Practical tackle


There is one big reason for giving minnow baits a separate chapter from other lip-baits, and that is not their slim profile but the way they are fished. While it is true that they can be worked on a straight retrieve, most of them are far more effective when twitched. To a degree, they come midway between crankbaits and jerkbaits in the techniques that can be used to fish them successfully.

Although there are deep diving versions of some minnow baits available these really fall in the crankbait category. In my opinion, putting a deep diving lip on a minnow changes it from a minnow bait, so they are discussed elsewhere. Minnows are shallow workers supreme, the majority getting down little more than four feet when cast and retrieved. This makes them ideal for cranking back over weed tops. They can also work well trolled, notably where pike are feeding on trout high in the water or in any shallow water situation.

The gentle rolling action that most minnows have when retrieved slowly gives off plenty of flash, which no doubt explains why metallic finishes predominate amongst these lures. A silver or chrome minnow bait fished in clear water on a bright sunny day is as noticeable as a lighthouse's lamp! And very effective. I feel sure that under such conditions pike are drawn from long distances to minnow baits. Other colours work on minnows, although harder to find. Fire Tiger variations are good, as they are on all lures, as are perch patterns and other naturalistic finishes. One colour that is rare to see on a minnow bait is black. I don't know why this should be because it is a top surface bait colour - and minnows are almost surface baits. I have a Maverick which I painted black with an orange head, and that catches pike. Why not paint a minnow black and give it a try sometime?

As quickly worked search lures, minnows can be superb. How fast you have to retrieve a lure for pike to ignore it I don't know. Someone once said that you can't crank a lure too fast for pike. This has certainly been true for me with minnow baits at times. The speed that pike can attain when chasing a quickly moving lure is incredible. Almost as incredible as the speed with which they can come to a dead-stop. I had one come racing up behind a Cordell Redfin just as I lifted it out of the water, stopping right under my rod tip and looking pretty bewildered! What to do? I cast out again a few yards behind the pike and started twitching the lure really slowly. When it was about two feet behind the pike it got slammed.

To dismiss minnows as lures with little action is to miss the point by a wide margin. Being lures that attract visually, having little vibratory appeal, minnows do seem to be at their best in clear water. Don't discount them in coloured water or low light conditions though, because the fact that they always run near the surface ensures that they present a good silhouette as they pass over the pike. Fished in the right way they have a lot going for them in the pike-attraction stakes. To get the most out of minnows it is essential to start twitching them. Not all baits work in the same manner. The Bomber Long A, a favourite of mine, is constructed from high density plastic and so casts into a wind far better than a lot of minnows, but this reduces its buoyancy and cuts down on its roll. The straight version will twitch quite well and a little deeper than more buoyant baits. Even so, I prefer to move it with longer (three feet), but quick, strokes of the rod tip. The action must be smooth and the slack recovered quickly. The lure should hardly stop moving between pulls. Slowing this retrieve down makes the Long A veer off to the side, a little like a jerkbait, yet with a wiggle that jerkbaits rarely have. I have found the jointed model to be a poor twitchbait. A better tactic with the jointed Long A is the quick-slow-quick-slow retrieve, rather than working the lure with the rod, I work it from the reel. This is productive with the straight version, and with other minnow baits, too.

Another dense minnow is the Rebel Windcheater, a bait that behaves more like a crankbait all round, diving deeper and having less roll than other minnow baits being fatter than a true minnow. The Windcheater was designed for casting into the wind (surprise, surprise) and is matched in this by few other minnows. The Luhr Jensen Javelin is an almost identical lure, but with a slight curve to the tail end of the body, kind of like a chunky Long A. If anything the Javelin has a more pronounced wiggle than the Windcheater, resembling more a stretched Big S in its action. Both these lures are good trollers and useful twitchbaits for getting down deeper than standard minnows.

The Gudebrod Maverick is an unusual minnow, being short, dumpy and moulded from a high density foam. At just six inches long and 56g (whatever that is in English) it casts like a dream. This lure must be just about indestructible as it has a one piece brass wire configuration for its line-tie and hook hangers. Despite its solid construction the Maverick will only run a foot or so below the surface when cast, and has the widest roll of any bait I have come across. Constantly twitching this lure as you crank it back will get it to work quite a bit deeper though, and this is true of all baits.

