Story & Photos by Keith Sutton
The rosy red minnow is an unusual color strain of the black fathead minnow. At first glance, you might think it’s a goldfish. This little fish glows like a neon sign with a shiny, almost-fluorescent, reddish-orange hue. Some anglers call rosy reds “pink minnows.”
Rosy red minnows are fathead minnows specially raised to maintain the strain’s vivid orange coloration.
Bill Bland, a fish farmer in Taylor, Arkansas, is credited with propagating the first rosy reds. In the early 1980s, Bland began noticing a few odd orange-colored fish in with loads of black fatheads reared at his aquaculture operation. He handpicked these rosy reds, 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 rosy red minnows in marketable quantities.
Rosy reds can be fished just like other minnows: hooked behind the dorsal fin or through the lips on a light-wire hook that allows them to remain lively.
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. Rosy red 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 soon were being shipped to several states.
It wasn’t long before fishermen also heard about Bland’s new minnow. Many of these anglers were catfish anglers who knew that orange goldfish are relished by big cats. They figured the rosy red’s goldfish-like colors would also attract jumbo catfish, so they coerced Bland to sell some for bait.
Their hypothesis was right. Not only were rosy reds superb catfish bait, they frequently out produced regular minnows for catching crappie, bass, walleyes and other sportfish. Bait dealers were soon inundated with orders. The rosy reds’ hardy nature made them especially popular with ice fishermen. But other anglers, especially crappie anglers, were taking notice, too. Soon, rosy reds were available in 33 states.
Are rosy reds really better than golden shiners or other “normal” crappie minnows? Many anglers who’ve tried them say yes.
Steve Filipek is an avid crappie angler and a fisheries biologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He’s been fishing with rosy reds since they first became available.
“My crappie catch probably doubled when I started using them,” he says. “I no longer feel comfortable using regular minnows.”
Talk to those who use rosy reds, and you’ll hear dozens of similar testimonials.
“Rosy reds have always been a very desirable bait species,” says Mike Freeze, owner of Keo Fish Farms in Keo, Arkansas. Freeze’s aquaculture operation formerly produced more than 80,000 pounds of rosy reds annually. “The primary downside to rosy reds, as far as fishermen are concerned, is cost. They’re slightly more expensive, because the average production of rosy reds on fish farms is not as great as the average production of other minnows. That extra cost is passed on to consumers.
“Rosy reds are also more difficult to find, because many bait dealers won’t carry them,” Freeze says. “Bait shops need another tank to keep them in, or they have to partition their bait tanks to hold the rosy reds. Most won’t go to that expense, unless the demand for rosy reds is great.
“On the good side, rosy reds are very hardy, so they live longer than shiners in a minnow bucket or bait tank,” Freeze continues. “And fishermen say if the water’s not too muddy, they catch more fish on rosy reds than on other minnows. If water conditions are such that prey fish are relying on sight to find their food, they’ll home in on rosy reds much quicker, because they can see them at a greater distance than other minnows.”
How do you fish rosy reds? Just like you fish any minnow. Hook them behind the dorsal fin and fish them beneath a bobber around good crappie cover. Hook them through the lips for trolling or casting. Use them to tip jigs for added attraction.
You should remember, however, that rosy red minnows are more productive in some situations than in others. Because their vivid colors are a sight attraction, they won’t do much better than regular minnows in muddy or darkly stained waters. Rosy reds are at their best when used in clear or slightly colored lakes and streams. An example of this occurred on 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 beds of elodea we were fishing in seven feet of water.
Prior to fishing, we stopped at a baitshop to buy minnows. The shop owner had only about a dozen rosy reds left in his tanks, so we bought those and four dozen golden shiners.
We baited with rosy reds first. And to say we were pleased with the results would be an understatement. Each time we dropped a lively rosy red into a pocket in the weed beds, a big crappie would rush out and gobble it up. The 12 rosy reds we had produced 12 slab crappie in about half an hour.
The golden 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 the best concentrations of actively feeding crappie were in the first weed beds we fished. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Those rosy reds glowed like coals in a hot campfire eight feet beneath the surface. The shiners, on the other hand, were barely visible at that depth. There’s no doubt in my mind that crappie in the dark confines of those weed beds could better see the rosy reds, and simply couldn’t resist those tempting orange morsels. I would have traded my trolling motor that day for three dozen rosy reds.
Due to their hardiness, rosy reds also are 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 rosy reds in a minnow bucket. And when I reached my destination, only three or four had died.
Rosy reds 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. Rosy reds in this situation will remain lively for hours.
If you fish rosy reds under the proper conditions, be prepared for the increased number of crappie they’re likely to produce. Carrying a bigger cooler for your catch might be in order.
Note: Keith Sutton is the author of The Crappie Fishing Handbook, a 198-page, full-color book full of tips for catching America’s favorite panfish. To order an autographed, send a check or money order for $19.45 to C & C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, visit www.catfishsutton.com.