By Tyler French
Ice fishermen are at a disadvantage because it can be hard to move around in the winter. We have to drill holes in each new area, and we often walk through deep snow and have to bundle up to handle frigid temperatures. On top of that, we can only fish straight up and down, and we can’t cast or troll to cover water.
Power augers, warm clothes, durable ice shelters and advanced electronics have greatly increased our odds on the ice. Just because we have all of the proper tools, though, doesn’t mean we will automatically catch more fish. We have to develop and adjust a strategy for each lake we fish and each species we want to catch.
Bonus Line Advantage
A huge part of each ice-fishing strategy I develop is taking advantage of bonus lines. Many states allow more lines in the winter than in the summer, which is yet another way to increase the odds for ice fishermen. Taking advantage of the maximum amount of lines will help you cover more area, catch more fish and even give you a shot at the biggest fish of the winter.
I often see anglers with their maximum number of lines out, but the problem I see is they’re all confined to a small area. In many cases, ice anglers use bobbers on each line or keep their deadstick rods close enough so they can see what’s happening. There are times when this close-knit strategy produces, but more often than not, this technique can slow you down and prevent you from moving on if there aren’t any fish to be found.
It is important to remember that bonus lines are an addition to your strategy, not the focus. Jigging and hole-hopping with a flasher will almost always produce more action, so keep that your focus.
Bonus lines need to be set up, deployed and moved efficiently in order to be effective. Instead of bobber rods or deadsticks, I prefer to use tip-ups for my bonus lines.
Tip-ups come in many models and styles. There are two main classes for tip-ups: those that free spool and require a hand-over-hand retrieve, and those that use a rod and reel. Both classes have some sort of indicator that’s visible from a distance that alarms you of a bite, allowing you to cover a wider area in hopes of contacting active fish.
Traditional-style tip-ups typically store heavy dacron line on a built-in spool. When a fish pulls, it trips a flag allowing line to tear freely off the spool as the fish swims off with the bait. The heavy dacron line allows the angler to grab the line by hand, set the hook and then fight the fish hand over hand to the hole without the fear of smaller-diameter ice line cutting into hands or tangling on the ice.
There are several variations of traditional tip-ups. Some fold to a simple “X” shape that crosses the hole. Some use wind to add jigging action to the bait.
Others, such as HT Enterprise’s Polar Therm Extreme tip-ups, are round and insulated to cover the hole and minimize freezing. Thanks to their round design, up to six Polar Therms can be stacked in a 6-gallon bucket. Polar Therms have telescopic flags that extend to 32 inches, which is great when covering a large piece of structure.
Another one of my favorite traditional tip-ups is the HT Polar Pop-up. This tube-style tip-up is waterproof, windproof and collapses into a small package. A dozen polar pop-ups can easily fit in a rod bag.
The Polar Pop-up’s design is unique. When the spool turns, it releases a magnet which pops up the striker indicator. The magnet can be set to different tensions depending on the size of bait you are fishing, which reduces the chance of a foul trip.
Traditional tip-up styles have been around for quite some time. They are simple to use, easy to store and let you know when a fish takes your bait, even from a distance.
Although traditional tip-ups can be set fairly sensitive, they seem to work best for larger fish that hit, run and swallow the bait. Keep in mind that nipping bluegills and finicky perch can often steal the bait without tripping the flag.
Rod-and-reel-style tip-ups are quickly becoming more popular. Models including the Automatic Fisherman, HT Ice Rigger, Clam Arctic Warrior and IfishPRO use an actual rod and reel to fight the fish instead of the hand-over-hand fight required from a traditional tip-up.
Rod-and-reel tip-ups use a base to hold a rod which trips a flag that signals a bite. The Automatic Fisherman does this, but with the added bonus of setting the hook, too.
The Automatic Fisherman base loads the rod allowing the line to sit over a trigger. When a fish bumps the bait, the trigger releases and the rod snaps up to set the hook.
The trigger can be set incredibly light in order to catch bait stealers such as perch, bluegill and crappie. When using bigger baits for walleye, pike and lake trout, the trigger can be set heavier and a slip bobber can be added between the first and second eyes on the rod to add slack that will allow fish a short run before setting the hook.
Although the Automatic Fisherman works with any size bait and for any kind of fish, they really outperform tip-ups when chasing fish that don’t typically run and hold on to a bait. Perch, crappies and trout will often hit a bait and quickly drop it when they feel resistance or know something isn’t right.
Fishing traditional tip-ups for these species often leads to trips, drops and an empty hook. With the Automatic Fisherman, even small, bait-stealing fish will trip the trigger and get hooked.
Rod-and-reel tip-ups have several advantages over traditional models, as well. Setting the line is as easy as opening up the reel’s bail and dropping line down the hole. Packing up to move to a different spot is as easy as reeling the line back up.
When fighting a fish, a rod and reel can be a lot more fun than traditional hand-over-hand battles. Plus, the added leverage of a rod can absorb those quick runs and head shakes of bigger fish that often throw hooks. The hook-setting ability of the Automatic Fisherman shines when fish are in a neutral or negative mood and are dragging and dropping your bait.
In order to use bonus lines effectively, make sure they don’t take away time and focus from your main jigging strategy. To do this, you must efficiently bait and set your bonus lines.
The fastest way to set your tip-ups is by using your flasher. Sure, those old-school clip-on depth weights work, but they require an extra trip up and down the hole. Instead of clipping a weight on and off, bait the hook and send it down using your flasher to see when it gets into depth range you prefer, be it right on the bottom or suspended higher in the water column.
Another advantage of using your flasher to help set your tip-ups is that you can set your lines with a purpose. Tip-ups spread out willy-nilly will catch fish; however, tip-ups set with a purpose will catch even more fish and allow you to repeat the success.
As part of your strategy, always have a reason for why that tip-up is set where it is. Is it on a breakline? Shallow against the bank? Set over a rock pile or along a weed edge? Knowing where and why will help you establish patterns and repeat success.
The beauty of a good tip-up strategy is that many depths and structures can be covered all at once. Tip-up flags and the ability for Automatic Fisherman to set the hook means you can stretch out and cover big pieces of water.
If a tip-up set along a gravel-to-mud transition is getting the most action, start jigging in that same area and depth.
Use tip-ups to show you where the fish might be and where the fish are nowhere to be found. Don’t be afraid to move your tip-ups around and try new areas and depths along the structure.
Some of my best days spent ice fishing have been thanks to tip-ups finding active fish in places I wouldn’t typically fish — you know, those areas that seem too deep, too weedy or too close to shore. Don’t be afraid to set your tip-ups in those nontypical areas. You might just find a new pattern on a lake you previously thought you knew well.
Big baits should always be a part of your tip-up strategy. There is no arguing that big baits catch big fish, and a bonus line is a great way to see what big fish are in the area. The action might be slower, but one bite could result in the biggest fish of the year.
Even if you’re after shy, bottom-hugging perch and bluegills, set a tip-up out with a big sucker or shiner. A pike or bass could be the icing on the cake for a successful day of fishing for panfish. Oh, and you might be surprised at how big of a meal a 14-inch perch wants to eat.
About the Author: Tyler French is a water resources engineer and freelance outdoor writer who grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Sheridan, Wyo.