Tips For Better and More Portable Minnow Management

Keep your minnows fresh this winter and beyond

by Lake-Link Staff

As anglers have migrated to online tackle purchases, there's one thing that will never put mom & pop bait shops out of business-and that's the constant need for fresh, live bait.

Sure, there are lots of artificial presentations for all species-and many of them catch a lot of fish-but sometimes there's no substitute for live bait.

Minnows, for example, are top forage for all fish. From crappie minnows, fatheads, redtail chubs, rainbows, spottail and golden shiners, creek chubs, willowcats, to suckers, each bait has its time and place.

The challenge, of course, after trapping or purchasing your minnows, is keeping them lively and ready for fishing.

Most bait shops operate off of well water, so it's best to use the water that you're given at the store.

Minnow Care

Water quality and temperature are key. Most bait shops operate off of well water, so it's best to use the water that you're given at the store. Bagged and aerated, it's simply a matter of transporting your bait to the fishing destination and then emptying the bag into your minnow bucket of choice.

Personally, I like to have a cooler with ice in the boat or truck bed where I set the minnow bag until I reach my destination. I also keep a smaller cooler full of well water in the back of the truck for transporting the remainder of my minnows home, a Minnesota regulation. If you don't have access to well water, you can use city water if you add a conditioner like G-Juice and let the water sit for awhile before adding your minnows.

A cooler with ice also works great for storing fish before cleaning. Want the best-tasting fillets possible? Quickly kill your fish by spiking them (ike Jimi) with a sharp knife, screwdriver, or specially-designed tool like this AFTCO Ike Jimi spike. Insert the sharpened point right behind the eye and penetrate the brain; this will kill the fish and their body will go limp. I then slit the fish on the underside of the gills, cutting through the bottom flesh and gills. Insert into the livewell and let bleed out into the water, then place the bled fish in the cooler of ice. You'll also find that dead, cooled fish are more firm and easier to fillet.

Back to minnows, well water is key to storing minnows properly and keeping them fresh. Optimal temperatures vary, but I typically keep my minnows in the bait shop water for a couple hours, adding a little bit of lake or river water as the day progresses. Sudden changes in water temperature can stun and even kill your bait. Remember, you want your bait lively.


Making sure your minnows are oxygenated will keep them lively and ready to catch fish. Some boats have built-in livewell aerators or spray bars, but it's a good idea to use a bait management system (cooler, bucket, or box) with battery or DC connector-based aerator. Many companies are making long-lasting, rechargeable USB-enabled lithium-battery powered aerators now, reducing the amount of big C or D cell batteries you have to buy for fishing trips. They're a little more expensive but cheaper in the long-run considering you're not burning through batteries.

Case in point, I recently dropped $50 on an Engel rechargeable lithium-ion battery aerator and have been pleased so far. While the specs state a 36-hour battery life, I've only been able to get a full day and night of constant aeration out of it before recharging. It has four speeds-including an intermittent aerator to save on charge-and a very quiet pump. Works in both fresh- and salt-water and features a 2-year warranty.

Frabill also introduced a rechargeable lithium-ion battery aerator earlier this year but last I checked, they're not shipping yet. Features listed include two speeds and intermittent mode. Price is $69.99-a little higher than the Engel.

Engel Rechargeable Live Bait Aerator
Frabill ReCharge Deluxe
Clam Deluxe Lithium Rechargable Aerator
CLAM is also in the rechargeable aerator game with their Deluxe Lithium Rechargeable Aerator. Although I haven't tested one yet, what I like about the design is it features two outputs so you can either aerate two bait buckets simultaneously, aerate one large container, or use one hose for minnows and the other to keep your ice fishing hole free of ice skim. Same price as the Engel--$50.

