The waning weeks of the winter season can be one of the most prolific times for panfish anglers. As schools of hungry bluegills, perch and crappies congregate in predictable late-season locales, the longer days, warmer temperatures and increased fish activity provide a much welcomed respite from the doldrums of mid-winter. One of the most effectual and efficient manners of catching late-ice panfish is using tip-downs.
Tip-downs consist of a rod and line holding mechanism (reel, spool, etc.) that balances on a brace or frame. The rig incorporates the principle of weight balancing to initially hold the rod at a 45 degree upward angle. When a fish strikes, the rod simply swivels at its balance point and tips downward towards the hole. With this visual cue an angler knows the bait is in the fish’s mouth and merely needs to set the hook before retrieving the line, typically hand-over-hand. The beauty of the system is that it provides zero resistance to a striking fish resulting in fewer drops and more hook-ups, especially when dealing with persnickety or pressured fish.
The fact that the rod is balanced means that it only stays tipped down as long as the fish has the bait in its mouth. If the fish spits the lure out, the rod merely returns to its standard 45 degree upward angle thus putting the bait right back into the strike zone; this is a huge advantage to ice anglers dealing with fussy fish that may strike and subsequently drop the bait multiple times before finally committing to eating.
While constructed on the same basic premise, tip-downs are available in a variety of styles both hand-made and commercially produced. Featuring a 24 inch lightweight self-contained hard plastic carrying tube only two inches in diameter, extendable rod holder and a reel complete with a folding handle, the Ice Fishing Tip Down from Innovative Manufacturing is my personal choice for panfish all winter long. The Ice Fishing Tip Down excels in both shallow and deep water situations as its hollow end allows you to custom balance the unit for use with larger baits or heavier sinkers such as when fishing areas of strong current or in deeper water.
Tackle for rigging tip-downs is relatively simple: line for the spool, fluorocarbon leader material and an assortment of hooks and sinkers is enough to get started.
Fellow tip-up aficionado and ice-fishing guide Todd Bohm has a few distinct preferences when it comes to rigging his tip-downs. “A lot of guys prefer to run straight monofilament line on their tip-downs, but I actually like using a heavier braided line, say 20 pound test, and then run a six foot long fluorocarbon leader. The braided line is easier to see against the snow and thus allows me to get re-set quicker after unhooking a fish, especially in low-light or adverse conditions.” Bohm continues, “I’m not sure as to the science of it, but over the years I have gone to red hooks almost exclusively – they just seem to produce more fish for me, especially in clear water. I also add a glow bead just above each hook as that too seems to make a positive difference.”
While lively active bait is important in drawing fish to your presentation under the ice, when fish are neutral or negative too much movement can actually be detrimental. Although I typically opt for a red VMC treble hook on the “business end” of my Sufix Fluorocarbon leader, on days when the fish just do not seem willing to commit to eating my bait I like to replace the treble with a VMC Tear Drop Jig. The Tear Drop Jig add extra fish attraction due to its color and profile but more importantly, it allows the minnow to struggle and attract attention but anchors it in the strike zone so that lethargic fish do not have to chase it.
While certainly effective during the day, tip-downs are also excellent options for catching fish, especially slab crappies, after dark. Glow hooks and glow beads become an even bigger asset to the hard-water fisherman under the cover of night. For help with strike detection shorten the distance between your tip-downs and strategically place a lantern or two on the ice so that you can rod. With a unit such as the Ice Fishing Tip Down, cabinet door lights such as you would find at any hardware or home improvement store can be installed to each model individually allowing you to keep a wide spread; more importantly, when rigged properly the light only goes on when a fish strikes and the rod tips downward meaning you are able to detect bites as speedily as possible.
As with tip-up fishing for walleye and northern pike tip-downs allow an angler to cast a veritable search net, especially when fishing new water or on large pieces of structure. I prefer to set-up my Frabill hub in a central location to my spread of Ice Fishing Tip Downs and ensure that each one is in view at all times. Prior to setting up camp I will drill multiple holes and drop my MarCum down each to check the depth and ensure that fish are present. Once my Ice Fishing Tip Downs are set in a likely locale, I often drill a second hole a few feet away from one the baited lines and drop the camera of my LX-9 down the hole to watch and record video. It is truly amazing how long fish will often sit and look at a bait before actually striking it, a reason that tip-downs are so deadly regardless of whether fish are in an active, neutral or negative mood.
Simple yet effective, tip-downs demand a place in any ardent ice angler’s arsenal. Cheers to the call of, “Tip-down!” ringing through the air, I’ll see you on the water …
Read more from Joel DeBoer.
Joel DeBoer is owner of Wisconsin Angling Adventures Guide Service, www.wisconsinanglingadventures.com.