HomeSlammer Tip-UpsDirect OrderingSlammer Tip-Up RetailersThe Slammer Tip-Up StorySlammin' FliesPhoto AlbumQuestionsF.A.Q.Customers OnlyAbout Customers OnlyAbout UsIce Fishing 201

 Steelhead through the Ice - the Slammer Tip-Up Story
By Matt Schalk
Edited by Matt Steel
       Steelhead fishing through the ice was unheard of 30 years ago. But sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention.
        Fishing trips don’t always go as planned. Our annual trip to the lower river flats of the Pentwater River on an early February day some 30 years ago was a perfect example. Even though the temperature was hovering just above freezing, a succession of cold nights would freeze the cattail swampland along the banks of the river as hard as a rock. You could walk the banks like strolling down the sidewalk without fear of plunging into the muck below. Dad liked to fish this stretch of river in the winter because it was easy. There was no need for waders and it was a great spot to take a kid, provided he stayed on the bank and didn’t slip into the drink. Steelheads, bidding time prior to their spring run up the river, liked the calm, slow currents found in the marshy section of the river during the winter months.
       The sun was just spilling over the horizon when we arrived at the river. We hurriedly donned our vests, readied our rods and put on our warm clothes with great enthusiasm and anticipation. Boy, were we in for a big surprise! Even though the weather had been relatively mild for February, the river was packed with shelf ice that had broken off and floated downstream. Ah, “the best laid plans of mice and men!” Fishing the main river was an act of futility. Dejected and perplexed I queried Dad, "What are we going to do now?"  He rubbed his chin for a minute, looked wistfully towards the brightening sky and said, "We're going ice fishing!"
       As we hopped back in the car, I looked in the back of the station wagon for our ice-fishing gear and was surprised to see the auger and a couple of buckets along with our river steelhead gear. Ice fishing at that age meant filling buckets with jumbo perch or chasing tip-ups for pike. I hadn't paid any attention to the gear we had with us. Dad had loaded the wagon and I'd slept on the way up to Pentwater. After a very short drive, Dad instructed me to grab my rod, vest, and a bucket. He grabbed the rest of the gear and I proceeded to follow him out onto the ice of Pentwater Lake near the river mouth.
      We drilled and scooped out a couple of holes. Dad handed me a clip-on depth finder and said to pick a hole and set your spawn sac about a foot off of bottom. I was already rigged with a hook, split-shot and bobber - my primary steelhead fishing rig when I was a kid. I set my depth, put on a spawn sac, sent it down the hole, and stood there holding my 9-foot steelhead rod, eyeing my bobber as I watched my Dad set up his rig. Dad took his pole, laid it on a bucket with the rod tip hovering over the hole and opened the bail on his reel. “That’s a heck of a lot easier than standing here holding this rod,” I thought. I was about to balance my rod on a bucket when I noticed my bobber starting to slide under the ice.
      I set the hook with my well-worn Heddon Silver King rod and yelled, "I GOT ONE!!!" The Mitchell 300 spinning reel started grinding out 8-pound clear-blue Stren line as the steelhead took off on a sideways run under the ice. Dad coached me through the tense battle and in a few minutes we were sliding a nice, 6-pound female steelhead onto the ice. Dad landed another fish about an hour later. Having already caught a fish, I’d wandered off to see if the perch fisherman were catching any and Dad had to land the rainbow all by himself.
      There was only one other fisherman on the ice that day fishing for steelhead. He was braver (or dumber?) than us, as he was fishing off of the shelf ice in a small pocket of open water near the river mouth. We only saw him hook one fish, but it precluded a spectacular battle that had the steelie jumping all over the place and it eventually won its freedom.
     While there are still steelhead fishermen who ice fish with bobber rigs and open bails on their river rods, use conventional tip-ups, jig with small spoons, or run set rods, anglers in the know are now using rod-holder devices that hold the rod held under tension "like a downrigger on ice." The most popular are Slammer Tip-Ups.
