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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
fishermen can find Slammer Tip-Ups and accessories at select bait shops throughout the region.