Sometimes it’s nice to sit back, relax and soak some live bait. Fishing with live minnows for largemouth or striped bass can be a nice break from lures, not to mention a ton of fun. So break out that bucket and head to your nearest bait shop!
Size Matters: Big Minnows Are Better!
My local bait shop sells Small through Jumbo-sized minnows on a daily basis, with the rare Super Jumbo size available on certain occasions. The concept is simple: the larger the bait, the better the chances of avoiding smaller species and targeting big bass. However, there’s nothing wrong with downsizing to target crappie, bluegill, or other smaller fish in the lake.
The other reason for buying bigger minnows is that they last longer. While small to medium-sized bait last a few minutes on the hook, a larger minnow can stay lively for up to half an hour if treated properly. I’ve learned that one or two dozen minnows can last almost the entire day unless the bite says otherwise. Larger minnows will simply do more work for you, leaving you hassle-free and happy.
Keeping Your Minnows Alive
- 5-Gallon Bucket or Large Cooler
- Portable Aerator (Frabill, Marine Metals)
- Aquarium Airline Tubing – Long enough to reach bottom of bucket.
- Airstone – Any size is fine.
- Small Weight – Tie onto tubing. Keeps airstone on bottom.
- Frozen Water Bottles or Ice Packs – Keeps bait cool on hot days.
- Spare Batteries for Aerator – Always be prepared.
The aerator is an absolute must for keeping your bait alive, especially if you are expecting a lengthy fishing trip. Make sure that you don’t have too many minnows in one bucket – I’ll usually have no more than 4-5 dozen in my five-gallon bucket.
This is to avoid oxygen depletion because your aerator won’t always be able to produce enough dissolved oxygen if your container is crammed. The easiest solution is to either split your bait up into multiple buckets or buy a larger cooler. I prefer coolers over buckets on hot days because they insulate my ice packs and frozen water bottles twice as long, keeping the oxygen levels high and water temperature nice and low. The result? Lively bait.
If the minnows aren’t looking healthy even with the aerator on, try replacing about half of the water with fresh lake water every half an hour or so. The swift water change will flush out any feces and debris that accumulates (rather quickly) in your bucket.
A great way to keep the bucket or livewell cool in extreme heat is to freeze a few water bottles and toss them in with the fish. You’ll be surprised how much longer they last with a simple drop in temperature. The cooler water helps keep oxygen levels in the bucket at a sustainable level and with the help of your aerator you should have no problems.
The Right Setup For Live Minnows
I prefer a spinning rod, simply because it’s easier to cast and a spinning reel picks up slack line faster when needed. I simply use my drop shot spinning rod – the soft tip and light line is perfect for fishing live minnows.
- Spinning Rod – Any rod around 7’ w/ a Medium to Medium-Light action
- Reel – Any 2500-size spinning reel is perfect.
- Line – 6-8lb monofilament (braid is fine too but mono is simpler)
If you’re feeling extra brave, try taking an ultralight rod out for minnow fishing! There’s nothing like fighting feisty fish on a flimsy rod. For even more fun you can experiment with Barbie rods or mini ice-fishing poles. This is the beauty of minnow fishing, you can screw around a bit and still have just as much success.
Monofilament or Braid is important. Since fluorocarbon line sinks and your minnow will be left out for a few minutes at a time, your fluoro main line will end up sinking down to the bottom and wrap around rocks, timber or other structure. Monofilament and braided line keep your main line floating at all times, allowing you to keep track of where your minnow is drifting and avoid underwater structure. You will also be able to keep an eye on your line at all times, easily detecting bites in the form of sudden twitches or your line taking off away from you.
Terminal Tackle for Live Minnows
There are a few different ways to fish with live minnows, and each one helps you adapt to different situations. Here are the three methods that I use the most. Keep in mind there are many other ways to fish with minnows (i.e. a Three-Way Swivel Rig, etc.) so play around and find which rig best suits your personal situations.
The Float/Bobber Rig
The float rig is the one I use the most often, simply because it offers the best visible bite detection and you don’t have to do much to stay in the strike zone for a long time.
- Slip Bobber
- Bobber Stops (Rubber or String)
- Small Split Shot
- Owner ST-36 Stinger Treble Hooks Size 12
You can use a traditional clip bobber, but the slip bobber and bobber stop combo allows you to make depth adjustments on the fly without crimping your line every time you move the float.