     For years venturing onto the ice at Pentwater Lake was only a backup plan if the lower river was unfishable. We never really started targeting steelhead through the ice until the early 1990's.
     Other anglers were discovering the fun ice fishing for steelhead could be too.  Doug Guno of Ludington confided in my fishing partner Rich Maciag and I that he’d come up with a device that made ice fishing for steelhead easy and failsafe. Doug told us how he and a fishing buddy, Charlie, had made these "rod-holder contraptions" the year before. They copied them from some guy Charlie had met who was using them for ice fishing for steelhead with 4- to 6-foot spinning rods. Doug said that they held the rod under tension with a release and we could check them out when he unburied them from his shed that winter. Kind of sounded like "a downrigger on the ice" for steelhead. They called their contraptions "Trippers".
     I'd heard of a similar devise called a Whip-Up, but had never seen anyone using them for steelhead though the ice. At the time, Richie and I were diehard river or surf fishermen for steelhead during the winter months. I’d normally target perch on the ice and do some occasional tip-up fishing for pike and jig for an occasional walleye. But the idea of icing ripper steelhead was etched in our minds. Richie hadn’t ice-fished much, but said he’d go out onto the ice with me if it was for steelhead. We decided to make some "downrigger-like rod-holder contraptions" for "trolling" for steelhead through the ice with shorter, more manageable rods. Our designs would eventually become the Slammer Tip-Up.
      We set about "building a better mousetrap". Richie and I both worked at machine and tooling shop at the time. We had drafting, design, physics, and mechanical engineering experience and schooling as well as our fishing knowledge. We took some of our spinning rods in the 4- to 6-foot lengths and started brainstorming during break-times. One of my rods was a custom built (by the late Gary Johnson of Montague) 4 1/2 foot long one-piece Fenwick HMG spinning rod I used for stream brook trout. I'd accidentally caught steelhead on it before and knew it could handle a steelie through the ice. We started designing and testing a variety of rod-holder contraptions utilizing a number of different release mechanisms, including downrigger releases, gun triggers, mousetraps, and trip wires. Eventually, we found that custom-making the device to fit a particular rod was the wrong way to go, but we each ended up with a device that "worked" - at least in the shop. My "no-moving-parts prototype" had an adjustable trip-wire release. Richie came up with a device called a "String Ringer," which utilized what has become the Slammer Tip-Up Ring Release. We made it a point to hookup with Doug Gruno to test the devices on the ice that winter. All of us caught steelhead on our new contraptions. We also missed a lot of hits that first season and lost a lot of fish. We needed to do some tweaking.
      Doug's Tripper, derived from the original "Whip-Up," had one feature that Richie and I both liked - a drop-away arm to hold the release. Being a tip-up fisherman, I immediately saw how you could have a flag rigged to pop up when the arm dropped away to signal a strike, like a conventional tip-up. I had put a piece of lure tape around my rod near the tip so I could see it better from a distance when a fish was on, but I wanted a signal flag. Doug had his Tripper painted orange to see when the arm dropped away, but the idea of seeing a signal flag pop up versus an upright arm disappearing seemed more practical.
      We agreed that the pivot-type release on the Tripper or the drop-away release on the Whip-Up put a lot of pressure on the rod tip. The release caused the rod to be compressed unnaturally throughout its length and the butt of the rod was pushed back into the rod holder. When the line was pulled, the release actually pushed the rod tip even farther back before the rod sprung up and the release dropped away. Unnatural blank compression is one way fishing rods are broken, not to mention the usual car doors and trunks. Another drawback of the Trippers is that there seemed to be a lot of line hanging from the release to the water. The tall, upright arm on Trippers allowed the loose line to billow out with a gust of wind. Doug's Trippers worked okay with the heavy fiberglass rods that he used. Our prototype Slammers were built around the natural bend of the rod when the line is pulled tight through the guides - like a downrigger rod bends- when the line is tight to the release at the cannonball.
