A Complete Guide to Fishing with Minnows

One of the important parts of successful fishing is attracting the fish to the hook. Fish don’t necessarily care what kind of rod you are using or where the bait came from– it just has to be attractive to them. For this reason, why not go for what fish are naturally attracted to? Many game fish that we hope to reel in eat other fish. For this reason, live bait is often one of the best ways to bring them in.

Live baiting your line involves hooking a live fish, insect, worm, or other prey on a hook to attract fish. As the bait moves around, it will attract attention from hungry fish interested in a quick meal. And, as soon as they get the bait in their mouths, you have your chance to hook them.

Of course, when live creatures are involved, there are more variables involved in making sure your fishing expedition is just right. You have to be able to keep your bait alive as well, and you need to know how you can hook it. Learning how to hook minnows is simple enough once you know what you are doing, but there is a bit of a learning curve in knowing the ins and outs. That’s why in this article, we will focus on how to make your live fishing expedition as successful as possible.

What Are Minnows?

Contrary to popular belief, minnows aren’t any particular species of fish. Rather, it is a blanket term we use to cover several small fish that are the right size to lure other fish. Generally, they are fish that are smaller than a few inches long. Though some fish may have minnow in their name, they may not truly be a minnow in the fishing sense. The most common minnows used for baiting include:

  • Common shiners: These fish are typically under 4 inches long and are silver with a dusky back. They have larger heads and eyes than most other similarly-sized fish. They typically eat at or just under the water surface and can be easily caught in the wild.
  • Creek chubs: Creek chubs are popular baitfish that can be used to catch many trouts, bass, and pikes. They usually school in lakes. They can grow up to 12 inches long in ideal settings, so finding the right size for the fish you want to catch is easily achievable.
  • Fatheads: The most popular baitfish is the fathead. These fish grow to a max of 3 inches in length and can live for up to 3 years.
  • Golden shiners: Golden shiners are found no deeper than 3 feet in the water. They are silvery with a dark stripe when younger, and become golden in adulthood. They can be found in weedy, quiet areas of ponds and lakes.
  • Hornyhead chubs: The hornyhead chub is brown with silvery sides. These fish grow to up to 9 inches but are commonly used younger and smaller.
  • Mud minnows: The mud minnow is a dark olive-brown color with mottling and brown striping. They have yellow or white bellies and are resilient to lower oxygen levels than most other baitfish and water temperature fluctuations. They are quite popular as bait thanks to this.
  • Suckers: Suckers are found throughout most North American waters, with the most common being the white sucker. They can grow as large as 20 inches long, though typically young ones are used as bait. They are olive-brown with lighter stomachs.

When Should I Use Minnows?

Though most fish will happily snap up live minnows, some fish are particularly keen on finding them. In lakes, there are many fish that are significantly more likely to be caught with live baits. While it is entirely possible to catch just about any fish with them, you’ve got an increased chance of catching fish such as:

  • Bream
  • Catfish
  • Crappies
  • Pickerel
  • Striped Bass
  • Warmouth
  • White Bass

There are a few times when minnows are the better option as well, regardless of what you’re trying to fish up. For example, when it’s dark, using live bait that moves in the water allows other fish that may be feeding the chance to sense them and bite. Likewise, when the water is murky or muddy, fish have to use their senses more than sight when hunting, and when you have live bait, the movements will help attract fish.

Bait can also win out if you are fishing in an overfished area. Artificial lures eventually become nothing special to the fish swimming around that have seen them before. Because they may have experienced being caught by artificial lures before, they may know to avoid them. However, when you toss in live bait, you’ll see that you attract the fish much quicker

Why Should I Fish with Minnows?

If you’re unconvinced that live bait is worth the hassle to learn to use effectively, there are all sorts of reasons that it is a favored technique. Many people begin fishing with worms and minnows, and in doing so, you get several important benefits. It may be more work overall, but there are some definitive reasons that make it worthwhile.

Cheaper Bait

One of the most compelling reasons to use live bait is the fact that it is free. You can gather up your own bait with relatively little effort if you know what you are doing. And, even if you opt to purchase your live bait from a store or online, you can usually save a significant amount of money compared to artificial lures, making it a desirable option.

More Effective at Luring Fish

Fish are accustomed to eating live food. It’s the circle of life– they go after food that they have in their environments. By offering fish other live options that they are already familiar with and used to eating, you are more likely to find them going after your line.

