By Tom Dickson
Walk into Fred's Live Bait and Tackle in Deer River and you encounter an array of fishing gear typical of most northern Minnesota bait shops: shelves of crankbaits, spinners, line, rods, and reels along with plastic tubs of bobbers, jigs, and sinkers. In the back, you find portable fish houses, power augers, electronic fish finders, depth finders, and GPS units. A big map of Lake Winnibigoshish hangs on the back wall. But the store's feature attraction is a large, galvanized steel tank. The size of a billiard table, it holds nine fiberglass bins filled with all kinds of minnows.
Kept lively with a steady stream of freshwater are golden shiners, silver shiners, emerald shiners, spottail shiners, fathead minnows (in four sizes), creek chubs, and dace, as well as sucker minnows that range in size from 2 inches to more than a foot long (the latter are used as pike spearing decoys). Most of the minnows sell for $2.50 per scoop—a small dip net scoops one to three dozen minnows, depending on their size.
"Most people who come in here, they know what minnows they want," says Mary Powell, who bought the bait shop with her husband, Bill, in 2002. "And if they don't, we tell them what's been working best."
People have been baiting hooks with minnows at least since the mid-17th century, when Izaak Walton wrote: "a large Trout will come as fiercely at a Minnow as the highest mettle Hawk doth seize on a Partridge." That's because minnows are natural prey for all game fish, from walleyes and northern pike to crappies and yellow perch. Despite the popularity of minnows over hundreds of years, most anglers pay scant attention to what turns out to be the most abundant and diverse group of fish swimming in Minnesota waters. Minnows make up 46 of the state's estimated 160 native fish species.
Pinning down a commonly accepted minnow definition is as difficult as grabbing a slippery fathead from a bait bucket. Biologically, minnows are members of the world's largest family of freshwater fish, Cyprinidae, which contains more than 2,000 species. Most cyprinids have a scaleless head, spineless fins, and teeth in the throat rather than the mouth.
As Webster's second definition of the word confirms, people sometimes refer to other small fishes as minnows. Bait shops have their own nomenclature. What they call sucker minnows, for example, aren't real minnows but rather small white suckers. On the other hand, crappie minnows aren't tiny crappies; they're small fathead minnows used to catch crappies. Jumpers are northern redbelly dace; their nickname refers to their propensity to leap clear out of a minnow tank.
Dace, chubs, and shiners are all minnows. But darters, another group of small native fish, are not. Nor, oddly enough, are Minnesota's central mudminnow or plains topminnow, each a member of a completely different fish family.
Worldwide, some minnows grow no longer than a baby's finger. Others, like the giant Siamese carp, reach more than 300 pounds and 5 feet long. Minnesota's largest minnow is the introduced common carp. The angling state record (and for many years the world record) common carp is 55 pounds.
In Minnesota, few people know more about minnows than Department of Natural Resources ichthyologist Konrad Schmidt. Along with University of Minnesota faculty, he is writing the upcoming tome Fishes of Minnesota.
Schmidt has been wading streams and lake shallows since he was a teenager. After earning a degree in biology at Bemidji State University, he stayed immersed in the field by volunteering to survey fish populations in every one of Minnesota's state parks.
"That was definitely a crash course in minnow identification," Schmidt says. The experience helped him later land a full-time job with the DNR.
Though a fan of all native fish, Schmidt finds minnows especially fascinating. "Stonerollers are the grazers in a stream," he says. "You can actually see the streaks where 'herds' have been working algae-covered boulders. And if you ever see big light spots in stream bottoms, that's usually from male hornyhead chubs making huge nest mounds from the gravel."
Schmidt says minnows, though often ignored, are essential links in the food chain. They eat vegetation and, in turn, are consumed by walleyes, herons, ospreys, mink, and other predators. Minnows can also be important indicators of ecological health.
"We're finding fewer and fewer pugnose shiners in lakes," says Schmidt, also a board member of the Native Fish Conservancy, a national group promoting conservation of little-known indigenous species. "They like crystal-clear lake water, and we think they may be disappearing because of increased lake-home development and the loss of shallow-water vegetation to create sandy swimming beaches."
According to Schmidt, most people—even anglers—don't seem to care or know much about minnows. Among the exceptions, however, are the veteran commercial minnow harvesters he occasionally meets while surveying streams.
"One time, on the Knife River, I ran into some old guys collecting what they were calling 'slickers'," he says. "The fish were actually blacknose dace, but when you held them up in the sunlight, sure enough, the scales looked just like they were covered with a 'slick' of oil.
"Those old-timers don't know the Latin names, but they sure know their minnows."
Count fishing guide Jason Boser of Grand Rapids among anglers whose main interest in minnows is how well they attract walleyes, perch, and crappies. "Day in and day out, I rely on minnows for 90 percent of my fishing," he says. Like many anglers and guides, Boser uses minnows year-round, particularly in cold water when walleyes are sluggish. "Early and late in the season, you've got to put the bait right in their face," he says.
