Minnow Fishing for Largemouth Bass: So Effective, It’s Almost Like Cheating!

Written by: John Baltes
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Post-spawn, and all summer and fall, largemouth bass will predominantly feed on minnows and shad. Present in huge numbers, they offer a plentiful, reliable food source that bass just can’t pass up.

That’s one reason that lures that imitate small fish are so effective: they’re matching the hatch by mimicking a natural prey item that’s abundant throughout most of the year.

But live minnows are even more effective than the best lures money can buy. They don’t mimic the real thing, they are the real thing, complete with scent, taste, and real-life vibration. Using live minnows to target bass is amazingly effective, indeed almost unfair, which is why it’s not allowed in tournament fishing.

But if you’re just looking to catch a lot of bass - and big ones - baiting a hook with a live minnow will tilt the odds decidedly in your favor.

Want to know more? Keep reading for the details!

Related: Bass Fishing With Live and Artificial Worms

Why Use Live Minnows to Catch Largemouth Bass?

We’ve written about using lie bait for bass before, and if you want the full run down, check out this article:

Best Live Bait For Bass: Alive and Kicking

Minnows are a natural prey item that bass are looking for. Nature has honed the bass’s senses to detect minnows, and in clear water, a largemouth’s keen sight can spot a flashing fathead at quite a distance.

A live, writhing minnow will definitely attract attention, and as an interested bass swims closer, everything tells it that the dinner bell is ringing. That minnow will produce vibrations and almost undetectable sounds that confirm that it’s prey, and when the largemouth strikes, that minnow will taste, smell, and feel like exactly what it expects.

No lure can match that veracity. It’s just impossible.

“Think about it,”says one pro. "You don’t have to worry if you’re using the right bait, the right color, the right presentation etc… If you’re fishing minnows properly and aren’t getting bit, it’s likely the fish just aren’t there."

How to Fish With Minnows for Largemouth Bass

Minnow selection

Your local bait shop almost certainly stocks minnows, typically in one or two varieties: the golden shiner and/or the fathead minnow.

 shiner minnowfathead minnow

The shiner is on the left. The aptly-named fathead is on the right.

Both species are popular with anglers, and whether you fish for crappie on a quiet lake or hunt walleye on Lake Erie through the ice, minnows are tried-and-true choices to catch fish.

You’ll want the healthiest minnows you can get, so they should be tightly schooled in their tanks, look shiny and healthy, and have intact scales. Do your best to keep them aerated and cool, and they’ll attract bass better than anything you've ever tried.

If you have the option, go for the fathead minnow. Of the two, the fathead is the better choice as it’s more robust than the shiner. All other things being equal, it'll tolerate poor treatment better and last longer on your hook.

For largemouth, try for the biggest minnows in the tank.

And while we’re on the subject of “minnows,” consider shad.

Shad get bigger than fatheads or shiners, and that’s a good thing when you're chasing big bass. They’re also a natural prey item in the places you’ll be fishing.

They don’t live long in captivity, so bait stores won’t stock them. Instead, you’ll need to use a cast net and catch your own.

Large shad - in the neighborhood of 4 to 5 inches - are probably the most effective live bait for bass in the summer and fall, and that size tends to attract big fish.

But never move shad from one lake to another. Fish the lake you catch them in.

Hook selection

For live minnow fishing, two hook styles really stand out: circle hooks and Kahle hooks.

I like both, and there’s no question that they work better than a standard J-hook, whichever you choose.

Let’s look at both options so you can make the right choice for your needs.

Circle hooks for minnow fishing

By design, circle hooks kept on a tight line will slide into the corner of a fish’s mouth, catching perfectly almost every time. There’s no need to set the hook; just start cranking your reel and the fish will be well and truly locked up.

This makes circle hooks an unbeatable choice for rods in holders, dead sticking, and minnow fishing. Bass will often hit a minnow with real subtlety, softly engulfing it without the “strike” you’d expect. You may not even feel the hit, just the sudden weight on your line. 

By that time, the circle hook has already done its job, but with a standard J-hook, you’d either miss the fish or have a gut-hooked bass.

Circle hooks also have plenty of space for live bait, making them just perfect for this application.

I try to size my hooks to my minnows or shad, using 1/0, 2/0, and 3/0 Mustad Standard Wire Demon Perfect In Line Wide Gap Circle Hooks.

circle hook for bass

Kahle hooks for minnow fishing

Kahle hooks are made specifically for live and cut bait, offering a large, sweeping bend that creates a perfect space for minnows.

Much like circle hooks, they’re designed to self-hook on a tight line, reducing the chance of gut hooking when a soft hit is the norm. They’re largely self-hooking, too, so there’s no need to react instantly and bury the point in a largemouth’s jaw.

But they aren’t quite as good for self-hooking as circle hooks, making the latter the better overall choice in my view.

If Kahle hooks are your choice, I recommend Eagle Claw’s Lazer Sharp Kahle hooks in sizes 1/0, 2/0, and 3/0.

kale hook

Hooking a minnow for largemouth bass

The trick to rigging minnows for largemouth is to realize that bass swallow minnows and shad head first to avoid a throat full of spines. Hooks run below the dorsal fin can and do work, and tail hooking is a viable option, but neither catches as many fish as running a circle hook through the head - in the right way.