More Versatile than Lures

You’ll also be able to attract more fish of different species than you would with lures as well. Lures tend to work well for specific species and you wind up needing several different lures depending upon what you want to catch. This means that you can waste a lot of time rotating through the lures you have to try to get a bite. With bait, however, you know you’re more likely to get just about any fish you’d want.

Storing Minnows to Keep Them Alive

Of course, if you want to use live minnows, you have to know how to keep them alive long enough to get them in the water. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not as simple as just keeping them in a bucket of water next to you. Fish in general are quite sensitive to the conditions they’re kept in so if you want them to last all day long while you fish, you need to take care of them.

Keep the Water Cool

When you have a bucket full of water in the sun, the water quickly heats up beyond the range that minnows are comfortable in. Warmer water means less oxygen in the water. As a result, they can very quickly die. You need to remember to keep your water cool by keeping the bucket in the shade. You could also try adding ice to the water every now and then to keep it cool but remember not to put in too much, or the water will be too cold and kill them instead.

Add Aerators

Because a common problem in keeping minnows alive is running out of oxygen due to water becoming too hot, adding an aerator helps keep your stash of fish alive longer. These are usually battery-operated, or you could also use an adapter hooked up to your car. By using an aerator, your fish will last longer in the bucket, meaning you are more likely to have your live bait survive a long day of fishing.

Don’t Overstock Your Container

Overstocking your bucket is a huge problem and it can kill off your fish quickly. When your bucket is overstocked, the fish will emit waste rapidly and as a result, they kill themselves. Fish create ammonia in water, which becomes concentrated when you have several of them in a relatively small amount of water that has not had a chance to cycle. When filling your bucket, you want to keep the limitations in mind:

  • Small (0.75″-1″): 6 dozen/8 Qt. bucket
  • Medium (2″-3.5″): 4-5 dozen/8 Qt. bucket
  • Large (3.5″+): 1-1.5 dozen/8 Qt. bucket

If you want more bait, you will need to use larger buckets.

Change Water

While keeping baitfish in your bucket, you may need to change the water out. Keep track of the quality of your water to know when it needs to be changed. In particular, look for cloudiness of the water or fish gasping at the top of the water. If you see this, you need to replace some of the water.

Keep in mind that fish do not tolerate sudden shifts of water temperature, so you can’t just pour out the old water and pull in water from the river or lake you’re fishing at. Instead, slowly change the water temperature by removing a small amount of water and adding a small amount of fresh water. If you’re using tap water for your fish, remember to use chlorine removers.

What Kind of Hook Do I Need?

When using live bait, you need to have the right hook. Bait-holder hooks have two or more barbs that allow them to hold the fish into place. The most popular bait hooks include the Aberdeen, Circle, Live-Bait, and Octopus hooks. They should be thin to allow for as small of a hole to be inserted into the fish as possible. The thinner the hook is, the longer the minnows will survive. The proper hook is dependent upon the size of the minnows you are using. Generally speaking, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Small minnows: #4 to 1/0
  • Medium minnows: 1/0 to 2/0
  • Large minnows 2/0 to 3/0

How to Hook Minnows

Considering the point of live bait is to attract other fish with the movements, you want to hook your minnows in ways that will allow them to live as long as possible. The longer you can keep your minnow alive on the hook, the better the chances of catching a fish. There are four common techniques used to hook minnows: Going through the lips, through the back, through the tail, or through the mouth.

Through the Lips

Hooking through the lips involves poking the hook from underneath its head and up through both pairs of lips. this is perfect for the cast and retrieve method of fishing. By hooking through the lips, the minnow is able to swim naturally, allowing it to attract other fish. Make sure you put the hook through the lower lip first and then move upward to allow the fish to swim upright.

Keep in mind that this method does often lead to quicker death due to interfering with water circulation through the mouth and gills. Because the fish’s mouth is hooked closed, it can’t breathe. You will need to replace your live minnows often. You may also want to consider using a drop shot or sliding weight rig for this method.

Through the Back

Other people prefer to hook through the back, right in front of the dorsal fin. This is commonly referred to as the “dorsal hook” method. This method allows for the fish to swim freely and your fish will live longer than if the hook goes through the lips. However, you also run the risk of unintentionally hitting the spine, which will render your fish paralyzed and useless for its intended purpose.