      Other fishermen, seeing our contraptions, began to copy them. Copying the Tripper devices resulted in a lot of broken rods over the years. They seemed to break most often at the crack of dawn – just sitting there WITHOUT a fish even on! One cold morning I heard a sharp, CRACK! followed a few seconds later by another sharp CRACK! – two broken rods in two seconds. That ice steelhead fisherman eventually bought Slammer Tip-Up Kits and made Slammers.
      Our early Slammer prototypes were a big secret the first couple of years we used them.  We would only use them in remote fishing spots or when no one was around. White Lake steelheaders immediately began copying the "no-moving-parts prototype" the first time I took it there and caught fish on it. We called those types of cobbled contraptions "Spoolers." If you have your drag set too loose, you could possibly get spooled by a fish without knowing it UNTIL you ran out of line. That scenario isn’t possible with a Slammer Tip-Up.
      Richie and I, along with our friend Brian Bialik, who has a lifetime of steelhead and ice fishing behind him, redesigned and came up with the device we called our Steelie Slammers. The Steelie Slammer utilized a drop-away arm to hold our release mechanism. We kept designing and field-testing other releases, but have found that the Ring Release has the versatility, play, and easy adjustability that are ideal for steelhead through the ice.

     Knowing that temperature, pressure, moisture, and other factors have an effect on how things work mechanicially, I was taking this into consideration with my designs.  Field-testing, debugging, and designing allowed us to see first-hand how these factors REALLY effected our prototype Slammers. Winter conditions were really affecting how the Slammers preformed on the ice versus in the shop. I knew that my Slammers needed more adjustability. Making the Slammer length adjustable using a slot and the release holding arm adjustable with a set-screw was a big plus. Brian used Tite-Lok rod-holders on a set of his prototypes. I saw how an angular adjustment for the rod-holder would be another desirable feature. The change was incorporated into my newest designs. 
    After the infamous "Polish snomobile hill-climb fiasco" .... I can still hear the sounds of "goopy piva pond"  being yelled as we picked and sorted through broken gear .... it was found that holes were stronger than slots for length adjustment on my Slammers. A great fishing day followed by a site I’ll probably never see again – partying Poles from Poland speaking Polish while picking through pieces of poles.
    We were impressed with Richie's welded aluminum prototypes for durability because they survived the big crash. We did find a number of problems with aluminum on the ice: like when it gets warm or sunny - aluminum will sink into the ice .... and if it's gets cold again - then it freezes into the ice and you may need to chop it out with a spud ... and when it's really cold - hope and pray that you don't touch it with anything that's wet, especially your bait, because it's instantly stuck to the aluminum like super glue. Along with the weight issues of aluminum, I decided that wood was the best material for my Slammers.
    With all of the adjustment I'd added to my Slammer - I could now use different rods with making a few minor on-ice adjustments. I was a part-time commercial fly-tier and had just designed the Glopedo steelhead jig and saw a potential commercial aspect for the Slammer. Richie and Brian weren't interested in making any more Slammers for anyone else - they mainly saw other ice steelhead fishermen as competition for getting the "Hot Spot". A couple other fishing buddies, Greg St. Amour and Brent Robbins, were willing to give me a hand in making some Slammers to sell and we formed the Slammer Tip-Up Company where Brent made  the original riveted PVC and steel rod-holders, Greg procured and machined the kiln-dried Poplar hardwwood, and I handled design, manufacturing, and sales. After talking to some other fishing tackle manufacturers, we decided it was best if I ran and owned the company and subcontracted the work they did on the Slammer Tip-Ups. I then incorporated under Slamco and took steps to legally protect the name and design of the Slammer Tip-Up.
    The "word" began spreading about Slammer Tip-Ups and this "new" style of ice-fishing. Brent sold retail tackle part-time and had a small specialty fishing catalog, Virgil's Steelhead & Salmon Tackle Specialties. We sold Slammers Tip-Ups through the catalog and Bill Funk began carrying them at Shoreline Service Bait & Tackle in Muskegon.
