I’m asked a lot of questions about tip-up sets, and among the most frequently asked are those involving depth placement.
Are tip-up presentations best positioned directly on bottom, or just above? How do you keep your bait out of weeds? Do you ever suspend your presentations? How far up?
Understandably, this can be especially bewildering for those new to the sport, but at times, even seasoned veterans struggle with these decisions, because a wide range of dynamics must be considered, and success depends upon correctly evaluating a number of interrelated factors, including your target species, water clarity, forage, depth being fished, cover and weather conditions.
At the same time, it’s important not to overthink the situation. So based on the above factors, here’s some general guidelines to follow.
When seeking typically bottom oriented species like perch, whitefish, walleyes or catfish, try setting your tip-up presentations within 1-5 feet of bottom. More often than not, less active fish will hold tight to bottom, while more actively feeding ones will rise slightly, so depending how deep you’re fishing, target these species by positioning baits 1-5’ above bottom.
If your target species is prone to suspending, such as crappies or stocked rainbow trout, start by placing baits approximately half way down the water column. Once lines are set, hole hop, using sonar to determine more precisely where the fish are—and again, depending on the depth they’re found, adjust lines so your baits are positioned 1-5’ above that level.
Should you be fishing multiple lines, vary your depth sets to help identify patterns.
In clear water, fish can see farther, so less precision is necessary. In such cases, erring on the side of fishing somewhat higher is okay, after all, fish can easily see struggling baits, and actively feeding ones aren’t afraid to go get them—however, beware: If the skies are bright and light penetration deep, you may have to set your presentations lower, particularly if your target species is light sensitive.
In dark or turbid water, position sets close to the depth you anticipate fish may move through. Use slightly larger baits, cut the fins or tails to force movement and irregular vibrations, add flashy attractor blades, phosphorescent beads—anything to make it easier for fish to find your presentations.
Regardless of clarity, once lines are initially set, use sonar to study where the greatest concentrations of fish are actually holding while simultaneously paying close attention to what depth sets are getting the most action, then make adjustments based on these findings.
When the primary or preferred forage is concentrated on bottom–insect larvae, bloodworms, leeches or crayfish, for example—position presentations tighter to bottom, usually within a foot or two.
If the forage happens to be freshwater shrimp or baitfish, start by setting lines about two-thirds of the way down, then, using sonar to determine where the densest masses of forage are suspending, begin fine-tuning depth settings so your presentations are positioned just above that level.
As a general rule, the shallower the water, the higher I’ll set my baits. If I’m fishing less than ten feet of water and there’s a foot of ice, there’s not much room down there to begin with. Add any kind of cover like weeds, wood or rocks, and the space available for fish to move through becomes a squeeze. In such situations, I almost always place my baits just under the ice—seldom more than a foot down.
If I’m fishing a deep basin, I’ll stagger my presentations within the lower half of the water column–from just off bottom to about half way down–then use sonar to monitor fish responses in order to efficiently evaluate and adjust those sets.
When fishing a drop or break, I usually spread my tip-ups from the top down, following my general depth guidelines–higher in shallower holes, the lower half of the water column within deeper ones–and for the sake of covering water, staggering presentations at varied depths along the break itself, in search of patterns.
During clear, bright, high-pressure conditions, position baits on the lower end of the normal range, closer to a foot off bottom or above the level you’re marking suspended fish, rather than higher. Given overcast conditions, low-pressure or the advance of a warm front, raise them to the higher end of the suggested normal range, say more toward 4-5’ off
bottom or above the level you’re marking suspended fish.
It’s important your quarry can see your presentations—you don’t want baits concealed within clumps of thick weeds or buried beneath the tangled root systems of submerged stumps.
The trick? Keep them suspended just above the cover–or positioned within large, open pockets–with your actual depth set based on careful consideration of the depth, water clarity, forage, weather, etc.
People often ask how to accurately set depths, and there are two primary methods.
The traditional method still works: Clip a dipsey depth finder weight to the end of your line, lower it to bottom, slide a depth marker, button, small bobber or split shot from the surface of the water down your line a distance equal to the height you want your bait suspended, then reel up to the marker, remove the depth finder and set your tip-up.
When positioning your marker, be sure to account for the distance your tip-up spool will be submerged, too. That extra 8 or 10” can be a big difference maker, especially when fishing shallow water!
Another approach simply involves using your sonar to watch the bait down, then positioning your set at the desired depth. Done.
Yes, there are more technical aspects to effective tip-up depth placement, from both an artistic and scientific standpoint, and you’ll experience varying degrees of success using shifty combinations of each. You must begin, however, by following some general guidelines–and those presented here provide a big step in the right direction.