Avoid the eyes and brain or you’ll kill your minnow. 

Dead minnows still catch bass; live minnows catch a lot more!

You need to orient the hook with that in mind, and while there are a variety of ways to rig a minnow, the best are the following:

  • Lip hooking - With this technique, you run the hook from under the minnow’s chin, through both lips. Do not run the hook through the head! 
  • Snout hooking - Essentially a modified lip hook, in this case, you run the hook down through the front of the head forward of the eyes and out through its mouth. Like lip hooking, this lets the minnow move freely, but it doesn’t kill it as quickly.

If you rig a minnow or shad with these techniques, it’ll remain alive for a long time, and it’ll swim furiously, attracting bass like a Taco Bell sign at 2 AM on a Saturday night!

Rigging a minnow for largemouth bass

I recommend three rigs for fishing live minnows. For more, visit: Best Bass Fishing Rigs

The Three-Way Rig

three way rig

For working the bottom, a Three-Way Rig is excellent, especially if you want to keep your minnow several feet or more up into the water column. For instance, in deeper water, you may want to run a minnow over the top of a live weed bed, and nothing beats a Three-Way Rig for this kind of application.

If you want the full run down, takes look at this article:

The Three-Way Rig: Everything You Need to Know

A Three-Way rig uses a heavy sinker to allow for long, accurate casts and get down deep in a hurry. You can set your minnow’s depth precisely by shortening or lengthening the dropper line, allowing you to work with cover and structure to get your bait in the strike zone.

I prefer a 1-ounce sinker, and if I’m worried about getting hung up, I’ll use relatively light mono for my dropper line. That will allow me to break the sinker free if it gets snagged, and I won’t lose the whole rig.

I like heavier mono or fluorocarbon, often 12-pound test, for my leader. I want it to be a bit stiff, helping to avoid tangles as the minnow swims. And one of the great things about the Three-Way Rig is that it leaves the minnow free to swim like crazy, despite the heavy weight allowing long casts and fast descents.

The Three-Way Rig is very easy to assemble. Just follow these steps:

  1. Attach your main line to the top of a three-way swivel using a Uni knot.
  2. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  3. Cut a length of line (dropper line) to determine the depth of your presentation. I start with 12 to 18 inches but vary that as necessary. 
  4. Using a Uni knot, attach this line to a bank sinker.
  5. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  6. Attach the weighted line to the bottom of your three-way swivel using a Uni knot.
  7. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  8. Cut 12 to 18 inches of leader, and using a Uni or Palomar knot, attach your hook. If you’re using a spoon or crankbait, a Uni knot will be easier.
  9. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  10. Using a Uni knot, attach the hook and leader to the rearward facing eye of the three-way swivel.
  11. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.

The Sliding or Slip-Sinker Rig

Slip Sinker Rig

When the bottom is largely clear of vegetation, and you’d normally rig a plastic worm Carolina-style, a Slip-Sinker Rig is ideal.

It uses a heavy weight to get down fast and cast far, but it leaves your minnow free to swim, unencumbered by that weight. And when a bass does strike, it won’t feel the weight until it’s far too late to spit your hook.

A fixture among catmen who use this rig to target big blues and flatheads, it works really well for bass anywhere you've got a hard, flat bottom.

Here’s how you put one together:

  1. Slide an egg sinker onto your main line. 
  2. Follow the sinker with a bead.
  3. Especially if you’re using braid as main line, attach a #10 (31-pound) barrel swivel with a Uni Knot, wet it, and tighten it down, trimming the tag end.
  4. Cut approximately 18 inches of tough leader.
  5. Using a Palomar Knot, attach your hook. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  6. Attach the leader to your barrel swivel using a Uni Knot. Wet it, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.

The Slip Float Rig

Nothing beats a Slip Float Rig for presenting live minnows to bass in shallow water.

Not only does it allow accurate casts, but it also suspends your live bait at a precise depth, keeping it free to swim and attract bass. When rigged properly, it’s simply deadly.

While there are many good floats out there, for bass, I prefer the Thill Gold Medal float. It’s easy to use, easy to cast, and simply works like a charm.

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The real trick is to use as little split shot as possible, and to space it out and keep it well away from the hook. If you do that, the minnow will swim better and attract a lot more attention.

Here’s how you assemble a Slip Float Rig:

  1. Attach a float stop to your line and follow it with a bead. This must come first!
  2. Slide a slip float onto your line behind the stop and bead.
  3. Attach your hook using a Palomar knot.
  4. Attach just enough split shot to make your rig castable, placing it no closer than 6 inches to the hook.

Final Thoughts

Serious anglers who are familiar with minnow fishing for largemouth will tell you that rigging them properly - and really taking care with the whole process - is the key to unlocking their magic.

You can’t just sloppily hook a half-dead minnow, crush some split shot on your line, and start fishing. And if anything, you need to be more fastidious about how you rig live bait than how you’d tune a crankbait to run well.

Take your time, keep your minnows healthy, and assemble these rigs correctly.

We hope that you've learned something from this article, and as always, we’re here to answer any questions you might have.

We’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below!

About The Author
John Baltes
Chief Editor & Contributor
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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