Ice fishing is a popular winter pastime and for good reason—it’s fun and gives you a reason to get outdoors into the winter weather. Yet, successful ice fishing requires you to keep minnows alive long enough to attract a fish. By properly storing your bait, fishing in freshwater, and using a few tricks, you can successfully keep your bait alive long enough to land a catch.
In this guide, we’ll briefly walk you through a few of the most common methods ice fishers use to keep their minnows alive. Take what you learn here and apply it to your own game to start using live baits out on the ice.
Use a Bait Bucket
A bait bucket, or “live well”, is essential for keeping your minnows alive while ice fishing. A live well can help circulate and oxygenate the water, thus keeping it cooler and reducing stress on the minnows. Your live well should have a tight-fitting lid to prevent water from evaporating and a net or other device to help scoop minnows out of the water.
There are several types of bait buckets on the market. One option is a traditional pail-style bait bucket with a wire handle and hinged lid. This type of bait bucket typically has two compartments: one for keeping minnows alive in freshwater, and one for storing ice to keep them cool.
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Another option is an insulated “cooler” style bait bucket with a built-in aerator system that circulates fresh water through the container, keeping your minnows alive indefinitely. These buckets typically have an AC adapter to power the aerator system but can also be used with battery packs or solar chargers for off-the-grid fishing trips.
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Whichever option you choose, make sure you bring an extra container along in case you lose any minnows overboard. Check the links embedded above to find a couple of top products we recommend.
Use Freshwater Minnows
It should go without saying but freshwater minnows last far longer in freshwater than a saltwater alternative. Additionally, there are a handful of benefits to using freshwater minnows:
- They are inexpensive and easy to find – Most bait shops will have a ready stock of freshwater minnows for sale at a low price. Simply pick up some minnows on your way to the ice and store them in your live well with some bottled water and ice.
- They’re more effective – Freshwater minnows are used to living in wintery freshwater and will be far more active when cast into the lake. As they jut around in the water, they’ll quickly attract larger fish.
- They’re a favorite for bluegill and crappie – Panfish, such as the bluegill and crappie, love to eat freshwater minnows. If you’re trying to land larger catches, we highly recommend using these minnows instead.
By switching to freshwater minnows, your bait will stay alive far longer in the depths below the ice, helping you land bigger fish than before.
Keep Your Bait Cold Using Ice
Storing your minnows in a cold environment will keep them healthy and active before you use them as bait. Water is more likely to lose oxygen when heated up than when it’s cold so maintaining a cold environment will help keep your minnows in good condition and fully oxygenated before you use them as bait.
We recommend packing your live well with plenty of ice packs or even using a cooler. The colder the temperature, the longer your bait will stay alive—so don’t forget this important step!
Additionally, you can use the “slush ball” technique to keep your minnows alive. This technique involves making slush balls out of water mixed with snow or crushed ice. By packing these slush balls around your container of minnows, or even just through some into the hole before setting up shop, you can create an environment where their metabolism stays slow and keeps from freezing in the ice.
Don’t Overfeed Your Minnows
If you’re raising your own minnows, don’t feed them before using them as bait. Minnows are scavengers by nature and will eat just about anything they can find. However, this doesn’t mean that you should overfeed them.
Minnows are cold-blooded animals and their metabolisms slow down in cold weather. If you feed them, they will use up more energy trying to digest the food than they would if they weren’t fed. This can make them more susceptible to freezing and less active in the water.
For the best results, try feeding your minnows only what they can consume in five to ten minutes the night before you go out to fish. Anything left uneaten will simply sink to the bottom of their container and spoil quickly.
Remove Dead Minnows ASAP
Check your bait bucket regularly and remove any dead minnows as soon as possible. If any minnows managed to die while you’re fishing, it’s crucial that you remove their bodies before they start to contaminate the water. Dead minnows can deoxygenate the water and can putrefy the environment, causing all the other minnows to die.
Rip the heads off the dead minnows and use them as bait to catch smaller fish.
Keeping minnows alive while ice fishing may seem difficult but it’s not as hard as you might think. By storing your minnows in a live well that’s kept cold and aerated, your minnows will be alive and well when you’re ready to use them as bait. Avoid feeding minnows before using them as bait and always remove dead bodies to prevent the water from turning putrid.