Artificial lures are the go-to lure choice for most ice anglers today. Everyone loves trying the latest innovations in jigging spoons or rattle baits but sometimes nothing beats a real minnow on a hook. Artificial lures are easy to use. However, when things get tough and the fish aren’t biting, minnows prove to be the most reliable backup every time.
Effectively fishing minnows (live or dead) does require some basic techniques to ensure the best odds of success. Hook sizing is critical as well so be sure to also check out our guide to choosing the right hooks for ice fishing.
Here are our tactics for hooking minnows for ice fishing. Feel free to use these same methods for your open water seasons too.
Minnows are a major source of a fish’s diet. It’s no wonder that the natural action of a struggling minnow on a hook riles up the predatory instincts of most game fish. Read on to get the most out of your live minnows.
This rig is the easiest way to consistently catch fish on live minnows beneath the ice. Hooking a minnow through the back allows the minnow to naturally swim which is why it is the preferred method for tip-up anglers.
Use single or treble hooks properly sized to match the minnow. You don’t want to restrict its movement. Hook the minnow just behind the dorsal fin through the upper portion of skin. Don’t hook too deep in the back or you’ll hit the spine.
Position the hook so that the point is closest to the head. Most fish eat minnows head first and situating your hook with the point forward will increase positive hook ups.
Whether you are using a deadstick or a tip-up, clip a few small lead weights 8 to 10 inches above the hook to force the minnow down to the desired depth. Be careful not to add more weight than necessary or you’ll inhibit the minnow’s action. You can also opt to use a small jig or weighted hook.
While tail hooking a live minnow is not the most popular method, it does have its place. Mostly, we like to tail-hook minnows for stationary presentations on the bottom which is ideal for ice fishing. Tail-hooked minnows are also a good option when fish are biting deep and we get too many gut hooks on a dorsal-hooked minnow.
To tail-hook a minnow, insert the hook just in front of the tail being careful to avoid the spine. Try using a heavier weight that will cement the minnow close to the bottom. This is particularly effective for walleye and perch that prefer to feed along the bottom. A tail-hooked minnow pulls upward against the hook and presents itself as an easy target.
The soft meat around the tail means you will loose your fair share of minnows during light bites. If you’re not getting a solid hook set, try smaller minnows or hook it in a different spot.
Remember, most fish eat minnows head first so once you get a bite, give the fish a few extra seconds to fully eat the minnow before setting the hook. Tail hooking is best reserved for smaller minnows.
When you want to impart more action to a live minnow, go for the lip-hooked method of rigging it up. Usually a lead or tungsten live bait jig is the best tool for the job which allows you to control the depth and movement of the minnow.
A wriggling minnow is essential for sealing the deal with wary fish. Yet, we find that sluggish biters are enticed more with subtle jigging rather than having to chase a swimming minnow around.
To securely lip hook a live minnow, insert the hook through the bottom and top lip with the hook point on top. Fragile minnows tend to die quickly when hooked this way since they can’t move their mouth to circulate water over their gills. Extend their life by only hooking the upper lip.
As a reminder, lip-hooking puts your line in the path of fish that eat head first. Finicky biters often feel this line before they strike and get spooked. This rig is best when fish are aggressively feeding.
Tipping a lure
The ability of flashy spoons and tantalizing rattle baits to draw in fish from far and wide is hard to beat. Whether you are going for trout, walleye, perch or crappie getting their attention is the first step but getting them to commit to your lure is another battle all together.
When you mark fish on the sonar but nothing is biting artificial lures, it’s time to tip it with a live minnow. That little morsel may be all it takes to trigger a strike. You get the benefit of attracting fish with the lure and the natural presentation of the minnow.
Tip a spoon, jigging rap or other active lure with small minnows. Hook through both lips to get a strong hold on the minnow. Check the lure at the surface to make sure the action is right.
It’s not always a live minnow that does the trick. Sometimes a dead minnow is the preferred meal of the day and rigging them on a hook right is the difference between pulling a trophy through the ice or burning through bait without any fish to show for it.
The other advantage of dead minnows is portability. Not everyone has the ability or the time to transport live minnows on and off the ice. It is also hard to keep them alive in sub-zero temperatures. Preserved and frozen baitfish are readily available at most tackle stores and are a cinch to ice fish with.
Obviously, dead minnows don’t move so hooking it on a jig is the best way to get lively action from it. Preserved or pre-frozen minnows are not very durable. Hook the jig through both lips to keep it on the hook longer. Try penetrating the head more if they fall off when you’re jigging.
Jig weight does matter depending on the mood of the fish species you’re after. When the bite is hot, go for a heavier jig and a bigger minnow to single out larger fish. Once things slow down swap out the heavy jig for a smaller one. Downsize the minnow to add more finesse if the situation calls for it.
Quick strike rig
The quick strike rig is a favorite among pike and muskie anglers. Few setups put more trophy fish on the ice. The key here is using big bait. 8 to 14 inch dead minnows draw in the biggest fish.
