On a recent visit to Saul’s Minnow Farm in DeValls Bluff, I watched as workers in waders pulled long seines through the facility’s ponds to catch some rather unusual baitfish. Often called pink minnows, or rosy reds, these little fish glow with a shiny, almost-fluorescent, reddish-orange hue. Their coloration resembles that of goldfish, while regular minnows — shiners — are largely silver.
With each sweep of a seine, the men pulled in hundreds of thousands of the colorful baitfish. The minnows were then scooped up in buckets and loaded into storage tanks on a fish truck. After transfer to large concrete vats in a shed nearby, the tiny fish would be purged of food, graded by size, then loaded on trucks once again for transport to bait shops and distributors in 17 states, from New York to Louisiana.
Most of the pink minnows will be purchased by anglers who will use them as bait for a wide variety of sportfish, including crappie, bass, walleyes, perch and catfish. Saul’s raises and sells untold millions each year, and millions more are produced on the state’s 22 other baitfish farms. The economic impact of sales is in the millions of dollars.
It would be safe to say that hundreds of thousands of anglers fish with pink minnows each year. And these beautiful baitfish might not be available at all had it not been for a fish farmer named Bill Bland from Taylor in Columbia County.
In the early 1980s, Bland began noticing a few odd orange-colored fish in loads of black fathead minnows reared at his aquaculture operation. He hand-picked these fish, moved them to a special rearing pond and, using his knowledge of genetics and minnow biology, he eventually established a breeding population. Shortly after he began this endeavor, Bland was producing pink minnows in marketable quantities.
The first trading center for Bland’s mutant minnows was the pet trade’s feeder market. At the time, guppies were the food of choice for predatory aquarium fish. Guppies had one big drawback, though. They’re fragile. Many die during or shortly after shipment to tropical fish dealers.
Pink minnows, on the other hand, are very hardy fish, better able to withstand the rigors of transport. They’re also much more colorful than guppies, making them more desirable to home aquarium enthusiasts who prefer brightly hued fish. They were ideal for the feeder market and were soon being shipped to several states.
It wasn’t long before fishermen also heard about Bland’s new minnows. Many of these anglers were catfishing enthusiasts who knew that orange goldfish are relished by big whiskerfish. They figured the pink minnows’ goldfish-like colors would also attract jumbo catfish, so they coerced Bland to sell some for bait.
Their supposition was right. Not only were these “rosy reds” superb catfish bait; anglers found the bait made great enticements for all sorts of sportfish.
As more and more anglers heard about pink minnows, bait dealers were flooded with orders. Ice fishermen were especially fond of the fish because they are very hardy in cold water. But other folks, especially crappie anglers, were taking notice, too. Soon, the vivid baitfish were available in 33 states. They remain extremely popular throughout much of the United States today.
Pink minnows tend to cost considerably more than the shiners or regular fathead minnows that comprise most baitfish sales. Bait shops need another tank to keep them in, or they have to partition their bait tanks to hold pinkies alongside regular minnows. Pink-minnow production is not as great as the average production of other minnows, either. The extra costs associated with producing and selling pink minnows are passed on to consumers.
On the plus side, pink minnows are extremely tough, living longer than shiners in a minnow bucket or bait tank. And fishermen have said that if the water’s not too muddy, they catch more fish on pink minnows than other types because the predatory fish being targeted can see the pink bait better. That makes the expense worthwhile.
Is there a special way you must fish when using pink minnows? Not really. Just hook one behind the dorsal fin, and fish it beneath a bobber around good fish cover, or hook the baitfish through the lips for trolling or casting. You can also use pink minnows to tip jigs and other lures for added attraction.
When fishing with pink minnows, however, remember they are more productive in some situations than in others. Because their vibrant colors are a sight attraction, they won’t work much better than regular minnows in muddy or darkly stained waters. Pink minnows are at their best when used in clear or slightly colored lakes and streams.
An example of this occurred on a trip I made to Lake Ouachita, one of Arkansas’ clearest impoundments. Visibility on the day I fished was about 8 to 10 feet. We could clearly see the weed beds we were fishing in 7 feet of water.
Prior to fishing, we stopped at a bait shop to buy minnows. The shop owner had only a dozen pink minnows left in his tanks, so we bought those and four dozen shiners.
We baited with pink minnows first, and to say we were pleased with the results would be an understatement. Each time we dropped a lively pinkie into the weeds, a big crappie would gobble it up. The 12 rosy reds we had produced 12 slab crappie in half an hour.
The shiners we fished with for the next four hours produced no such reaction. Strikes were slow in coming, and when we finished our day, a couple dozen shiners were still in the minnow bucket.
Some might say we simply hit it lucky when starting that trip, that most actively feeding crappie were in the first weed beds we fished. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Those pink minnows glowed like coals in a campfire 8 feet down. The shiners, on the other hand, were barely visible at that depth. I believe crappie in the weed beds could better see the pink minnows and couldn’t resist eating them.
As a result of their hardiness, pink minnows are also preferable when you need to transport minnows to remote fishing spots where bait shops aren’t available. I’ve driven 150 miles in summer with four dozen pinkies in a minnow bucket, and when I reached my destination, only three or four had died.
Pink minnows also outshine shiners when fishing where water conditions are poor. Some small lakes, for instance, get rather stagnant during hot weather. Dissolved oxygen levels are low, and a regular shiner won’t live 10 minutes on a hook. Pink minnows in this situation will remain lively for hours.
The bottom line is this: If you use pink minnows for bait under the proper conditions, you should be prepared to catch greater numbers of crappie, bass, catfish, walleyes and other sportfish. Carrying a bigger cooler for your catch is highly recommended.