Crappie fishing with minnows is a technique every crappie fisher must know. Time after time they are the go-to when jigs just aren’t working. After all, a large portion of adult crappie’s diets consist of small fish…So why not use what they actually eat? Here’s all you need to know to buy, store, and use minnows to catch crappie.
I should start off by saying in some waters and states fishing with live bait is prohibited so always check the regulations first.
There are two ways to acquire minnows. You can catch them, or you can buy them. If you take the easy way out and buy, you generally have three choices: fatheads, golden shiners, and rosy reds where available.
Fatheads are what I’m most familiar with and are my go-to bait. They seem to be available at almost every reputable bait shop in Wisconsin and I’d imagine the same for the rest of the Midwest. Fatheads are hardy – they can withstand pretty drastic water temperature changes, low oxygen levels, and rough handling. They are silvery in color usually with a green, brown, or blue tinge.
In the south, golden shiners are generally more popular. They are less hardy than their fathead counterparts but have the advantage of being slightly more lively. Their gold hue can be very enticing for crappie, too. They also get larger than fatheads if you are looking to fish for slab crappie.
A third variety that can sometimes be found in bait shops is the rosy red. This minnow is a type of fathead and looks almost orange, similar to a goldfish. Rosy reds have the best of both worlds; they are hardy and flashy in color.
If you want to catch minnows, you can do so by using a minnow trap like this one:
Simply put some dog/cat food or bread of some sort inside and secure it to a dock post, tree, or boat lift. Leave it overnight or at least for a few hours and check your trap. Some common wild-caught minnow types include shiners and shad. Often times you can be more successful with wild-caught minnows because you can replicate exactly what crappie are eating in your particular area. If you’re looking to trap minnows, here’s some more detailed information on exactly how to trap minnows using a torpedo trap like the one pictured above.
How Many? How Much Do They Cost?
A good rule of thumb for a day of fishing is 2 dozen a person. If you are inexperienced at hooking minnows go with 3 dozen. Obviously these numbers depend a lot on how fast you fish and how many fish you catch so adjust accordingly. Prices vary a lot too between species and states but expect to pay a few bucks a dozen.
As far as size goes, you will want to use minnows that are about 1” to 2” for most crappie. Anything bigger may only appeal to large crappie, which is ok if that’s what you’re going for. Remember to use a hook that will match up to the size of the minnow. Using a large hook on a small minnow will drastically shorten its lifespan.
After you get your minnows, it’s important to take care of them to extend their life. If you bought them, keep them in the water they came in. If you need to add water, add a little at a time and add water of a similar temperature. The easiest way to kill them is to shock them with drastic change in temperature. Ideally you want the water to be between 50-65°F. Also, remember to use bottled water or lake/river water if you can. If you must use tap water, let it sit out overnight for some of the chlorine to evaporate.
Keep them in an insulated container or cooler, and never let them sit out in direct sunlight. Options for minnow containers range from metal to plastic to Styrofoam. Styrofoam offers good insulating properties but can easily crack, unlike its plastic and metal counterparts. Also popular are trolling containers, which have holes in them to keep water constantly flowing through when you are trolling. This allows the minnows to receive fresh oxygen. This Frabill minnow container is a good example:
If you really want to go all out, a container that is insulated, durable, and pumps in fresh oxygen by way of an aerator would be the best choice if you have the space. This sweet personal bait box does just that:
Whatever you chose to buy, you should estimate about a gallon of water per dozen minnows. That means if you are fishing a full day with mostly minnows, get at least a 2 gallon (8 quart) minnow container.
Hooking minnows is an important skill. It can mean the difference between a crappie striking and passing it by. The first thing to get right is the hook size. The best kinds are thin wire and have a long shank. The thin wire is important for three reasons:
- You will kill less minnows if you use a thinner hook
- Thin hooks are harder for crappie to see
- Thin hooks will bend and free up more easily if you get snagged
Having a long shank means it will be easier to get out of a crappie’s mouth if swallowed. This will minimize the trauma to the fish and increase your time spent actually fishing. Go for a size 4 to 6 hook if using small minnows and a size 3 to 1 hook if using medium minnows. You can go up to a 1/0 or 2/0 for large minnows. Here is a great explanation on fishing hook sizes that explains the numbering scale. Read this article for more info on the best hooks for crappie.
There are several ways to put the minnow on the hook:
- The most popular is to hook up through the lower lip and out of the top of the snout
- Another common method is to insert the hook right under the dorsal fin and spine on the back and out the other side
- Less common methods include hooking the minnow in front of the eye and out of the mouth and also right in front of the tail
Now that you know how to hook them, here are some great ways to rig them up.
Bobber rigs are probably the most common rig to use when fishing with minnows. You can also use them with crappie fishing with jigs. They give you control of depth and allow you to easily see if you get a bite. Use a 1/8th oz. split shot sinker 6”-24” above an appropriate sized hook. Attach a fixed or slip type bobber at the depth you are fishing. It’s good practice to start shallower first and work your way deeper due to crappie mainly feeding upwards.
If you are fishing for shallow spawning spring crappie, a fixed bobber will be sufficient. If you are fishing for suspended and deep water crappie in summer, fall, or winter, a slip bobber may be more convenient. In my experience the best shape of bobber to use is the pencil type. These bobbers are easy for crappie to pull under, allowing you to visually detect more strikes.
As far as technique goes, try keeping the bobber in one place first. If that’s not working, try a slow retrieve to cover more water. Check out these typical seasonal locations for ideas on where to find crappie.
If you are fishing deeper water or trolling, drag-lining a crappie rig can be gold. Ideally, you want to begin with heavy main line (30-40 lb test). Then, attach a three-way swivel. On one side of the three-way swivel tie a 6”-12” leader of 20-30 lb test with a size 2 hook. On the third side of the swivel tie and 18” piece of 20-30 lb test to another three-way swivel. Repeat adding the leader and hook. Finally, add one more 18” piece of line down to a 1 oz bank, bell, or egg sinker.
This rig is best utilized while slowly trolling and dragging the sinker along the bottom. The vibrations the sinker causes on the bottom will grab the attention of any nearby crappie. You can also cast and retrieve this rig.
If you are lazy like me, you can buy these rigs pre-made. One such example is the South Bend Crappie Rig. A size 4 should work well for crappie minnows.
Other minnow rigs
There are other ways to utilize minnows besides these two rigs. You can go bobber-less, allowing the minnow to dive down into the weeds. You can also attach a small flasher a few inches above the hook to grab the crappie’s attention. Tipping artificial lures with pieces of minnow can add a scent that will convince a crappie to bite. Using jig heads with live minnows instead of normal hooks is another possibility.
Using minnows is one of the best ways to catch crappie. Fatheads and golden shiners are generally the two most used types. Use light wire hooks to keep minnows alive longer and to make it easier to get out of snags. Hooking minnows through the lips and under the dorsal fin are the best ways to fish them. Popular minnow rigs include using a bobber and sinker, and drag-lining with multiple hooks. Finally, always remember to check the regulations in your area to make sure it is ok to use live bait. As always, have fun and experiment until you find something that works!
Check back shortly for the next article in the Killer Rigs series: Crappie Fishing with Jigs.