Whitefish 101- The Original Tip-up Stick

Whitefish 101- The Original Tip-up Stick

By: Paul Wildfang

Ice fishing gear sure has changed in the last few years. Portable huts, GPS, color fish finders, high end species specific rods and reels and so many lures, colors and baits. I look back to my first ice fishing trips to Lake Simcoe , over 25 years ago and can remember that my lunch bag for the day was larger than my tackle bag. You really couldn’t pack up a lot of gear when you’re in an 8x8 wood ice shack with 3 other guys for the day. I learned to ice fish with the old standard tip up stick and spreader and spent many hours in a darkened ice hut waiting for that stick to move. Perch, whitefish, lake trout, we even caught walleye on tip ups. With all of the new gadgets and devices hitting the market, the lowly wooden tip up stick seems to be long forgotten. When you say tip up now, you get more of these new flag rigs designed to fish outside. What I’m referring to is a moderately stout but light piece of wood that has fishing line wrapped around it. There is a balancing wire fastened width-wide on the shaft that can be slid back and forth to balance against the weight of the hooks and bait to create a perfect pivot point.

 Back in the early days of ice fishing, the simple tip up stick ruled!!!

My first tip up sticks were designed to balance perfectly on a wooden stand and present a bait either live or salted minnow suspended just a hair off the bottom. The tip up being perfectly balance would lift up or down with the slightest bit of pressure on the line. I watched some of my fishing mentors get tip ups so zoned in that they would actually move if a fish swam by the bait.

A few years ago I bought my first portable shelter and while sitting there watching the graph lit up with whitefish all day, but no bites on a jigging spoon or a slip bobber and minnow, I thought that on the next trip I’d dig out those old tip up sticks just in case of another tough bite. Sure enough those sticks started producing whitefish again when other anglers were drawing blanks.

The portable hut allows you to set up the tip up out of the wind and get that perfect balance on a set line. Although a store bought tip up and stand is available at most good tackle stores, it’s no where near the design shown to me years ago by some of the Lake Simcoe old timers.

Lake Simcoe Style Tip Up Sticks and homemade spreader (using brass worm weight)


Simple Instructions to make your own tip up stick

Here’s what you need:

3”x2ft x ¼ white oak wood strip from Home Depot (each makes 1 tip up)

White primer paint

Coping saw (or jig saw)

Fluorescent red/orange spray paint

The pattern in the above picture is a copy of the Simcoe style I learned to fish with and was one of the first I ever tried making.

Draw out the pattern on the ¼: thick wood and cut out using a coping saw.  The most important thing on this pattern is the width of the stick and distance between the line windings. The middle part should be a bout 1” wide through the middle part and about 2 ¼” wide at the ends. The winding points should be 12" from end to end so as you lower line down you can count to determine the depth of water you’re fishing. If you travel with a fish finder then you could shorten the pattern length a bit to around 10” between the line winding notches but don’t go any shorter. The longer the tip up is, the more sensitive to the balancing movement on the stand.

I've played around with other designs but come back to this one. It's light and strong and very nicely balanced.

If you have any friends that have wood working tools see if any of them will rip a thicker piece of wood down to 5/16” thick. This is the perfect thickness for strength and balance but not readily available in off the shelf lumber. Be prepared to break a few sticks though with the ¼” wood. Breaking the tip up on a hookset makes a great story but usually they get broken in the sleigh or pack. The ones in the picture have led a charmed life and are about 20 years old now.

The stand is made from any simple wood pieces with a piece of steel strap cut in a way that the holes in the wire strap are open to sit the cross brace on the tip up into.

Once cut out take some time and sand the edges and surfaces smooth. I prime and paint mine red or orange to make them super visible inside a dark hut. On really calm days I can fish this set up outside of the hut and the red/orange really shows up against the snow

On the finished stick slice a small line notch in the nose with an X-acto knife to hold the line when on the stand.

Once painted, a small piece of coat hanger is placed on the shaft and held with elastic bands (I use girl hair bands as they do not rot or break as easy as elastic bands). There should be some play as the wire is supposed to be able to be adjusted back and forth to get the proper balance point.

Tie on 6-10lb line and wrap enough line to fish the bottom. 1 complete wind = 2 ft. Count the windings. I usually wind 75 times or 150 ft. The winding is important so the line comes from under the bottom and then goes on top of the stick from the back end down to the tip. The wire hanger is always set on the top side of the stick so as to fine tune the balance. I’ve fished these with the wire on the under side of the stick and the settings are just to finicky to keep a nice balance

Tie on a spreader to the line. The tip up basically gets placed in the holder as shown in the next picture.

Please note the following important set up.

The tip up sits in the stand with spreader just above the ground.

Unwind line and lower baited spreader to the bottom. The idea is to get enough line out to place spreader just on the bottom and have the tip up placed back in the holder level and balanced. Wrap line around the wire shaft to get to the exact depth

Now adjust the wire shaft back and forth so the tip up balances level as shown in this picture.

In this shot the spreader is 1/4" above the table top. If any fish swims by and disturbs the water, the tip up will move. If the tip up nose rises, most likely a whitefish has sucked up your minnow. I prefer salted minnows on the spreader and if trout or perch are around I'll add in a separate hook tied in drop shot style about 2 ft up from the tip up with a live minnow.

On a well balanced tip up you should be able to lightly press down on the back end of the tip up stick and raise the nose. When you let go the tip up nose drops down again slowly dips below level and then balances off again.


Additional tips:

Tip #1       

Another thing that reduces my potential lost fish counts is to replace the hooks on store bought spreaders. I replace all mine with small (10-12) steelhead hooks. The black nickel Raven or Gamakatsu ones work great. I also do my own spreaders on solid light wire See picture of tip up on the stand. I’ve fished with an Aqua View camera the last few years and you would not believe how a whitefish can take a bait off a spreader hook  without hardly moving the stick.


Tip #2

When fishing live minnows on the spreader or the high hook, take one end or both ends of the balance wire and insert them into the first holes in the tip up stand. I do this when fishing any area that tends to have bigger trout or walleye around. Even so I’ve lost my fair share of tip ups down the whole when a bigger fish hits the minnow and runs right away.


Enjoy this flash back and hope you find this will help you catch more fish through the ice.

Author: Paul Wildfang