Setting It Up
- Slide one bobber stop on the main line.
- Slide your slip bobber up the main line.
- Tie your Stinger Hook at the end (I use a Palomar Knot).
- Crimp one split shot about 12 inches above your hook. This prevents the minnow from swimming up too high and keeps you in the strike zone. It also keeps your slip bobber from sliding down and contacting the hook during a cast.
Float Rig Techniques
- Adjust your bobber stop according to the depth you’re fishing. It’s not always easy to tell how deep the water is but try to keep the minnow a foot or two above the bottom.
- Cast gently. Even the larger minnows are fragile, so either swing the rig gently into the water or lob it softly to avoid casting the minnow off.
- If you are fishing deep use a string bobber stop. They can actually be reeled through the guides and onto your spool without much restriction or damage. This is not possible with the rubber style bobber stops as they can get jammed between the guides.
- Learn to read the signs of a bite. When your minnow is being chased by a bass they’ll freak out and you’ll often see the bobber pulse erratically or pick up speed before diving under.
- No need to set the hook hard. That’s the beauty of the Stinger Hooks that I recommended. Once you see your bobber dive under you can simply reel into the fish or firmly sweep the rod – the ultra-sharp hook will take care of the rest.
The Split Shot Rig
Only use this if you are fishing open water or if there is barely any bottom structure. This is usually the case when you are on a boat and drifting. Trolling will drag the minnow too quickly and as a result they won’t last very long.
- Small Split Shots
- Owner ST-36 Stinger Treble Hooks Size 12
Setting It Up
- Tie your Stinger Treble Hook onto the main line.
- Crimp however many split shots you need onto your main line abou 12-18 inches above the hook. You should have just enough weight on the line to cast and keep your minnow grounded on the bottom.
Split Shot Rig Techniques
- Stay in contact. After dropping straight down from the boat or making a short cast, constantly reel up slack for a better chance of feeling the bite.
- Fish slowly. Don’t drag the minnow too fast, instead let the beauty of live bait take care of everything for you. Just hold tight and wait for your rod to load up.
Free-Lining A Live Minnow
When I want a little extra fun I’ll free-line my minnow. This method is exactly what it sounds like – let the minnow run free and hang on.
- Owner ST-36 Stinger Treble Hooks Size 12
- Small Barrel Swivel (optional but use it if you’re getting line twist)
Setting it up
- If you use a barrel swivel tie your main line to one side and a 12-18 inch leader connected to your Stinger Hook to the other end. If not then simply tie on your Stinger Hook.
- That’s it… easy right?
- Let the minnow fish for you. After casting out, always leave a bit of slack line so the minnow can dive down to the strike zone freely and let your little friend take care of finding the fish for you.
- Always pay attention – Since your minnow is free to do what it wants, it’s up to you to constantly keep track of where your line is and reel in any extra slack.
- Learn what the bite looks like – If you’re using monofilament or braided line it will be easier to detect any bites. Bites will either look like a sudden twitch across your entire main line or you will see your line quickly taking off away from you. Eventually you’ll learn the difference between a minnow swimming off or a bass running away with your bait.
How To Hook A Live Minnow
- Do not go through both lips. Think as if someone clamped your mouth shut and left one nostril for you to breathe through. Graphic, yes, but hooking minnows through both lips greatly restricts their breathing and can shorten their lifespan dramatically. Instead, hook minnows through only the top lip either piercing upwards or downwards. Be very careful of piercing the minnows too far back as you may hit their brain and kill them instantly.
- With treble hooks I’ll hook them from the top down through their mouths because it allows the other two hook points to be exposed better. The two extra hook points will make an enormous difference in your hookup ratio.
- When using single hooks I always hook minnows from the inside out through the top of their head between their nostrils.
- When hooking a minnow through the tail or back near their fin, keep an eye out for their spine. Piercing their spine can result in an instant death, but don’t worry, it’s easy to detect.
Once you find the minnow’s lateral line, keep your hook above it. The lateral line is a visible horizontal line of sensory organs along the side of the fish and can often help you gauge where their spine is.
I hope these tips have helped you step up your live minnow fishing skills. Please comment below and add any suggestions or personal tips. Tight lines, everyone!