Outdoor Horizon is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission.

How To Make Tip Downs For Ice Fishing (4 Actionable Steps)

Most fishers could really get into ice fishing except for the long waits between bites and the cold temperatures. One way to help make both tolerable is by using a tip down to alert an angler when they hook a fish. Knowing how to make a tip down for ice fishing is therefore very useful.

The 4 steps to make tip downs for ice fishing are:

  1. Make the base
  2. Attach the line or reel
  3. Secure the flag
  4. Operate the tip down

An ice fishing tip down lets you take a break between landing fish. Making one is inexpensive, quick and, best of all, just about anyone can construct it, regardless of how handy they are. Read on to get the details on how to make an amazingly easy tip down for ice fishing.

Tip Down Choices

This is one of those projects that is not complicated but you must understand how it is supposed to work to build one that does work. If you don’t know how a tip down works, it is easy to set it up wrong or set it up in a way that is not as responsive as you want it to be when ice fishing.

What Is A Tip Down?

One of the toughest parts of ice fishing is waiting between bites. When you hook onto a fish, for a few brief seconds, you forget about the cold and wind. But as soon as you reset your hook, time seems to slow down, the cold creeps in, and it seems like weeks pass until another fish shows any interest in your bait.

This is where a tip down comes in. A tip down is a piece of equipment that you affix to your reel, rod or line, depending on the type you are using. When a fish bites or hooks into bait, it activates the tip down. When activated, a flag or electronic bait alert goes off and indicates that a fish might be on the other end of the line.

How It Works

Ice fishing is done beneath the ice. With very few exceptions, the fisher has no clue a fish is eying their bait or getting ready to attack it. They only know something is going on when the fish bites. They have no idea if the fish has aggressively taken the bait or was cautiously checking it out, never fully committed to biting it.

A tip down helps the angler know when a fish has at least taken the bait in their mouth. Upon striking the bait, the tip down flag is hoisted, indicating something is on the line.

Your Options

When you are ice fishing and do not have a bob house (or ice fishing shack,) you have two options in between bites:

Hold And Wait

You can hold your rod and reel with the line dropping through your ice hole and wait for a fish to come along, check out your bait or lure and bite it. This can, in some cases, take hours. While you are waiting, you will be exposed to cold, wind, and snow.

Build A Tip Down

Or you can build a tip down, which works on a spring mechanism with your line and raises a flag whenever a fish has taken your bait. With a tip down (or several of them) you don’t have to be right on top of your line. You also don’t have to hold your rod and reel.

If you have access to it, you can wait in your car a fish activates the tip down, or in a lakeside house or shack, or any other kind of shelter you have at your disposal. When the flag goes up, you go back to the hole and retrieve your line and the fish you hooked. Tip downs can be used singularly, or you can use several with several holes across the ice shelf.

Simple Or Complex

A tip down can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. For example, you can make a very simple tip down using two dowels, your fishing line and a towel. With this model, you bring the fish in by hand. This type of set up is great if you are running multiple holes and don’t want to purchase ice fishing equipment for each hole.

It is also a taste of old school ice fishing, dating back centuries. But another option is a more complex model, using a door spring, several dowels, a reel, and an ice fishing rod.

Making the complex more complex, some ice fishers use electronic fish bite alarms attached to their bracing mechanism. A flag can also be used with this model, providing two warning mechanisms. This type of tip down is ordinarily used with just one or two holes.

For most anglers, the simple version, or an iteration of it, more than meets the demand of alerting you when a fish takes the bait.

How To Decide Which Tip Down Is Best

Budget

The first factor to consider when deciding what type of tip down to construct is your budget. If money is not really a concern, you can spend a lot of money on top-of-the-line equipment, including an electronic bite alarm. If you are watching your budget closely, all you really need are two sticks and a way to affix your line to one of them.

Location

The second consideration is where you will use your tip down. If you are fishing on a lake or pond, a simple tip down is usually all you need. You can add bells and whistles to your tip down on a pond or lake, but it really isn’t necessary.

If, however, you are fishing in any place that has current such as a river, stream or even a big lake, you need a more complex tip down that can counter any movement of the bait. This is usually accomplished by incorporating a more complex trigger mechanism that requires a harder “set” by a fish when they take the bait.

Depth

Depth also affects the type of tip down you use. In lakes that are very deep, the combination of the collective weight of the line and bait, coupled with any water movement, can activate the tip down when no fish has taken the bait.

To counter that, adding resistance to the tip down ensures it doesn’t prematurely activate. Resistance in this case is preferable to a more rigid trigger mechanism as it still allows for a fish to activate the tip down flag with minimal pressure but will also resist any flag movement caused by movement in the water.

Weight Of Bait And Line

This ties in with the point above but also applies to any depth or type of water. A bait that is very heavy or line that is very thick can cause a false triggering of the tip down flag. It also can cause a reaction with a very minimal amount of pressure from a fish.

If you are using heavier jigs or other bait, as well as line that has a high pound-test strength, a stiffer trigger mechanism is recommended because a more sensitive mechanism will likely yield a false-positive.

Check The Law

States have different rules and laws governing ice fishing. Before you construct a tip down, make sure the version you want to make is legal. Additionally, if you are running multiple tip downs, make sure you stay within the limit allowed by law.

In New Hampshire, for example, an ice fisher can run up to six lines on most types of water. Some waters, however, have additional rules that limit what you can and can’t run.

