Minnows for Fishing in Illinois

by Zach Lazzari

Minnow are a common food source for bass, catfish, pike, walleye, muskie and other Illinois game fish. Numerous different minnow varieties are present in Illinois waters, and all are less than 67 inches long and have silver sides. Minnows are fished as live bait, dead bait and artificial bait in the form of soft plastic lures and jigs.


All of the general minnow varieties in Illinois are available to game fish and important for fishing. Minnows can be imitated by general silver-sided lures; imitating the specific baitfish is typically not necessary. The gizzard shad and buffalo minnow are two of the more common varieties. Minnows travel in small schools and gather in large schools during the spring spawn. Shad and buffalo minnows are a common food source for game fish and are used as live bait or imitated with lures.


Juvenile game fish are categorized as minnows but are actually juvenile fish capable of reaching large sizes. Juvenile bass, crappie, bluegill and trout are less than two inches long after hatching from the eggs. The fish gather in schools in calm water areas and feed on microorganisms and insects. Although the fingerling will eventually reach maturity, the initial year of life is a vulnerable and defenseless period of time. Juvenile minnows are preyed upon by their own species as well as other game fish. Illinois anglers imitate the small fingerling by fishing thin gummy minnows and marabou jigs in the backwater rearing areas.

Live and Dead Bait

Minnows in Illinois are used for fishing in the live and dead form. The minnows are captured with dip nets and small throw nets. The captured minnows are either frozen for later use or stored in a livewell to preserve life. Shad are a common minnow choice for bait fishing because they skim the surface in search of food. The surface location makes the shad vulnerable to dip nets and cast nets.

Artificial Imitations

Artificial minnow imitations are constructed in numerous different styles. Soft plastic molds wiggle like a real minnow and imitate the exact shape of a minnow. Jigs with marabou and bucktail are also common for imitating small minnows. The jigs swim in a bouncing pattern that is effective for imitating a wounded and dying minnow. Spoons and spinners are constructed of metal, but the darting and wobbling motion, combined with the silver-and-gold flash, imitates a natural minnow darting through the water. All of the latter are common for minnow fishing in Illinois rivers and lakes.

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