       Slammer Tip-Ups proved to be a huge success.  More field testing continued. We discovered the tubular style of rod-holders is not the best choice on the ice. Plastic gets brittle and can break and it's almost impossible to pull your rod from a metal tubular rod holder if it was wet. It's a little difficult to fight fish when you can't get your rod out of the holder! After much trial and error we settled on a modified version of the open coil Jo-Boy ice fishing rod-holder.
      Directions and instructions on how to use the Slammers were desperately needed. Most of my time and resources had been devoted to designing and debugging Slammer Tip-Ups, but information on how to properly operate, rig, and adjust them was sorely missing. Brian Bialik assisted me in doing the illustrations and set-up instructions needed for Slammer Tip-Ups.
       One typical comment when showing how to use Slammer Tip-Ups is "I think I could build something like that myself". The light bulb turned on. Why not sell the Slammers in kit form that anglers could put together themselves. Slamco began offer a kit version of the Slammer which included all of the hardware, rod-holder, flags (I decided on fluorescent orange and chartreuse so you can tell yours from your buddy's), release, blueprints, and instructions to build your own Slammer Tip-Up. All you have to supply was the wood. There have been some other Slammer-like contraptions built over the years, but few take into consideration all of the variables encountered when ice fishing in general, and especially while using a rod being held under tension in the cold weather, not to mention you’re dealing with STEELHEAD.
        Many Steelhead are taken through the ice using a particular fishing method which works fine with Slammer Tip-Ups. The technique is called "slack-lining." A floater spawn sac is used with a split shot or two about a foot from the hook. The rig is sent down the hole in preferably slight current until the shot rests on bottom. Extra line is then fed down the hole and your rod is then set. The steelhead picks up the spawn bag and swallows it before there is any line tension. The fish swims off and trips the release on the Slammer. Slack-lining and not paying attention is how ice fishermen who rest their rods on a bucket or flimsy rod-holder lose their rods through the ice! Slack-lining is why “some” homemade rod-holder contraptions sometimes work – IF the rod and tackle survive past the release and then the ferocious tugs, yanks, and reel-screaming runs of a fresh steelhead and the rod isn’t sucked down the hole.
      The Slammer Tip-Up's Ring Release is adjustable and requires very little movement to release versus the trip wire arm and pivot releases on Whip-Up and Tripper devices. This makes vertical, and even horizontal in conjunction with the Slammer Flag, bait fishing with the Slammer Tip-Up more productive as the line can be kept taught .With a bite, the rod is released and the fish is under instant and constant line tension from the bend of the rod. Slammer Tip-Ups also work great for other species such as pike, perch, and walleye. Slammer Tip-Ups are now used throughout the world more for other species than they are for steelhead.
        A 5-foot long light to medium light action spinning rod is ideal for standing up on the ice and battling steelhead through a hole. Nine to ten feet long is a great rod length for river fishing, but is really not practical for ice fishing, and it's nearly impossible to reach down and grab your own fish in a hole when using a rod that is that long on the ice. A short shanty type ice fishing rod isn't that good of a choice either - it makes for a long and difficult fight.  Some of our first Slammer rods were one piece, but we found that a two-piece rod definitely travels better. There are many ice-fishing rod cases that will accommodate a couple of broken down 5-foot long rods with reels. For reels, I recommend a spinning reel with a good, smooth drag and at least 100 yds of line capacity. I generally run 8 pound monofilament and 6-pound fluorocarbon leader, if needed.
       Rods that have a more even, parabolic bend work best with Slammers. I discovered one rod that was very suitable for Slammer Tip-Ups and in 2004 Slamco began carrying this rod. Some of our field-testers gave us some more input on rod-preferences and desired features after using that rod, and we're now offering an upgraded 2006 model that has a little more backbone with a slightly shorter "easy out" handle for use with Slammer Tip-Ups. The 5 foot long two-piece Upgrade Slammer Tip-Up Rod, selling for under $20, is of a composite material with a silver semi-reflective finish to aide in the prevention of "change in action" during temperature changes in cold weather.