The beauty of the quick strike rig is the double hook setup. The stinger hook all but guarantees a fast hook set in the side of the mouth. There is also no need to give the fish time to swallow or reposition the bait when it strikes. Just set the hook as soon as it bites. Not only do you get quick hook ups, you also get quick releases.
Most quick strike rigs are tied using wire leader and size 4 or 6 treble hooks. The trailing hook should not be more than 2 to 4 inches from the first hook. Scrape away a patch of scales just behind the dorsal fin on your baitfish and place the stinger hook just under the skin with the point towards the tail. Next, take the main hook and insert it on top of the head behind the gill plate. Scrape a few scales away to avoid interfering with a solid hook set.
When using large minnows, you may need to puncture the air bladder and squeeze out excess air so the bait sinks to the right depth.
Sometimes finesse is the best approach and a tantalizing chunk of meat is hard for fish to resist. Tip a small jig with a minnow head or tail and you have a deadly combo for panfish and walleye.
Actively jigging a spoon or jigging rap is also taken to the next level when tipped with a small piece of cut bait. The added scent is sometimes the difference between a fish striking or moving on. You also get more use out of one minnow.
Best types of live minnows
Just like selecting the right lure for different applications, you also need to choose the best minnow for the job at hand.
There are several common minnow types. Depending on the gamefish you are targeting, tailor your choice of minnow to match what is naturally present.
Suckers are a prime choice for walleye, muskie and northern pike. Use smaller suckers for walleye or pike and larger suckers for trophy muskie. These minnows are hardy and can last a day on the ice in a well ventilated bait bucket. Most bait shops sell suckers from 4 to 12 inches in length. Get a selection of sizes to match the mood of the fish.
By far the most popular baitfish is the fathead minnow. Fatheads are universally distributed and the most common forage for most gamefish. They seldom exceed 3 inches and are the perfect bait for crappie, perch and walleye. Fatheads are cheap, readily available and can tolerate less than ideal water conditions. These spunky minnows really do catch fish.
The Golden or Common Shiner is a great minnow option for ice anglers. Averaging 2 to 4 inches, many ice anglers utilize shiners for trophy walleye on tip-ups. It is also possible to catch largemouth bass beneath the ice with shiners. These minnows are not the most resilient but they are inexpensive and work great dead or alive.
If you have the option to fish with chubs, go for it. These are a favorite of walleye and pike. They can grow up to 12 inches but smaller ones are better for walleye. Chub are a popular bait but are not always as easy to find as other bait fish.
Tullibee, also known as cisco, are a cousin of the larger whitefish and big predatory gamefish love them. A dead tullibee on a quick strike rig is like candy for monster lake trout, trophy muskie and pike. You can find them frozen at grocery stores or bait shops. Some anglers catch their own tullibee to use as dead bait.
Best minnow rigs for different fish
The best anglers know they must cater their fishing methods to different types of fish. There is not a one size fits all bait but fishing with minnows is close. Here are some effective minnow rigs for the most popular gamefish under the ice.
Rainbow trout are shallow water feeders during winter months. Lip hook a small 1- 2 inch minnow with a 4mm tungsten jig or ice fly and let it sink to the desired depth. If the minnow gets sluggish, lightly twitch your rod tip to induce more action. The small presentation is irresistible to fat rainbows.
The most popular gamefish in the country is equally challenging under the ice as it is in open water. A dorsal-hooked fathead under a tip-up is second to none for big “eyes” on the bottom. For a more active approach, tip a jigging rap or Acme Rattle Master spoon with a minnow head.
Perch and crappie are some of the most reliable catches under the ice. Crappie can’t ignore a small minnow suspended above their head. Crappie feed up to their prey so either hook the minnow through the back or tail. You will get more consistent hook ups that way. Use the smallest minnows you have and stay focused on the movement of your line. Crappie bites are subtle and easily missed.
Perch are less picky and scavenge the bottom of the water column for tasty morsels. Minnow heads, eyes and cut pieces on a small spoon or jig is a recipe for full buckets of fat perch. Make sure you stay close to the bottom where perch prefer to forage.
Northern pike and muskie
Big fish need big baits. Pike and muskie are no exception. A quick strike rig is the ideal setup for these toothy predators. Use the biggest minnows possible like suckers, chubs or tullibee. At a minimum, setup with an 8 to 14 inch dead minnow. Suspend the bait below a sturdy tip-up and watch for the flags. Don’t delay and be ready for a tough fight.
Summing it up
In a world of constant lure innovation, it is all too easy to forget how effective live bait is. Artificial lures have a time and place but nothing is quite as reliable in all situations as fishing with minnows. The next time you hit the ice, try a few different ways of rigging up minnows to see how well it really works.
A final note of caution. Not all areas allow the use of live minnows as bait. Check your local fishing regulations before you go.