Setting Tip-Ups

“There’s no such thing as casual ice fishing.” On a morning in early January when outdoor temperatures plunged well into the single digits, I chose to experience the most non-casual (but most rewarding) way to catch a fish. I met up with a couple of seasoned pros- Bruce Litton and his son, Matt- in the River Styx section of Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey. The two, who hail from Bedminster, gave me a peek at the sport that dares to make fishing a year-round activity.

Bruce is no stranger to the outdoors: he updates his blog,, every few days with off-the-beaten-path hiking excursions, thoughts on goings-on in the nature enthusiast community, and successful catches on fishing trips throughout the year. He’s been fishing his whole life and will tell a layman like myself anything I want to know about pickerel and yellow perch. Still, a lot of people can fair-weather fish in New Jersey. Ice fishing though, because of its difficulty and added safety hazards, is a much more exclusive club.

When I met up with Bruce and Matt, they were unloading a car full of equipment for a process that looks a lot different from regular fishing, but is designed to end up working the same way. In the summertime you have bait, a fishing rod with a hook at the end, and some extra supplies- I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Of course, you don’t just leave your bait dangling in the same spot the whole time: you cast around to get a good spread of the area.

In ice fishing, you can’t easily cast around because there’s a thick layer of ice in the way. So, to increase your odds, you’ll want to cut multiple holes through the ice, about 10-15 yards apart. There are two different ways to do this. First is the old fashioned way: grab an axe or a splitting bar and smash your way through. The second, easier way is to have a gas (or hand-cranked) auger and drill through. Bruce and Matt ended up making about 10 holes spread out in a curved line stretching about 150 yards from our base of operations (a piece of land next to a three-foot wall down a hill from the parking lot). Breaking through and having water splash up from under my feet was surreal.

On each hole, they assembled devices called tip-ups. Each one has a spool, string, and hook for bait (we used small minnows) attached to a rod with an orange flag. The rod bends down and clips in place, but, when the string is pulled (hopefully by a fish and not seaweed) the rod “tips up” holding up the orange flag, alerting you that you got something. You’re essentially setting up 10 separate, self-functioning fishing rods clamped down to the ice.

The next step is the same as in regular fishing: wait in excited anticipation. We walked back to our base to relax, warm-up a bit, and observe the tip-ups from afar. Bruce had a small propane space heater set up on the wall, and we took turns trying somewhat in vain to fight off the artic temperatures. Bruce also had a thermos of hot coffee. I’ve never been a fan of coffee’s general taste, but after silently kicking myself for the past hour for not bringing an extra layer of pants and hand warmers, I was ready to drink anything hot.

As cold as I was, it didn’t bother me too much. After all, it made the day possible. Ice should be at least 4 inches thick before you even think about stepping on it; Lake Hopatcong’s ice that morning varied from 7-9 inches with an additional blanket of snow on top. The sun, with its magnificent orange glow, rose over the hills on the horizon, breathing life for another day into this quaint lakefront community. We walked over near the docks for a better view. With the snow covering the ice, it was easy to forget that there was nothing but water beneath me.

After an hour, it was time for us to pack it in. We went out to collect each tip-up and to my surprise, nature had already begun fighting back. A thin layer of ice enveloped each string. We had to use the bait ladle to smash them free. Bruce noted that at that temperature, the hole would fill itself back in completely within a day or two.

We were only out there for two hours, so unfortunately we didn’t get a fish. But the experience was downright unique and worth pursuing for the thrill of it. Matt put it well, “It’s obviously a lot harder than regular fishing, but that’s what makes it so much more rewarding when you do catch something.”

Thinking about giving it a try? You’ll need a fishing license, but Bruce’s advice is to, “find someone who ice fishes to introduce you. Otherwise, as a beginner, only go out when others in-the-know are using a frozen lake, or if a pond’s ice is at least four inches thick. Hard, clear ice.” Going with someone who is experienced is the key: don’t go out by yourself, especially on your first try. Ice spikes- a tool you can wear around your neck and use to jam it into the ice if you go through and pull yourself out- are a safety tool you’ll want to consider acquiring. Be safe, stay warm, and have fun!