Anglers select minnows they believe will entice game fish on a particular lake. Boser's favorite for Winnibigoshish is the spottail shiner, an abundant minnow native to the big lake. Like other shiners, the spottail's iridescent scales reflect light. "They've got that flash that attracts walleyes," he says. Another factor in minnow selection, says Schmidt, is hardiness. "Fatheads and some shiners can tolerate the low oxygen and crowded conditions in a bait bucket," he explains. "That's why you don't see darters in bait shops. They can't handle the crowding and just go belly up."
Keeping minnows alive has long been a challenge to anglers, bait transporters, and retailers. In the early 20th century, when minnows were carted from southwestern Minnesota to northern resorts and bait shops in 50-gallon barrels, someone had to aerate the water by pouring water from one barrel to another. These days, top-of-the-line fishing boats feature aerated livewells, and bait shops give their bags of minnows a shot of compressed oxygen before sending them out the door.
In addition to finding ways to keep minnows alive longer, innovators have long been trying to create the perfect minnow imitation. Walton wrote about a friend who made artificial minnows of silk cloth and thread. "It would beguile any sharpe sighted Trout in a swift stream," he said of the lure.
After dropping a silver teaspoon overboard and seeing a fish attack the reflecting metal, Julio T. Buel took out the first U.S. fishing lure patent in 1852. Mepps and other brands of spinners mimic shiners or other bright baitfish. Fly anglers tie Black Nosed Dace, Zonkers, Matukas, and other minnow look-alikes to fool trout and other game fish.
The most realistic minnow mimics are plugs, or crankbaits, like the one invented by Finnish angler Lauri Rapala in 1936. These fish-shaped lures are designed to dip and wobble like wounded minnows. Constantly being improved and modified, some crankbaits are now impregnated with fish scent or coated in holographic paint. A recent invention, the Vibra-Strike, has a built-in electronic vibrator.
Though Boser occasionally experiments with artificials, he doesn't foresee a day when Banjo Minnows (advertised as "The most lifelike artificial fishing lure ever created!") or Rat-L-Traps ("One of the best selling lures in history!") will replace a genuine minnow.
"We'll troll crankbaits in the summer," Boser says. "But for most of the year, there's just something about the feel and the action of a real live minnow that catches walleye better than anything else."
In addition to putting walleyes in the livewell, minnows put food on the table for those in Minnesota's $50 million baitfish harvest and sales industry. Roughly 370 minnow dealers and their employees gather the small fish with traps or fine-mesh nets, called seines, from public shallow lakes and deep-water marshes in southwestern Minnesota. They ship the bait to 1,100 Minnesota minnow retailers, as well as bait shops in Wisconsin and other states. Each year Minnesota bait shops sell more than 1.6 million pounds of fathead minnows, the most popular species. Because transporting minnows can spread fish diseases and invasive nonnative species, the DNR maintains strict harvest and shipping standards for commercial minnow harvesters and transporters.
Minnesota law forbids minnows from being imported into the state and makes it illegal to empty bait buckets into any body of water. Anyone who commercially harvests, buys, rears, transports, or sells minnows in Minnesota must purchase a DNR permit. In recent years, the state has restricted the harvest of minnows from waters infested with invasive nonnative aquatic species.
Minnesota's bait industry was rocked in December 2005 after zebra mussels showed up in Lake Mille Lacs, a major harvesting source of spottail shiners, the most popular minnow for the walleye opener weekend. The fast-spreading zebra mussel disrupts aquatic ecosystems and destroys native mussel populations. Its microscopic larvae can be inadvertently transported in water carrying minnows.
Roy Johannes, who coordinates commercial fish regulations for the DNR, says the agency had no choice but to restrict minnow harvest on Mille Lacs to protect Minnesota waters. The DNR recently worked out an arrangement with bait collectors that bans harvest in summer months, when zebra mussel larvae are most prevalent. Ron Litke, a member of the Minnesota Fish and Bait Farmers group, says most bait dealers consider the new regulation a reasonable compromise. "It's going to hurt us," he says, "but we can live with it."
Minnows released by bait dealers for future harvest can also contribute to wetland degradation. Studies in 1996, 1998, and 1999 by the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center found that high numbers of fathead minnows in shallow lakes reduce the amount of daphnia and other aquatic invertebrates, which mallard ducklings need to grow. Fatheads can become overabundant due to lack of winterkill. Then their feces can cloud water and cause an increase in algae, which blocks sunlight from reaching aquatic plants. Johannes notes that, historically, harsh winters in western Minnesota killed off minnows in shallow lakes and thus kept fathead populations in check. "But in the past 12 years, we've only had two partial winterkills," he says. A series of cold winters in the future could reduce fathead numbers, he says.
But some things won't change: Anglers will keep heading to Fred's Live Bait to scoop up fatheads and other minnows. And as long as walleyes, crappies, and other game fish prefer the real McCoy over even the most lifelike imitations, bait shops with minnow tanks and hand-lettered "$2.50/scoop" signs will continue to be mainstays of Minnesota fishing.
Tom Dickson is a freelance writer who lives in Helena, Montana