The fathead minnow is a small, olive-colored baitfish that has been used for a century or more as bait for small predator fish such as crappie. They are often called “tuffies” or “tuffie minnows” and are available at live bait stores throughout most of the United States. They are native to central North America and were originally found from Canada to Mexico. Through many decades of use as live bait, they are now found throughout most of the United States.
Fathead minnows are not only good live bait, but are also beneficial in providing forage (food) in newly stocked bass-bluegill ponds. These minnows begin spawning during the early spring, often several months before the bluegill spawn and provide a valuable food source for small bass fingerlings. Fatheads can actually increase the growth rate of bass during their first year of life.
Spawning: Mature fathead adults seldom exceed three inches in length and usually live for only 12 to 15 months. Mature males are usually larger than the females and can be distinguished from the females during the breeding season by a series of breeding tubercles on the nose or forehead. Older males are often darker than the females. The males may also possess a hard pad on the top of their head, used in the preparation of the nest or spawning site. The males are also responsible for guarding the nest. Mature females may spawn weekly, depositing 200 to 500 eggs per spawn. Some females may lay up to 4,000 eggs per season.
Spawning typically begins when water temperatures reach 60 to 65 F and may continue until the temps exceed 85 F. This will include the spring and most of the summers, with the exception of the very hottest part of July and August, and then into the early fall. Fry can mature and spawn within 4 to 8 weeks of hatching.
Nesting Substrate: Although fatheads may make a small teacup size nest on the pond bottom, they prefer to deposit their eggs on the underneath surface of rocks, plants or logs. They prefer to spawn upside down! In new ponds, pallets, boards, plastic drums or tires may offer additional spawning substrate. However, in many of the production ponds at American Sport Fish Hatchery, we often use waxed cardboard boxes that are disassembled and placed on the surface of the pond. These boxes will float for a long time, but will gradually biodegrade and disappear from the pond. Waxed boxes can be found at many grocery stores, as they are used to pack and ship frozen meats. Production of fathead minnows can be greatly increased by adding this type of spawning substrate to most new ponds, but especially those ponds that have very little spawning substrate.
Value: Fatheads are slow swimmers and provide ideal food for young bass. Fatheads spawn early and often, creating an immediate source of food for fingerling bass. Bass fingerlings are very predacious and will exhibit accelerated growth if an adequate source of small live fish is available. Bass fingerlings that are stocked during a time when there is no reproduction of bluegill or minnows will have to compete with bluegill for zooplankton and small insects, and their growth rate will be diminished. Fathead fry swim slowly enough for mature bluegill to feed on them and this may also increase bluegill growth rates. Eventually the young bass fingerlings grow large enough to eat the adult fatheads and most fatheads disappear from the population during the late fall. Bass predation and the short life of the fathead adult contribute to their brief role in the population.
Stocking Rates: Fatheads may be stocked at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 or more per acre. If fatheads are stocked during the fall or winter, smaller minnows can be used, as they will grow and obtain sexual maturity prior to spawning season. If stocked during the spring, adults should be used to insure an early spawn. Some biologists recommend stocking approximately 10 pounds of minnows per acre, which is the equivalent of 2,000 adult minnows per acre.
Established bass-bluegill ponds: American Sport Fish does not usually recommend stocking fathead minnows into ponds that have an established bass population. The bass normally eat the minnows before they have time to spawn and contribute to the food base. Unlike threadfin shad that occupy open water, the fathead prefers to occupy similar habitats as the bass, making them very vulnerable to predation. It usually takes 8 pounds of minnows to convert to a pound of bass. If you do the math, that is very expensive fish food.
Minnows are relatively inexpensive and are well worth the initial investment to increase the growth rate and survival of the fingerling bass. If you want to jumpstart the bass’s growth in a new pond, consider stocking fathead minnows. You will get a great return for your investment!