Standard seven inch minnows. Top to bottom: Original Rapala Minnow (balsa). Bagley's Bang-O Lure (balsa). Ryobi Big Dixie (also available under alternative names from other manufacturers). Bomber Long A (17A). Bomber Long A (17J). Bill Norman Blue Fin (repainted in "cartoon perch"). Cordell Red Fin. Whopper Stopper Magnum Hellcat (discontinued).

There are two main ways of making twitched minnows work for you. The first is to use them as surface baits. The lure is cast out and left for a second or two. Then you take up any slack and 'pop' the bait with a snap of the wrist. This causes it to dive and create a splash on the surface. The lure will return to the surface close to where it was initially. The more buoyant the lure the closer to its initial position it will resurface. Cordell Redfins are extremely buoyant, hollow bodied, minnows with as much roll as the Maverick. Great for surface fishing like this. Work the lure slowly back pausing between pops, and maybe running the lure from time to time, especially when fishing in patchy weed. Pop the bait in the clear patches and run it over the weed tops. Or the other way round, depending on where you think the pike are lying. Deeper diving/less buoyant minnows can be fished in this way too, but they travel further forward, and dive a little deeper on each twitch.

Twitching a lure a second time before it begins to float back to the surface will drive it deeper still. Repeating this in rapid succession will get the lure down below its standard running depth. In this way it is possible to retrieve minnow baits four or five feet down, instead of their more usual two or three feet. I am now getting into a most effective retrieve, where the lure moves forward all the time while being continuously twitched. This works summer and winter, but overall retrieve speed is critical. For a slow retrieve deeper running lures should be used. As a rule it pays to work lures slower in cold water, and quicker in warm water. This is a response to the pike's cold blooded nature. But as with everything in fishing it is only a rule of thumb. If a winter pike is extremely hungry, and finding food hard to come by, it might well be prepared to chase a fast moving bait.

For slow twitching the 6" Grandma is an excellent choice. Sometimes called the Magna Strike Gladiator, this lure is almost universally known as the Grandma - so that's what I'll call it! Although flat sided this bait can still be fished like a minnow, but because it has a little more wiggle than most minnows it can also be fished like a crankbait. The 7½" Grandma is one of the few jointed baits I have found that works when twitched. If you want a high profile twitching minnow, then go for a 9" Grandma even on small, confined waters. The entire family is excellent, as are all the Magna Strike lures that I have used, although they do have an annoying tendency to leak. Grandmas run deeper than standard minnows, which is why they can be worked more slowly. Because of their additional wiggle, they can be successfully fished with a combination retrieve. Run straight for a few feet or even yards, then twitched a couple of times before running again. The take will often come as soon as the lure is twitched. Even if cranking this lure, and many others for that matter, I like to give it a twitch or two as soon as it splashes down on the cast. I feel that this burst of activity helps alert pike further to the lure's presence, as well as getting it below the surface and the lip biting the water for the retrieve. If you are anything like me you will get a lot of takes on these initial twitches. When casting across a drain, for instance, this will get you a lot of takes close to the far bank. It also works in open water. I recall fishing Bough Beech and changing to a nine inch Grandma in Fire Tiger (surprise, surprise) after much fruitless fishing with just about everything else in my boxes. First cast it got hit within five twitches. "Yes, monster city", I thought. No, an eight pounder! That's the way it goes sometimes.

Pausing the retrieve from time to time and allowing the minnow to float upwards is a good tactic, giving it a twitch as it rises is an even better one. A twitch before starting to crank never goes amiss either. Less buoyant lures might actually hang, suspended, in the water when you stop cranking. Hence the term "suspending lures". If you look at most of these baits it will be apparent that they are generally minnows. The big problem is that they almost all smallish, being designed to be fished without a wire trace for walleye and bass, and the addition of wire upsets their critical buoyancy and they sink. When I talk about minnow baits, I mean baits of at least six inches and usually seven inches or more. Being slim, and light, smaller minnows do not cast too well, and offer a small silhouette or profile. The majority of my minnows are seven inch jobs, and they catch me plenty of pike of all sizes.

