Published January 25, 2009, 12:00 AM

Hook-set tip-up improves catch rates, inventor says; illegal in Minnesota

The inventor of a new ice fishing tip-up available this winter in North Dakota says the device improves catch rates by automatically setting the hook when a fish hits the bait and trips the bail. Just don’t try using it in Minnesota.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

The inventor of a new ice fishing tip-up available this winter in North Dakota says the device improves catch rates by automatically setting the hook when a fish hits the bait and trips the bail.

Just don’t try using it in Minnesota.

A mainstay of the ice fishing industry for decades, a tip-up in the most basic terms is a device positioned atop a hole in the ice that holds a spool of line, usually below water level, with a flag that springs, or “tips” up to signal a strike.

The angler then removes the tip-up from the hole, grabs the line and sets the hook, pulling in the fish in by hand.

According to Ben Scherg, inventor of the Hook-Set Tip-Up, there’s a key problem with that time-honored system: Too often, he says, a fish that trips the flag is gone by the time the angler gets to the line.

“That always bothered me,” said Scherg, 33, Waupaca, Wis. “Especially on those days when you only had one or two flags.

“We finally decided that if we were going to catch those fish, we either had to stand next to the tip-ups and set the hook right away or make a tip-up that would do it for you.”

It took him 10 years to come up with a design that worked and another decade to obtain a patent and jump through all of the other hoops to get a product to market, but Scherg finally got the Hook-Set Tip-Up on store shelves in 2006.

This is the first winter the tip-up has been available in North Dakota.

“It’s been a real learning experience,” said Scherg, who has a degree in business management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How it works

With a conventional tip-up, the spool attaches to a metal shaft that extends below water level. A flag on the frame of the tip-up slips under a T-shaped bar at the top of the shaft, which sits above the ice, to keep the spool below from turning.

When a fish hits, it peels line from the spool, turning the T-bar and tripping the flag so it springs skyward.

The Hook-Set Tip-Up looks a lot like a regular tip-up, but the T-bar is longer and features a spring-loaded device that triggers the spool underwater when a fish hits, pulling the spool upward and setting the hook.

The spring then decompresses, allowing the fish to peel line from the spool and trip the flag.

The tip-up has three different spring settings for large-, medium- and smaller-sized fish.

According to Scherg, the tip-up typically hooks 80 percent to 90 percent of the fish that hit, compared with about one-third to one-half of the fish that hit a conventional tip-up.

“My true belief is the best time to set the hook on a fish is when you know the bait’s in its mouth, the line is perfectly tight and it’s swimming away,” Scherg said. “That’s what my tip-up does, and no other on the market can do.”

Illegal in Minnesota

Before he invested in marketing the tip-up, Scherg contacted fisheries managers in each state to see if it would be legal.

Only Minnesota, which outlaws the use of spring-loaded, lever-actuated fishing mechanisms, said no.

Scherg said he had people tell him last year that the tip-up would be illegal in North Dakota, as well. But after some more research, he found out that wasn’t the case, and it hit the shelves in time for this winter’s ice fishing season.

Scheels and Gander Mountain stores in North Dakota sell the tip-up, Scherg said, along with several smaller bait-and-tackle shops.

The tip-up retails for $40 to $45.

Despite its success in landing fish, the Hook-Set Tip-Up has skeptics among the angling community, Scherg said.

“Some people have this staunch idea that it takes the fun out of it, it takes the sport out of it,” he said. “What I always tell them is, the fun of ice fishing with tip-ups is seeing the flag flying in the wind, running over there and being able to pull in the fish.

“And a high percentage of the time, you don’t get to do that; the fish is gone, or you miss it on the hook-set, and you’re disappointed. Whereas the vast majority of the time when my flags are up, there’s a fish there.”

Scherg also defends the ethics of his tip-up, saying fish don’t have to take the bait for a minute or more before the angler sets the hook.

“There’s a belief among tip-up fishermen that you need to let the fish take the bait for a long time,” Scherg said. “There’s a lot of swallowed hooks that end up in the gill and gullet.”

And if there’s a length restriction in place, “you’re throwing a mortally wounded fish back down the hole,” Scherg said.

“My tip-up, 95 percent of the time hooks right in the corner of the mouth, and you’re able to release a healthy fish.”

Manager’s view

Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the state has encountered hook-setting mechanisms before. The only thing that would be illegal, Power said, is a mechanism that automatically reels in the fish, or a spring-loaded hook or other piece of terminal tackle.

Scherg’s tip-up, Power said, falls into neither category.

“There’s pros and cons,” Power said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say it sets the hook, imbeds the hook better. It’s another thing if it sets real well, and the fish is gut hooked.”

It might be a bigger issue, Power said, if North Dakota had a lot of lakes with length restrictions or high harvest in winter. But only about 20 percent of North Dakota’s harvest occurs in winter, Power said, and length restrictions are almost nonexistent in the state.

“It’s something we monitor, but it’s not overly a concern,” Power said.

It’s a different story in Minnesota.

According to Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, Minnesota prohibits these kinds of devices for ethical reasons and because of resource concerns.

While he can’t market in Minnesota, Scherg said he’ll continue working to spread the word in other states.

“Everybody’s been trying forever to figure out why you miss so many fish,” Scherg said. “I’ve proven it’s because you’re not there to set the hook when they first bite. When you’re in a boat in the summer and get a bite, how often do you let the fish run for five minutes and hope it’s still there?

“That’s why I invented this.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to