       Since Slammer Tip-Ups sit on the ice with your line hanging down into the hole, and the temperature outside is usually below freezing, having your hole freeze over would seem to be a big issue. I've let my hole freeze over on purpose with an ice thickness of over a half inch and my Slammer Tip-Up went off with no problem. I fought the fish with the line going through the ice while Brian spudded the rim of the hole. Even though I had an 8 inch disc of ice on my line, I was still able to land the fish. It seems that monofilament line wicks water through the ice - when a fish tugs on the line, there is little or no resistance from the ice. I really don't recommend letting your hole freeze over or letting it get to be a half-inch thick.  I store my spawn sacs in mineral oil and a little oil dripping off of your spawn sac swished around in your hole will help prevent it from freezing too quickly or too solid. Another solution was that I designed a lightweight folding solar hole cover that works extremely well and is made exclusively for use with Slammer Tip-Ups.
        Most ice fishing for steelhead takes place on drowned river mouth lakes near the river mouth. West Michigan is unique having so many quality trout streams with drowned river mouth lakes where ice fishing for steelhead takes place.  Betsie Lake, Manistee Lake (East Lake and near the mouth of the Little Manistee River), Lincoln Lake, Pere Marquette Lake, Pentwater Lake, Stony Lake, White Lake, Muskegon Lake, and Mona Lake are great winter steelhead locations. Steelheads are also taken off the Grand Traverse bays near creek and river mouths and in other locations throughout the Great Lakes. Fishing frozen harbors for steelhead is gaining in popularity as well
       The main river or current channel that runs through drowned river mouth lakes or delta flats near river mouths are good places to fish for steelhead. Most steelies caught through the ice are caught in less than ten feet of water. It's generally better to have some current running through your hole, although I've seen many steelhead come through the ice where there has been absolutely no current at all.
       Steelhead fishing through the ice often takes place in the most dangerous areas on the lake. You're often fishing in the river current near the river mouth, which probably has open water. Safety is an absolute must. Use a spud for checking ice thickness and making holes. Use the spud as an ice-scraper to scrape away frozen chunks around holes and such, making a nice level spot for your Slammer Tip-Up.  You might look silly wearing a life jacket on the ice, but looking silly is better than taking an icy dip and possibly loosing your life. A rope with a boat cushion tied to it and ice spikes are other good safety items to consider.
       Spawn is the number one choice of baits for ice fishing for steelheads. Waxworms, wigglers (mayfly larvae), and other worms, crayfish, nymphs, grubs, and larval baits take steelhead through the ice as well and sometimes they outfish spawn. Steelhead will take minnows under the ice, but most steelhead caught on a minnow were incidental catches by anglers fishing for other species. Since I don't usually have to bring a big minnow bucket with me to ice fish for steelies, I keep my bait in an insulated nylon lunch bag.  Occasionally I’ll put a disposable hand-warmer next to it to keep the bait from freezing.
       Steelhead prefer to cruise near the bottom and that is where your bait should be. Slack-lining a floater spawn sac off bottom is a good producer in current. Wigglers gobbed on a small, number 8 treble hook and suspended 16 inches off bottom is a good choice with little or no current. Small jigs with a strong hook to handle a steelhead, such as the Glopedo Steelhead Jig, also work well through the ice. After many years of field-testing, I now offer the Wig-Jigger wind-operated jigging add-on that automatically moves your bait using the wind.. I usually tip my jig with a waxworm, wiggler, or small strip of skein spawn.
      After 30 years, steelhead fishing through the ice is nothing new to some anglers.  To many though it offers a new and exciting challenge that will make a Michigan winter go a whole lot faster.
      Great Lakes fishermen can find Slammer Tip-Ups and accessories at select bait shops throughout the region. 



Enter supporting content here