The suspending concept is not to be ignored. Certain baits, particularly balsa minnows, lose a lot of buoyancy through the use of a heavy trace. Bagley's seven inch Bang O Lure is one such, and an excellent twitching minnow with a superbly lively action. Sadly, this is a hard to find lure which I believe has been discontinued during the writing of this book. I suggest you spend a little time tracking some down.... then buy in bulk! For a seven inch minnow it has a very slim shape and looks quite a bit smaller than a lot of minnows. Nonetheless mine catch more than their fair share of pike. Like all balsa baits it is prone to hook and tooth damage, but that's the price you pay for superb performance. Wooden lures can be doctored to become neutrally buoyant, or nearly so, by drilling holes in them and adding shot or lead to weight them. This is a critical procedure, and not one which I have summoned up the courage to try on any of my wooden minnows. However, hollow plastic baits can have holes drilled in them to allow weighting with vegetable oil, water or split shot, which is a more reversible option than doctoring wooden baits. The hole can be sealed with epoxy - which is almost permanent - or a self tapping screw to enable a change of loading. For speedy on-the-water alterations the plug from a bubble float can be used, or preferably two (in two holes) to make for easier draining of the water. Make sure they are a very tight fit in the holes though, or the lure may take on water when you don't want it too. Using water as ballast has the disadvantage that it can cause the hook hangers to rust, unseen, from inside. Draining after every outing should alleviate that problem.

Minnow variations. Top to bottom: Ace Magnum Minnow, 8". Rapala Magnum (floating), 18cm. Nilsmaster Invincible, 18cm. Luhr Jensen Javelin, 5 . Rebel Windcheater, 6". Storm Shallomac (repainted), 5½". Gudebrod Maverick (hand painted), 6".

Weighting lures in one of these ways can reduce the action somewhat, but adds running depth and casting distance. Putting shot, beads or ball bearings in a hollow lure obviously makes it noisier. If this gives you confidence then fair enough, there are few rattling minnow baits on the market. The few that I am aware of have only one or two rattles. Should you be interested in experimenting with weighted minnows it is a good idea to try it out on the cheaper baits, Bill Norman's Blue Fin is one that works well enough before the operation, and is good when doctored too. Care must be taken as the weight will shift in the lure altering its balance on the retrieve. If you intend to twitch the bait this actually makes its action more erratic and unpredictable, but if running it there is every chance that it will fish differently on each cast.

Not only can minnows be bought as (or turned into) neutrally buoyant baits, there are a few sinking minnows on the market. The usual way of fishing these is as 'countdown' lures in the same way as spoons. However, they can be twitched to good effect. Of course, they don't float to the surface when you stop them, but sink to the bottom. Lacking buoyancy they can be used to fish deeper, or slower than equal sized floating baits. It can also be worth trying them in running water for fishing upstream. There are not many sinking minnows that spring to mind. Rapalas are the obvious one, and Abu have produced them at times. I have only a couple of sinking minnows, but they are another of my under-used lures.

It is perhaps worth noting that not only the Bang-O, but some other good minnows, have suffered the ignominy of deletion from the catalogues. I mention this because one all time favourite lures suffered this fate. The Magnum Hellcat, originally a Whopper Stopper lure but latterly in the Heddon range. What made this minnow so good is hard to pinpoint, no doubt it was in the combination of its buoyancy and lip shape. Whatever, there is a noticeable difference in action between the Whopper Stopper models and the Heddons. Probably it has something to do with the type of plastic used. The same has happened to the Abu Hi-Lo adjustable lipped crankbait. When production was switched from Sweden to the Far East there was a slight change in performance. But back to minnows.

What soon becomes apparent among the minnow family of lures is that, although each manufacturer's bait looks very similar to another's, they all have their useful characteristics. Of the seven inch plastic baits available at the time of writing, Redfins run shallowest, then Blue Fins then Long As. Magnum Hellcats come between the Blue Fin and the Long A. There are others, too, such as the Dixie Minnow marketed by Ryobi which is similar to the Bomber being moulded in a dense, clear plastic and also available under other guises. The Storm Shallomac is a six inch bait that is fairly buoyant but manages to dive a little more than many minnows, while the Top Gun from Bagley's is also six inches in length and a very buoyant plastic bait. Mann's do a minnow bait guaranteed to run at one foot or less, the Stretch 1 minus. This is by no means a complete list as just about every major lure manufacturer lists a six or seven inch minnow lure. By building up a collection from different ranges you will have a selection of minnow baits that will cover a range of running depths, and with varying actions.