To use this method, you will simply hook just in front of the minnow’s dorsal fin, up toward the top of the body. If you use a sinker, you will want to use this method. You may also want to rig under a bobber that has been placed around the 18″ mark.

Keep in mind that when you go through the back, you need to wait for an extra second or two before you pull the hook to allow the fish eating your minnow to get the whole thing in its mouth before you pull.

Through the Tail

Hooking through the tail allows for maximum flexibility for your fish to swim naturally and it also helps to keep the fish alive longer. When you use this method, you should keep in mind that as a small fish, the minnow will not be able to move around much with weights added to the line. Keeping the line underweighted is highly recommended.

To hook this way, you need to insert the tip of the hook right at the base of the tail. The hook should enter toward the head and come out pointing back toward the tail. Then, you can use a split shot and hook rig and wait to catch your fish.

Like when hooking through the back, you want to give the fish an extra second before pulling to allow the fish you are catching to get the whole hook in its mouth before pulling to secure the catch.

Through the Mouth

Using the “trick hook” by going through the mouth is trickier than other methods and also sacrifices vitality of the fish, but it also is more effective at keeping the fish on the hook. If you’re in a river or other fast-moving waters, other fish won’t necessarily notice whether the minnow at the end of the line is alive or dead. This hook method will instantly kill your fish, but in fast-moving water, minnows can be removed from the lip or dorsal fin hooks due to the strength of the water currents.

For this method, you want to go in through the mouth and hook it right behind the gills. This is also the recommended method of hooking minnows that aren’t very lively or have already died.

Tips for Successful Minnow Fishing

Before you head out there to start fishing, there are a few extra tips you can consider that will help you succeed. Learning to implement some of these different methods will help you to reel in the fish more often.

Pair with Chumming

Live bait chumming helps to attract fish to your location. However, it is not allowed everywhere, so check your local fishing regulations before you start. If it is legal in your area, when you chum, you help bring all sorts of fish to your area.

Chumming involves tossing chum into the water near where you will be fishing. The smell of the chum attracts fish to your area and stimulates hunger, making them more interested in eating so your live fish on your hook looks all the more attractive.

Before you begin, you should first double-check that you choose to use chum known to attract the fish you want to see. Common options include herring and sardines. Then, once you know which chum you will use, you bring it out on the water with you. Toss the chum in and wait. Remember that you don’t want to put too much in the water, or you may unintentionally fill the fish up rather than luring them to your enticing minnow hook.

Choose a Bucket Wisely

Choosing the right bucket can also help you to keep your minnows alive and healthy. Most people prefer the standard two-bucket design that involves a larger plastic bucket with an inner perforated container. The inner container is removable– you will be able to pull it out with the water straining back into the bucket so you can choose out the bait. This also works well for water changes.

While styrofoam buckets from bait stores can be popular choices and are effective at insulating the water from excessive heat or cold, they are also much more fragile and that can be a major problem. Other common bucket types include trolling buckets to pull behind a boat or plastic-insulated buckets that are lined with a foam liner.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is bait fishing legal everywhere?

Live bait is not legal everywhere, so before you head out to catch and use live fish on your hook, verify that you are legally allowed to do so in your location. While many places regulate live fish as bait, they may allow for other live bait, such as worms.

How long will the minnows stay alive?

The length of time your minnows stay alive is dependent upon the number of fish you have stored in the bucket, the water quality, temperature, and general health of the fish you’ve collected. Typically, an insulated bucket with aeration provided and regular fresh water added should allow your minnows to live long enough to get through your fishing adventure.

Where can I get minnows?

If you wanted to get some minnows, you have a few options. You could purchase it at a local tackle shop, or you could also choose to catch your own. Catching bait is simple as well. All you have to do is locate a school of minnows and use a net to catch them up. Alternatively, you could use chum to attract many baitfish to your area. This allows you to scoop up however many fish you need.

Are minnows difficult to keep alive?

So long as you keep the water quality up with the above recommendations, the minnows should be easy to keep alive for your fishing trip.

Do I need to do anything special after putting the minnows on the hook?

Once you have your minnows hooked, you’re free to fish. There isn’t anything in particular that you need to do and so long as the fish are healthy and lively, they will do all of the work for you.

What can I do with dead minnows?

Some minnows may die during the time you fish, but you will be able to use them still. However, you’ll need to make sure they still look lively. Use the trick hook to get the minnows secured and use them in either rivers or active waters.