As you’d expect, most predatory species include a variety of minnows in their diets, and their senses are primed to detect the subtle motions and sounds and attractive scent of small, live fish.
Fishermen who want to tilt the odds decidedly in their favor often reach for live minnows, but what separates the successful from the empty-handed is a thorough understanding of how to rig a minnow properly.
Want to know more about rigging minnows?
Table of Contents (clickable)
Live Minnows: The Basics
While one nightcrawler is pretty much like another in most respects except size, that’s not at all true for the minnows you’ll find in your local bait store.
Two species are common: the fathead and golden shiner.
And - you guessed it - the fathead is so-named for its bulbous head, making it easy to tell them apart at a glance.
Gold Shiner Minnow
While both species make great live bait, the fathead better choice.
Fatheads are the more robust of the two and tolerate heat, low oxygen, and being hooked a bit better than the golden shiners. This keeps them alive and kicking longer, which is something you definitely want in live bait.
When you take a look into the bait store's minnow tank, keep an eye out for tight schools.
That’s a sign that the minnows are healthy and energetic.
Catching your own is also a viable option, and it’s as simple as baiting a trap like the one offered by Frabill and dropping it in the water.
A simple minnow trap and some stale bread means free live bait for life!
One note of warning, however: always catch your minnows from the water you’ll be fishing. That prevents the spread of invasive species.
And an advantage to this approach - other than the fun for kids - is that you get minnows that are in the natural food chain.
You simply can’t “match the hatch” any better than that!
Dead - or nearly dead- minnows are not going to help you catch fish.
And to keep minnows healthy and happy until it’s time to hook them, you need to attend to a few details:
Temperature shock - Dumping minnows you’ve just bought into a bucket of lake water is a sure-fire way to kill more than a few.
Minnows are finely attuned to the temperature of the water they’re in, and if you change that temp rapidly, the stress will be lethal.
Let the bought bait slowly acclimate to your lake or pond’s temperature.
Instead, if you’ve bought live bait in a plastic bag, let it sit in a bucket of lake water and slowly come to temperature. That’ll provide some cushion and avoid lethal shock.
Aeration - A full bucket of minnows will remain active for quite some time, but they’re burning up oxygen all the while. Minnows breathe, too, and when they’re stored in a small space, they can quickly run through all the available oxygen, eventually suffocating.
This typically takes a few hours, and the first signs are increasingly sluggish behavior.
Bring some ice - As the day heats up, the water in your bait bucket will, too, and hot water will kill live minnows quickly.
To prevent this, scoop some ice from your cooler into the bucket now and then, aiming to keep the water cool but not cold.
How to Hook a Minnow
As a result, we can’t recommend a rig to you.
But whatever your rig, it’ll end with a hook, and you’ve got options that we can discuss:
Run your hook through the minnow’s tail between the dorsal and tail fins where there’s plenty of meat to hold it but no organs to pierce.
This is one of my favorite ways to rig a minnow as it keeps it alive the longest and drives it to swim erratically, attracting lots of attention.
A tail-hooked minnow attracts a lot of attention.
The only downside to this technique is that predators are going to hit your minnow head-first so that it can’t extend its spiny dorsal and pectoral fins. And since your hook is pretty far back along your minnow, they won’t have the hook in their mouth immediately.
The solution is simple: wait.
Just pause for a second when a fish takes your minnow, let it really get that bait into its mouth, and then set the hook.
In this technique, you run your hook through the minnow just below the dorsal fin and about ⅔ of the way up its body.
Dorsal rigging is deadly for most game fish.
The idea is to provide a firm anchor of the hook, avoid the body cavity and its organs, and leave the minnow wriggling both its head and tail.
I like this technique a lot, though there is some danger of killing your minnow quickly, especially with a heavier-diameter hook.
You can also pass the hook through the lower lip, up through the mouth, and out the upper lip. Lip hooking, as this technique is called for obvious reasons, leaves the minnow kicking furiously.
Proper technique with lip hooking is essential.
The idea is to pass the hook through the tissues of the mouth - but to avoid the brain and eyes, which are further back.
Always keep your hook’s passage well forward of the eyes; otherwise, you’ll prematurely end your minnow’s life and end up with dead rather than live bait!
Lip hooking works well with jigs, too.
Retention isn’t as secure as the other options, making it a poor choice for heavy currents.
And by pinning the minnow’s mouth closed, you reduce its ability to breathe, shortening its life on your hook.
If you pass your hook in through your minnow’s mouth and out through the top of the minnow’s head forward of the eyes, you've snout hooked it.
This technique leaves the minnow’s mouth open, allowing it to breathe - that is, live - longer.
Like lip hooking, proper technique is critical, as piercing the brain/eye area is pretty much “quits” for your live bait.
Done right, snout hooking provides long-lived minnows and fast hooksets.
Fish long enough, and you may end up with dead minnows. Or, you may need a really secure way to hook them in a strong current.
Enter the trick hook.
Simply pass your hook’s point into the mouth of your minnow and exit behind the gill plate or head.
This is going to kill a live minnow pretty quickly, but it is very strong. Your minnow will need to lose its head to lose your hook!
Minnows are perhaps the most versatile live bait option available to anglers, and knowing how to hook them is essential knowledge for any fisherman.
We hope that this article has taught you something, and as always, we’d love to hear from you if it has - or if you have something to add that you think we’ve forgotten.
Please leave a comment below!