There are fewer and fewer wooden minnows around these days, and the Bang-O apart the king of the heap is the ubiquitous Rapala - as world renowned as the Mepps is in spinner terms. Another that springs to mind is the Nils Master Invincible. This lure is unusual in that it has a squashed look to it, almost as if it had been sat on. There is also a slight curve to the body, which, in part, may account for its deeper diving capabilities compared to more traditional minnow baits. For some reason I owned none of these two renowned baits at the time I began writing this book, so I borrowed a few off my pal Martin McDerby for the purpose of taking some photos. Naturally I had to give them a whirl while I had them! The Original Rapala has a very tight wiggle, and a subtle action when twitched. I am not going to say that it is the minnow that appeals most to my tastes, unlike the Floating Magnum Rapala and the Invincible. Both of these are made from a harder wood than balsa and have more pronounced vibrating wiggles, and wider twitching actions. I may have had none of these two baits when I started writing this book, but you can bet your life I'll have some now you are reading it!

The list of minnow baits is almost endless, recently I have come across a range made in the former Soviet Union - in Lithuania I think. These Ace Minnows are also made of a harder wood than balsa and have larger lips. The result is a minnow that casts well, and dives deeper than most - to around eight feet or more dependant on the particular size of bait. Even so they twitch quite nicely, and although the colours are basic they catch pike - which is what matters in my book. Like Grandmas, they troll well too.

When fishing over or along weed there is always the chance of fouling the bait up.  A stronger than normal twitch should pop the lure free in most cases, but use an upward movement of the rod to prevent burying the bait deeper in the weed.  There was one occasion when I had done this and saw that the Bang-O was trailing some pondweed.   Nothing will take the lure with that hanging off it", I thought, and made another snap to rid the lure of the weed.  As soon as the lure moved a pike came from nowhere and hit the bait, weed and all.  Always expect the unexpected!  Another interesting incident occurred recently, also when I was fishing a Bang-O.  I had lifted the bait out at the finish of a retrieve when a pike struck in the ripples under my rod top.  This has happened many times in the past, and I have mentioned it elsewhere.  This time I felt that the fish was catchable, and a short cast parallel with the bank to my left turned the fish half way back as I twitched the bait.  At the end of the next cast I let the lure float to the surface and lie there, even though I hadn't seen any sign of the pike.  The next thing I knew the Bang-O was dancing about under the water - pike attached!

The second fish of the day, before it had come fully light. Both pike took a home-painted perch pattern Maverick cranked back quickly in very shallow water.

All minnows share a most appealing trait, they are very good hookers. This is because of their universally slim profile which doesn't mask the hooks. For some reason that I cannot fathom, tradition seems to dictate that minnow baits between four and six inches are fitted with three trebles, while the seven inch lures have only two. There are a few exceptions. Admittedly the two hooks are larger in size, which is a form of compensation. Not only are the hooks not masked, but the slim body shape does appear to slip easily into the pike's mouth.

Tackle for fishing minnows is pretty much the same as for fishing spinnerbaits. There is a case for using a slightly stiffer rod as this aids in twitching the lures. Twitching baits is less tiring with baitcasting gear, so this is what to use with all but the tiniest of minnows. As most minnows are shallow runners, and you will mostly be fishing them over, rather than through, weed the only advantage that a braided line will offer is to aid hook-sets at the extreme of the cast. This can be a help as a lot of takes will come during the first three twitches of a bait, particularly when making long casts to pike-holding cover. Then again a number of takes will come right under the rod tip so have the drag set right, or be ready to hit the free spool button. When fishing drains and canals I have had pike shoot out from under my feet to hit minnow baits. A stealthy approach has ensured that they haven't drifted out to deeper water before I've made my first cast.