Minnows On-the-Ready

I have a lot of guide buddies who have converted old, insulated milk tanks into minnow tanks with PVC spray bars circulating well water. But for your average angler, an old cooler and a Frabill Spray Bar Pump Aerator or 50-gallon dual output AC-powered Frabill Aerator are both great options for keeping bulk minnows in your garage or basement.
The Frabill 50-gallon dual output AC-powered aerator
If you are going to buy a cooler for storing minnows, I recommend Igloo Marine Coolers over rotomolded products like Yeti. They keep water just as cold, are much cheaper, and good for use in the boat too, what with their white, UV-resistant coating to keep insides cold. This particular model is right around $120 and holds 25 gallons-a pretty good deal. Fact is, if you look inside fishing boats on the Great Lakes and around the Gulf you'll find a lot of guys using Igloo Marine Coolers versus overpriced rotomolded brands. They've been standard for years and won't break the bank.
You'll find a lot of guys using Igloo Marine cooler versus overpriced rotomolded brands.

At least in Minnesota, there was a shortage of minnows this year. Water levels were down and trappers had a hard time sourcing bait from their usual locations. That said, when certain in-demand minnows came into my local bait shop, I stocked up, whether that meant buying dozens of creek chubs or river mix. Fatheads also ran small for the longest time so when big fatheads came in, I also stocked up on them. Hard to beat good, medium- to large fatheads-they're cheap and catch loads of fish.

My next project is to find an old, non-working chest freezer and convert it into a bait tank in my garage. Insulated, it will keep the water cold and with the addition of a small pond aerator/filter like this $100 model from Smart Pond, I should be good to go.

Lastly, if you're looking for a larger minnow bucket for long weekend fishing trips with multiple anglers, I'd suggest Frabill's Magnum Bait Station 30, which has a 30-quart capacity, rounded corners and internal, center divider to keep two minnow species separate, as well as a 12V adapter and 110V adapter port (adapter not included). Will also run on D Cell batteries. At $229.99 it's a bit spendy but built like a tank. If your style of fishing involves stocking up on a lot of minnows, driving miles, and then burning through bait, you might just want to consider this model.

The Frabill's Magnum Bait Station 30 is built like a tank.

When Portability is Key

If fishing from a smaller boat, canoe, kayak, or taking limited gear on an ice fishing trip, there are some smaller bait management systems available, too, like HT Enterprises' new Siberian Ice Box, one of the coolest (no pun intended) and most affordable products I've seen in a long time.
HT Enterprises' new Siberian Ice Box
The Siberian Ice Box features an adjustable padded shoulder strip, insulated 5-gallon minnow bucket, 2 ice fishing rod/reel combo holders, padded foam cover that doubles as a seat, compartment below seat with 4 tackle storage boxes, second tray with removable multi-section dividers, and serrated footpads for a secure, non-slip base. Price? $59.99. Definitely a must-have.
Another option for a smaller minnow bucket is Engel Coolers' 7-Quart Minnow Box, which features a pull-out net that makes sorting through minnows or changing water easy. The air tube port is located in the lid itself, which also makes great use of limited space. The air pump features two speeds and will run off a 12V adapter for truck or boat powering to and from fishing destinations. An insulated cooler shields the water from temperature changes.
Engel Coolers' 7-Quart Minnow Box features a pull-out net that makes sorting through minnows or changing water easy.
Another bait management option is Frabill's Magnum Bait Station 13, which is built-like-a-tank and provides just the right size minnow container for walking out on the ice, smaller watercraft, or simply limiting gear size no matter where/how you're fishing. At just over 3 gallons, you can keep a few scoops of fatheads or crappie minnows fresh and lively, or a slightly smaller number of larger minnows.
The right size minnow container for walking out on the ice, smaller watercraft, or simply limiting gear size.

Old School: A 5-gallon Bucket (and Aerator)

Especially in the cooler months and winter, I save space in my boat and in the fishhouse by using a simple bucket and aerator combo. I like using a 6-gallon bucket which holds more water and is a little taller, but any clean 5-gallon bucket will work. I then have a metal coffee can with dip net for each angler in the boat. I give each angler a scoop of minnows and nobody's tripping all over the boat (or ice) trying to reach the main minnow container.
Rapala's Floating Aerator activates upon contact with water, features 18 hours of continues runtime.
As far as an aerator for the bucket, I like Rapala's Floating Aerator which activates upon contact with water, features 18 hours of continues runtime on three "C" batteries (not included), 36 hours of run-time on 15 minute interval setting, air release stone at bottom, and aeration of 0.4 gallons per minute. It also fits 5-gallon buckets perfectly and don't have any hose or clip-on aerator sticking off the side.

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