Before setting out, you should know the following:

  • Number of tip downs an ice fishing party/individual can operate
  • Number of ice holes an ice fishing party/individual can operate
  • Requirements surrounding leaving your tip downs alone
  • Limits on the type of fish you can take via tip downs
  • Hourly restrictions on using tip downs
  • Lake/pond restrictions
  • Restrictions on how long certain fish species can be left on a hook
  • Specialized ice fishing permits or tags

Check your state’s fishing license requirements and regulations before you invest anything significant into your tip downs. The rules you need to know are located on your state’s Department of Fish & Game (other names include Natural Resources, Wildlife Management, or Wildlife Resources) website.

Keep in mind that because ice fishing generally yields more “specialized” fish species (trout, salmon, etc.). Penalties for noncompliance with state rules and regulations can be steeper than during open water fishing season. Also, keep in mind that ice fishing season generally follows a stricter but more flexible schedule, based on ice-in and ice-out dates.

What that means is that ice-in or ice-out can happen at any time, but once either is declared, the laws pertinent to the declaration are applied rigidly.

So, what do you need to make ice fishing tip downs?

Equipment You Need To Make Ice Fishing Tip Downs

Every good ice fishing tip down starts with quality components and materials. The following are the materials you need to build your tip down:

  • 2 wooden dowels that are 1-2 inches thick (PVC pipe can be substituted for the dowels if it is sturdy enough). The thickness of either the dowels or PVC depends on the size fish you expect to catch
  • 2 #10 washers
  • Sandpaper
  • An ice fishing reel (stand alone reel or attached to an ice fishing rod) or fishing line the approximate length you will need for fishing, plus 10 feet
  • Zip or twist ties
  • Flag material

How To Make Tip Downs For Ice Fishing

1. The Base

Cut down your dowels to the appropriate length. The dowel that goes across the ice hole should be 2 times longer than the hole is wide. This way, even if the dowel shifts, neither side will fall into the hole.

The other dowel should be 1.5 times the width of the hole on the flag end, whatever length it takes to have the dowel slightly submerged in the water. It should be at least 1 inch shorter than the width of the ice hole so that it does not become stuck in the side of the hole. This includes if the cross dowel is yanked forward or backward by a fish.

An Example

If you have an ice hole that is 12 inches wide, the cross dowel should be cut to 24 inches. The flag dowel should be 18 inches on the flag end. The line end should be long enough to slightly submerge the dowel but be a minimum of 1 inch shorter than the width of the hole. That allows the cross dowel to move a little while still allowing the flag dowel to activate.

After you make the length cuts, cut two notches a quarter inch deep on the end of the line end of the flag dowel. The first notch should be 1 inch above the bottom of the dowel. The second should be an inch above that.

Once you cut your notches, using a zip or twist tie secure the two washers to the notch that is one inch from the bottom of the line end of the flag dowel. These will serve as weights to keep the line end of the flag dowel in the water and slightly elevate the flag.

Sand the other notch until it is smooth with no rough edges or spots. This is important as the fishing line will go there, so you need to remove anything that could nick or snag the line. Next, cut a similar notch about one inch below the top of the flag end of the dowel.

Using the twist ties or zip ties, attach the dowels together in a plus or cross (+) configuration, making sure the cross dowel is attached in the middle and the flag dowel is attached per the measurements above. Secure them on both sides diagonally so that neither dowel can slide or twist under pressure.

2. Attach The Line Or Reel

This step depends on whether you are attaching a fishing line to the flag dowel or setting it up to work with your ice fishing rod and reel. The difference is that the former is tied to the second notch on the line end of the dowel.

The latter option allows you to remove the line to use the rod and reel to bring in the fish. This is also why the line end of the flag dowel must be at least 1 inch less than the width of the ice hole.

Attaching The Line To The Dowel

Use a secure knot to tie one end at the second notch of the line end of the dowel. The knot should be secure enough to ensure that unless the dowel breaks there is no way the line can separate from the dowel. This type of configuration requires you to bring in any fish by hand. It’s not advised if you are fishing for very large fish.

Attaching The Reel To The Dowel

With this method you wind the line around the smoothed notch enough times to secure the line but not so much to make it impossible to remove once you hook a fish. When you hook a fish, relieve pressure on the line by lowering the dowel, then unwind the line and use the rod and reel to bring in the fish.

3. Secure The Flag

Tie a flag, bandanna or other colorful piece of cloth to the notch on the flag end of the flag dowel. This is the part that alerts you when you hook a fish, so having it stand out against the background helps.

4. Operation

To use the tip down, place the cross dowel across your ice hole. Attach your line per the instructions above and let your bait sink into the water below. Ensure that the line end of the flag dowel is slightly submerged and the flag slightly elevated.

When a fish bites, the cross dowel will swivel as the line becomes taught. As it swivels, the flag will raise. When the flag is activated, remove the cross dowel from the ice hole. Then, it is up to you to bring in the fish using the method that you set up (by hand or by reel).

Extra Tip

To make it easier to bring the fish in, drill a hold that is slightly larger than the diameter of the flag dowel about 6 inches from the ice hole and place a 6-8-inch dowel into the hole. When you hook a fish, before removing the tip down base, run the line around the dowel. This gives you room to work on the tip down without making the line slack or too tight, potentially losing the fish.

This tip down can be used with virtually any setup. This design is one of the simplest in existence. It doesn’t require much in the way of materials, and it’s easy to assemble and is very effective.

There are many more complex tip down designs that are just as effective as this one. Some tip downs have bite alarms, spring mechanisms to activate the flag, auto-drag features and work in conjunction with fish finders. For simplicity and effectiveness, though, this tip down model is hard to beat.

Final Thoughts

A tip down for ice fishing is an easy way to ensure you don’t have to constantly monitor the line while you are waiting for a bite. This allows you to stay warm and even entertain yourself while waiting. By building a base, attaching your line and flag and then setting up across your ice hole, you can wait in comfort for the next lunker.