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!
in the saltwater marsh, it is fly action close to home. Are you in those summer fly-fishing doldrums without the time or extra cash to travel to the coast and hookup on some saltwater action? I’ll bet there is some real hot action close to home that will put a sure ‘nuff bend in your 6 wt. and make you glad you spooled some backing on that fly reel.
Grass carp or white amur, as they are correctly called, often grow to big strong fish that can be caught on a variety of baits and tackle. On spinning or casting tackle they will often inhale a cricket, a blade of grass, a dough ball or even a piece of dry dog food. But if you want some real sporting action, hook one of these 20-pound class bruisers on a 6- wt. fly rod.
The old fish can usually be found around the welfare food line, patiently waiting their daily handout from the automatic fish feeder. As these fish age and grow to15 pounds or more, they become less efficient in consuming vegetation and often present a nuisance at the feeder, making such a commotion that they discourage bluegill from feeding. If you have ever witnessed this scene, you will often see these big grass carp with their mouth open at the water’s surface, literally vacuuming dozens of floating fish pellets from the pond.
We receive complaints from pond owners each year asking how to remove these big amurs or at least discourage their presence at the fish feeder. If you are a bow-fisherman, these fish present great targets. If your location permits, simply shooting a .22 rifle or a shotgun in their proximity while they are feeding will discourage their presence at the feeder for several weeks.
Those of us who are fly-fishers view this scenario as an opportunity. There are several “flies” that will fool a big grass carp, but none seems to work better than one that truly matches the hatch. Since these are feeding on a floating fish pellet, why not make a pellet fly? For those of you who tie flies, like my fly-fishing buddy Russell Thornberry, spun deer hair on a # 10 hook works great. If you are not a fly tier, purchase a bottle of your favorite wine. OK, maybe just a bottle that is not a twist-off, but has a real cork stopper. Carve a piece of cork that roughly matches the size of the fish pellet, sanding it to final shape. Then with a red-hot needle, burn a hole through the cork. Push the eye end of a light gauge #10 hook through the cork ball and glue it close to the eye. Better make a couple of flies, and then you are ready for some fun fly-fishing action.
Thornberry prefers to use a limber 5- or 6-wt, rather than an 8- or 9-wt that you might normally use to catch a 10- to 20-pound fish. Don’t forget you are using a small wire hook that a big amur will straighten in a heartbeat. A light drag and plenty of bend in the rod will help you land one of these big bruisers. These fish are not leader shy, so experienced anglers like Thormberry, prefer a 10- to 12-pound tippet.
The technique for fishing at the feeder is simple. Throw a handful or so of feed, just enough to entice some amur feeding action in front of the feeder. If you set off the feeder, there will usually be too much feed to concentrate the amur. Wait until you see those unmistakable fish lips sucking the pellets off the surface like a vacuum cleaner, then gently place the pellet fly in front of the amur. Do not move the fly! When the fish has sucked in your fly and the line begins to move, gently raise the rod to set the hook and hang on for a wild ride! Can you say backing?
Sometimes these huge grass carp will become airborne, but most of the time they will fight like a redfish in the marsh, making some moderate to long runs, enough to get you on the backing. They will sometimes show their strength for up to 20 minutes, before they finally roll on their side.
Maybe it is not the same as sight-fishing a red with a fly, but it is great fun and for most of us, some great action close to home. What a great way to remove some of these big grass carp from your pond or your neighbors. Get out there and have some fun!
The Department of Fisheries at Auburn University is conducting a research program to improve fishing in small ponds and lakes in the southeastern United States. This research is in cooperation and support from the private sector including American Sport Fish and primarily focuses on improving the size of bass caught by anglers. A problem facing pond owners who want quality fishing is overabundant bass populations. Bass tend to over reproduce in smaller water bodies and removal of fish by angling is typically not sufficient to reduce the number of fish. This causes fish growth to be reduced and results in overcrowded and small stunted bass that typically are not very large. The goal of the program is to explore and demonstrate alternative methods to produce larger bass for pond owners.
In our first project, we increased the typically stocking in a new pond from 1,000 bluegill per acre to 1,500 bluegill per acre and stocked 100 bass per acre. In the past, 100 bass per acre was the recommended stocking rate. Even though these bass were only about 2 inches long when stocked in June, 40 to 60% of these fish survived the first year. We also estimated that these bass ate about 130 to 170 lbs per acre of bluegill, which is a tremendous amount of bluegill. Even in a good well managed pond, bluegills can obtained a biomass of about 300 lbs per acre, but many of these bluegills are greater than 6 inches and can’t be consumed by bass. Even with harvest of small bass less than 14 inches (15-20 lb per acre removed), these ponds became bass crowded and out striped the bluegills that served as food. In fact, after 3 years, it was hard to find a bluegill less than 5 inches in these ponds. From this research, we determined that the old 10 bluegill to 1 bass stocking ratio should be increased to about 35 bluegill to 1 bass. Thus, a new pond owner who wants larger bass should stocked for example, 2,500 bluegill and 75 young bass per acre
Four years after establishing our pond populations of bass and bluegill, we stocked threadfin shad as an alternative prey fish for the bass. About 1 year later, the threadfin shad population exploded, our bass got fat, and growth rates and size of big bass increased. After 6 years, we had a number of bass that weighed 8 to 9 lbs. We also noticed our bass keep feeding during the cold winter months and bass fishing was good even though the water was cold.
Because young bass consume so many small bluegills, we also recommend to pond owners to remove as many bass less than 10 inches as possible. This means down sizing tackle, but if you wait till the bass get to 12-14 inches and these bass are real abundant, the damage to your prey fish forage base has already be done.
In attempt to completely eliminate bass reproduction, we have also examined stocking all female bass into new ponds. I currently recommend stocking about 20 female bass that are about 10-12 inches long into new ponds that have a protected water shed where male bass can’t get into the system. Prior to stocking all female bass, these ponds were stocked heavily with bluegill and golden shiners. After 3 years, we had bass up to 5 to 6 lbs and these fish were really fat. Right now, the only way to produce all females is to inspect each fish in spring to determine if eggs are present in these 1 year old fish. If one male fish gets into the pond, reproduction will likely occur.
Finally, I did some work in one pond with stocking adult tilapia. The idea is to stock adult tilapia (around 1 lb) in spring, these fish reproduce, and as the water cools in fall, the young tilapia become easy prey for bass. As expected in the fall, bass over 15 inches really improved their body condition and got fat. We noticed in the fall, young tilapia grew quickly, and most were 5 inches or longer. Tilapia are a wide bodied prey fish like bluegill and bass can only eat these fish up to 1/3 their length. Thus, the largest Tilapia a 15-inch bass can eat is 5 inches long. So if your pond is really stunted with most bass 15 inches or less, threadfin shad or golden shiners will be a better forage. For populations that have lots of big bass, tilapia would be good alternative. However, in most areas where water temperatures get as low as 45 to 47o F, all tilapia will die and these would need to be restocked the following spring.
Mike Maceina is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and has been at Auburn University for nearly 19 years. Most of his research focuses on understanding and management of sport fish including bass, crappie, white bass, striped bass and catfish.