Minnow Bait Magic

By Joe Bucher

My first exposure to the minnow bait was back in the early 1960’s. I remember staring at my first minnow bait, a Rapala, for weeks in my grandfather’s general grocery store. He had a small fishing tackle department in this store, and I use to gawk at various lures on display all the time when I was a child. I wanted that Rapala so bad, but I had no money to buy it. I finally convinced my grandpa to trade it for a day of work. I still can’t believe how many chores he found for me. I ended up putting in an entire eight hour work day for that one single lure. Rapalas were rare and expensive in those days, and I wasn’t complaining. 

Looking back, I had worked so hard to get that lure, I was bound and determined to catch fish on it no matter what. However, catching fish on this lure turned out to be easy

Later on, I began to discover the many successful ways to cast and work this bait. I not only caught ’em rowing, I also caught fish on this lure crankin’ it, twitchin’ it, ripping it, and doing nothing with it. In fact, fishing it as a surface bait – doing nothing with it – turned out to be one of the deadliest tactics of all. While I had already had lots of success with some of the older, more traditional topwater baits, I found the Rapala, and similar minnow baits, to catch ’em when traditional surface lures wouldn’t. The soft landing and subtle natural action of the minnow bait fooled finicky clear water bass like no other topwater plug I’d ever seen before. Of course, this is no secret any longer, but it sure was back then.

Minnow baits can be fished in a variety of ways – all might I add – successfully. Actually it’s almost impossible to fish a minnow bait incorrectly. Almost any kind of retrieve, including no retrieve at all, catches fish on minnow baits. Let’s take a look at some of the more effective ways to fish this lure and cite where specific tactics might be applied most productively. Keep in mind, as we dig into the nitty gritty of this bait, that versatility is its trademark. You simply can’t fish the bait wrong, but if you utilize some easy-to-manipulate tricks, this bait can become even more deadly in certain situations.


One of the first retrieves I learned when I first started fishing this wonderful bait was to simply cast it out and cranked it in. I caught literally hundreds of bass this way, even though there was absolutely nothing fancy about this technique. Of course, this was always most productive for shallow water bass in the spring time scattered over weed flats during the prespawn period. Not so surprisingly, this tactic is still as deadly today, but is not used as often for bass. It is, however, still a mainstay walleye technique.

Matched with a spinning outfit or a light baitcaster and 6 to 10 pound line, long casts over shallow weed flats are possible. To successfully implement this basic straight retrieve tactic, point the rod tip low and a tad off to the side, and simply begin a slow steady crank with an occasional twitch. Anytime the minnow bait encounters any kind of cover such as weeds, wood or whatever, follow up with a sharp jerking action. The jerking and twitching action cleans any debris from the lure and helps to trigger strikes.

Today’s bass angler or musky hunter is apt to jerk the lure more throughout the retrieve, but the straight retrieve still does work extremely well in many instances. Sometimes anglers have the mistaken impression that fish want more action in a lure, but this is not always the case. A relatively straight retrieve still catches plenty of fish in the early prespawn. Walleyes are especially vulnerable to the straight retrieve when the water is a bit cooler. The larger minnow bait, by the way, in that 4 inch range is preferred here since it casts farther with relative ease; far better than 2 to 3 inch models overall.


Somewhere along the way a number of anglers, myself included, found out that a high number of strikes occurred on these original minnow baits when they were jerked to clean weeds off them. The eventual result was musky fishermen call “twitchin'” and what bassers refer to as “jerkbait fishing”. No matter what you call it, working these lures with a constant jerk, twitch, yank and pause action simply drives fish wild. This tactic is especially deadly on cover-tight gamefish that aren’t in the mood to chase things down.

Quite often bass, pike, walleyes, or muskies, are hugging tight to some kind of cover and are extremely reluctant to leave their sanctuary. Some might classify this kind of gamefish as more “neutral” in mood. They definitely would not be termed “active”. Most often this occurs during typical mid-day conditions during any average summer day. It also occurs quite regularly after the passage of a cold front in the spring and fall.

I’ve used this tricky technique successfully on so many different species of gamefish that I could write a book on these experiences alone. Jerkin’ and twitchin’ minnow baits for cover-tight gamefish has been one of my most relied upon tactics for nearly two decades. While this method has gotten a lot of press lately as a bass tactic, it has been a mainstay pike/musky method for much longer. Many noted musky guides across Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario have utilized this tactic for years as their main-gun for any reluctant fish. Musky anglers are as much a part of popularizing and refining this technique as are the bass fishermen.

