How to keep your minnows alive longer

Utilizing minnows is one of my favorite ways to catch fish year-round. But I use this approach extensively in the winter months. When it comes to quality bait, it’s hard to beat the real thing.

I used to think of my minnow stash as easily-disposable. But throughout the years, I’ve found a number of benefits to keeping my bait alive and kicking as long as possible.

Maintaining my current crop of minnows from the local bait shop not only saves time and money, it also minimizes my use of these living resources while allowing me to catch more fish per purchase.

With more anglers hit the ice during the pandemic and a limited number of bait shops in my area, minnows are a little harder to come by.

The tips below have kept me adequately stocked for a fishing outing on a moment’s notice.

Think through your purchase

This is the trickiest part. The last thing you want is to run out of bait in the middle of one of your better days. But you also don’t want to turn into a minnow farmer for the week following your trip.

I do my best to aim for somewhere in the middle of the minimum number of minnows I need to keep my lines stocked stocked and the number I would need if we really hammer the fish.

This will vary based upon your targeted species and the method you are using.

If I’m with a group using 12 tip-ups for pike, I usually buy around four-dozen minnows. That’s enough to rig every line at the start and replenish three times after.

When jigging for crappies, I take into account my average success rate and the approximate amount of time I plan to be fishing.

With pike, one minnow usually equals one fish (or flag). But with crappies, you’re more likely to miss a few. That means you should account for more than one minnow per fish you expect to catch.

Keep a good ratio

There’s just something about a crowded minnow bucket that gets me excited. Each minnow brings its own possibility of a memorable catch. This sight always accelerates my anticipation.

But the more minnows you have crammed into your carrier, the shorter the lifespan of the fish inside can be. Being mindful of your critter-to-liquid ratio can help prolong the viability of your purchase.

Depending upon the size and species, I try to never have more than three-dozen minnows in my two-gallon bucket.

On larger ice fishing excursions, dividing up the minnows between a couple buckets also means that fresh bait is never far away from any of the rigs. This reduces effort and gets your lines back in the water faster.

Aeration is your friend

The water in your minnow bucket contains a finite amount of oxygen. Without new oxygen being introduced, your bait will begin to suffocate.

A simple aerator (available at most bait shops and sporting goods stores) will do wonders for keeping minnows alive. The model I use runs on a D battery that lasts a couple of days, even with constant use.

My wife came up with the genius (yet practical) idea of simply using a fish tank aerator that plugs into an outlet. This has certainly saved us a few bucks on batteries between fishing trips.

If you can’t get your hands on an aerator, a steady drip of faucet water paired with more frequent water changes can suffice for a short period of time.

Change the water

I view this step as though I was taking care of a pet fish. Every 24 hours or so, I change out the water in my holding container. This gives the minnows a bit of a fresh start.

Though I haven’t personally encountered many issues, it has been said the chemicals in tap water can be harmful to your minnows. You can get around this by using distilled water.

Remove dead minnows promptly

Dead minnows are a lot like ripe fruit. Once one goes, they all seem to go.

Decomposing minnows present all sorts of water quality issues. Removing dead fish from your container as quickly as possible will help you avoid that.

Generally, I can keep shiners for a little more than a week. With a good batch, I’ve been able to keep fatheads alive for two weeks. Even so, you should check your bucket for casualties frequently.

Avoid drastic temperature changes

Fish are cold-blooded, so they generally lack the ability to moderate their body temperatures. Keeping them alive requires maintaining a relatively steady water temperature in your minnow bucket.

When you’re not out fishing, keep your storage container out of direct sunlight. In winter, do your best to avoid bringing minnows directly indoors after a day on the ice. Instead, ease this transition by keeping the minnows in your garage or other location with an intermediate temperature range for a few hours before bringing them inside.

Don’t shy away from food

This may seem ridiculous but, if you are in it for the long haul, you need to feed your minnows.

Your bait will likely keep for a few days without additional nourishment, but it gets sketchy after that. I’ve used everything from fish food to bread crumbs or even crumbled up crackers. Many outdoors outlets sell food specifically designed for maintaining your bait.

A friendly reminder

Remember, do not dump live, store-bought minnows into the body of water you are fishing. While giving the minnows a chance to live may seem like the ethical thing to do, introducing new species into an ecosystem, even in small amounts, has more potential to do harm than good. Instead, try to use the tips above to keep your stash of bait alive until your next trip, give your minnows to a friend, or find a way to properly dispose of them in a less environmentally-impactful way.

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