up folds up into a compact flat shape that’s easy to stash with the rest of your ice fishing gear.
Flat plastic tips ups use the same basic design as the hardwood versions but have a plastic base instead of a wooden one. This makes them less expensive, but more prone to getting damaged or malfunctioning in heavy snow and ice.
If you’re looking for a cheaper tip that will work well – but won’t last forever – then this type of tip up is an excellent option. If you want a bulletproof tip up that will last for decades, then hardwood is the way to go.
Thermal tip ups are a newer design that solves one of the major problems with traditional tip ups – holes freezing over. These tip ups have a round base designed to completely cover up the ice hole.
This has two major benefits. Firstly, it significantly slows down holes from freezing over and making your tip ups useless. Secondly, it blocks any sunlight from penetrating the water beneath – which can spook away fish, especially when fishing in the early morning hours.
Thermal tip ups are also designed to be stacked on top of one another inside a 5-gallon bucket. This makes them great when you have limited space in your sled.
Cross-stick tip ups are slightly different from other tip ups designs. They have a base made from two ‘X’ shaped wooden sticks; while a third stick holds the line spool submerged underwater.
These tip ups are a bit bigger and heavier than the alternatives, but they do offer one major advantage – the flag is positioned significantly higher than on other tip ups. This makes them excellent for use in deep snow and other low-visibility conditions.
Like other tip ups, cross-sticks fold up into a compact package for easy transport and storage.
Windlass tip ups use an innovative sail design that acts to provide a jigging action to your bait. A small sail is attached to the tip up arm, which catches the wind and moves your bait around underwater.
They work well as long as the wind is blowing. If there’s no wind, then the jigging action stops, and your bait will remain stationary in the water like a normal tip up. They also work well in places where using live bait is prohibited.
Strictly speaking, rod holders aren’t really tip ups, but they act in a similar fashion, allowing you to use your rod and reel as a makeshift tip up. A rod holder will free up your hands for other tasks, so all you need to do is mount your rod inside the holder and keep an occasional eye on it.
Some anglers like to mount a rod holder to the back of a wooden tip up. This allows you to drop two lines inside the same hole, and free your hands up for drilling more holes, setting up additional tip ups, or cracking open a cold one!
Top 6 Ice Fishing Tip Ups
How to pick the best tip ups?
With so many different makes and models, picking the best ice fishing tip ups for your needs can seem like a confusing task. I’ll break down the tip up features you need to know when picking out the right tip ups for your environment.
Tip ups typically use either hardwood or high-impact plastic as a base. As mentioned previously, hardwood provides a more durable, long-lasting base than plastic does.
Wood is better able to withstand freezing over or getting covered in layers of heavy snow than plastic is. Plastic tip ups can snap in half when subjected to excessive stress from freezing over.
If you frequently fish in heavy snow and ice, then going with a wooden base tip up is a safe bet.
Portability is an important consideration, especially when you have a long-distance to transport your tip ups. If you’re hauling a sled packed with an ice shelter, auger, chisel, and other tackle, then you’ll want your tip ups to be as compact and lightweight as possible.
Many thermal style tip ups are designed to fit inside a 5-gallon bucket stacked on top of one another. Wooden and plastic plank-style tip ups also fold up into a flat compact profile, making them fairly easy to pack. Cross stick tip ups take up the most space, but will also pack up flat.
The best tip for the situation depends heavily on the local weather and temperature conditions. In dead of winter sub-zero temperatures or heavy snow, thermal style tips ups will perform much better. They’ll prevent the hole from freezing over, or filling with snow and becoming unusable.
In milder conditions, standard plank-style tip ups will work well. You can also modify these types by adding an insulating layer over the hole.
The trigger bar (or trip bar) is what sets the tension on the flag and spool. Most tips ups have two tension settings: heavy for large fish like pike and lake trout, and light for panfish and walleye. Some tip ups have a third medium setting specifically for walleye and bass.
Setting the trip bar to a higher setting will also help prevent accidental false flags from wind or current.
A smooth spool is essential for an effective tip up. Metal spools are generally more durable and smooth than their plastic counterparts.
A good spool will allow fish to take your line with little to no resistance unless you’re using a model with built-in drag. Generally, higher-end models like the Beaver Damn original will have an ultra-smooth spool operation, which translates into more fish hooked!
Another important consideration is the flag’s visibility on the ice. The higher up the flag extends, the more visible it will be. Cross stick tip ups excel in this area, as they extend significantly higher than other types.
Flags come in a variety of colors and patterns, with many anglers customizing their flags with their favorite sports team, the Jolly Roger, or custom designs. Generally, you’ll want to go with high-contrast colors that are easy to spot against the white snow. Bright yellow, orange, and red all work well.
If you’re setting up a large number of tip ups, then color-coding the flags to correspond with different baits is a good way to stay organized.
Other Supplies Needed
If you’re just getting started with tip up fishing, then there are a few accessories that can make your tip ups far more effective. Some tip ups come bundled with these accessories, while others don’t – so you’ll need to pick them up separately.
Hole covers are a simple but highly effective way to keep your holes from closing up too quickly. In sub-zero temperatures, holes can close up surprisingly quickly, rendering your tip up ineffective.
An insulated hole cover solves this issue – simply set the cover over the hole and slide your tip up through the slot. Check out the Northeast Products Therm-A-SEAT for a well-made insulated ice hole cover.
An ice chisel (sometimes called a spud bar) is a chisel designed to reopen ice holes and check ice thickness for safety. If you’re opening up many holes and using multiple tip ups, then a good ice chisel is super handy for quickly reopening old holes without having to use an auger.
Check out my breakdown of ice fishing chisels and spud bars for an in-depth look.
Tip up Light
A tip up light is a great little accessory that helps you see when a tip up is tripped. They’re especially useful for nighttime and dawn and dusk fishing. It’s basically just a small LED light that clips onto your tip up – which illuminates when a fish takes your bait and trips the flag.
Check out the Frabill Arctic Fire Tip-Up Light for a cheap and effective tip up light.
I’ve loved being in the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up fishing, canoeing, and camping throughout the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It’s what lead me to start this site and share my passions for fishing, diving, kayaking and more. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or (preferably!) preparing for my next outdoor adventure.