Jerkin’ minnow baits is one of the hottest trends in tournament bass fishing and is particularly good in the spring. In many instances, the tournament baser has gone completely away from a floating minnow bait in order to obtain additional depth, and get more “hang time” near cover. Innovative pros have added stick-on lead tape to the bottom side of their minnow baits in order to create a slow rising, or even a neutrally buoyant model. Manufacturers have taken the bait so to speak marketing internally weighted models that feature a neutrally buoyant behavior. These newer “suspender” model minnow baits are now mainstays in most bass tournament angler’s tackle boxes.

Suspender jerkbaits have no real advantage in thick shallow weed cover, but they’re definitely superior over deep cover of any kind. In this instance, the original floaters ride too high overtop the cover, and rise up out of the strike zone too quickly. Suspenders can be driven down close to cover and then nervously twitched in place. The lack of buoyancy helps keep the lure right there — inches from the strike zone. Sometimes letting it sink a bit further after each jerk, closer and closer to the cover holding the fish, works even better. This is best accomplished with a suspender minnow bait and that slack line pause along with sharp, short jerks that I spoke of earlier.

Keeping a tight line on this lure at all times is not always desired since it reduces the side flash and pulls the bait forward too much. The tight line method works well for hot fish on shallow flats, but not well at all for cover-tight critters. Remember that the longer you can keep this bait in the strike zone on tough days, the more apt you are to trigger a strike. Sometimes repeated casts to the same spot are necessary in order to draw a reluctant fish out of the confines of cover. Persistence and good technique will make a major difference here. The longer the bait hangs in place near cover, the better your chances of triggering a strike.

Incidentally, never underestimate this suspender jerkbait tactic for walleyes either. While a straight retrieved minnow bait will no doubt take plenty of fish when their active in low light, jerkin’ a suspender is the way to trigger cover tight walleyes during mid day conditions. I’ve had great success on walleyes with suspenders and the jerkin’ tactic in deep weed clumps, over top man-made fish cribs, and along shorelines that have a lot of downed wood. In fact, I really get a kick out of twitchin’ minnow baits next to shoreline wood for walleyes in both the spring and fall. The whole key here is fishing wood that has a good shadeline, and to jerk the bait close to cover as long as you can. Sometimes you have to jerk that lure a half a dozen times in one spot in order to aggravate a walleye enough for it to roar out and nab it. But that’s half the fun!

Larger walleyes are particularly prone to musky sized minnow baits, jerked over deep grass and milfoil, in the mid to late summer period. While you can consistently take these same fish on a jig, they’ll also take a musky sized minnow bait with surprising regularity. This is kind of a nice way to bag bonus big walleyes while you’re searching for big pike and muskies in the same locales. They all seem to like the same habitat in late August. Find some deep milfoil or grass on a large flat that gets wind, fish each and every clump with a minnow bait jerked nervously in place, and you’re going to be setting the hook on some kind of big fish.

I first discovered this technique back in the early 1960’s while still in high school. I’m not sure how, when, or why I began leaving the minnow bait rest on the surface before initiating a retrieve, but I do know that this tactic alone accounted for many of my biggest bass catches early in my angling career. There was a period of time when I was winning just about every weekly big bass contest at the local tackleshop with this one single system. It became so deadly for me that I refused to talk about it with anyone. I’d hide the lure I was using whenever my boat was at a dock, and I never discussed this tactic with anyone. Nowadays, it’s not such a big deal. However, I still rely on this tactic as much today as I did back in the 1960’s.

This natural soft splash entry of a minnow bait when it hits the water after a cast usually attracts a bass to the lure right off the bat. Quite often no other action is needed in order to trigger a strike. As the lure lies motionless on the surface, its soft ripples waver towards surrounding cover alerting any interested predator. Watch closely and you’ll often see a wake approaching the lure. The key here is to remain still. Resist any temptation to move the lure at all. Just hold on and be ready to set the hook. Most bass will prefer the dead-still lure over any movement.

If, however, the strike does not occur, the next move is also critical. Instead of any aggressive jerk at this point, the best move is usually nothing more than a slight nudge on the lure. I’m talkin’ about barely pulling the line taut; just enough to make the lure nod a small ripple. If there’s any self-respecting bass lying in wait below, that slight nod is all that’ll be needed to draw the strike. These fish are tricked best by the slightest movement. Any more than this may actually be detrimental.

This technique is particularly good when the lure is cast into small pockets inside emergent weed slop. The entire productive part of the retrieve is centered around the lure remaining relatively stationary inside the open water pocket. As soon as the lure moves toward the edge of the weed mass, its effectiveness dwindles. If a bass is in that pocket area, your best chance to trigger it is with a stationary retrieve. Leave it there as long as you can stand it.

Anytime you’re fishing this style of topwater bait on a surface with some wave action or a lack of emergent cover, a pull down and rise to the surface retrieve generally works better. I’ll usually finish off any initial work with a topwater minnow bait by pulling it under and then pausing for it to return to the surface. Fish that wouldn’t take it off the top, may trigger as soon as the lure draws under. Wave action usually encourages this kind of response. It’s important to experiment with a variety of retrieves on these fish in order to feel them out and see what they prefer.

I can still remember it as if it happened yesterday, yet it was over 25 years ago – just after ice out. I was fishing a marshy backwater area just off the mouth of a small incoming river on my boyhood lake, Phantom. The water temperature was a full ten degrees warmer here than in the rest of the lake, and it seemed like every big northern pike in this system was up in this marshy backwater slough. It was late afternoon, and I’d just gotten out home from high school. One spinning rod, 8 pound test Stren, and a 4 inch 13S floating minnow bait were all I needed to have a ball.

The water was so shallow around some of these backwater sloughs that few lures would travel freely without scraping bottom or getting hung on various marsh weeds and bogs. I tried some spinnerbaits, but they appeared to be too noisy on the splash and simply too much lure for these early season pike. Weedless spoons were also tried, but I had absolutely no action on them. Then I reverted back to my old favorite Rapala, even though I thought it was way too early to topwater fish it in these early season sloughs. But I tried it anyway.

I pitched the long floater towards a slough that I’d spooked a big pike from earlier and let it sit a few seconds. Nothing happened, so I pulled the rod forward driving the lure down. Then I stopped allowing the bait to float toward the surface again, but it never made it back up. A huge swirl encircled the area around my lure and I instinctively set the hook into a 37 incher. Inside the next few hours I took a bunch of big pike with this tactic and two of the biggest largemouths I’d ever seen in Phantom up to that point; both exceeding six pounds.

All of these fish fell for the pull & rise technique. That day still remains so etched in my mind because it was another one of those pivotal learning experiences in my fishing career. I not only found out where some really big fish hung out early in the season, but also how to take ’em when they’re spooky in clear shallow water. Since that day, I’ve honed this technique to a fine art for big bass. It continues to produce for me today including on big muskies.

One of the key reasons the pull & rise technique is so deadly revolves around the subtle nature of the minnow bait itself. The thin body profile of any typical minnow bait makes it land softly on the cast. This eliminates a large amount of the spooking factor right out of the blocks. Then the lure itself has a subtle underwater wobble and flash. The bait does not boldly advertise its presence. It’s subtle all the way. This tactic also requires light line which further promotes the natural subtle approach. While you can perform the same function with larger minnow baits and heavier gauge lines for muskies, big bass and many saltwater species, it’s most effective with spinning gear, light line, and balsa minnows.


Finally, the pull & rise technique takes full advantage of a variety of triggering mechanisms. You’ve got topwater, a pull down for reflex strikes, an underwater pause for any deeper reluctant fish, and a dying rise as a final convincer. Add these all together and you’re bound to trick a bunch of big fish consistently whenever they’re in shallow clear water. Especially when they seem reluctant to take a bait off the top, or chase it down on a straight retrieve. The pull & rise trick compliments both of these systems, modifying it to fit the situation at hand. 

All in all, the minnow bait is one heck of a versatile lure. This bait can be fished on top as a motionless surface bait as well as attached to a downrigger and trolled in depths of 100 feet or more. When you think of it, there probably isn’t another lure that is this versatile. That’s why minnow baits have been such great fish catchers for so many years, and for so many fish species. They catch fish shallow and deep, no matter what the season. Minnow baits should be an integral part of every good angler’s arsenal. I would never leave the dock without one.

Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at JoeBucher.Com 

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