CLITHERALL, Minn. – Pick a day, any day. The legion of anglers who fish in Minnesota want more minnows than the state's live bait trappers can provide.

"I've got orders for 75 gallons today and I've only got 25 gallons to give," Marshall Koep said as he prepared to launch his minnow-trapping boat onto a pond where pelicans were gathered amid the rolling hills of Otter Tail County.

Koep, largely considered the state's leading provider of fatheads and sucker minnows, is all too familiar with the widespread shortage of minnows inside the nation's third most popular fishing destination. It's not that overall demand here has grown over the years. It's that today's trappers face a shrinking universe of wild lakes, ponds, rivers and streams suitable and accessible for state-approved harvesting.

“Angler success is everything and live bait is so important for getting fish to bite.”
Jon Thelen, TV host and fishing guide

Live bait dealers elsewhere in the Upper Midwest could instantly solve the problem by exporting their surplus, but Minnesota and Maine are the only two states that still prohibit minnow importation. It's a growing bone of contention between the multibillion-dollar fishing industry and state fisheries biologists who view the lockout as a necessary barrier against unintended importation of harmful fish diseases and new loads of aquatic invasive species.

As the situation unfolds, there's some exploration happening on the fringes of the industry into possible fish farming of minnows. Whether large-scale aquaculture is economically viable is uncertain.

For now, at least, Koep and others who fetch minnows for a living have been encouraged by problem-solving meetings they have had with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons acknowledges the live bait industry is troubled and needs help. To ease the shortage this year, the DNR took the unprecedented step of lengthening the short trapping season for spottail shiners during the first several weeks of the walleye and northern pike season. Koep said the additional harvest of spottails relieved pressure on inventories of fatheads, the state's dominant year-round minnow species.

"Every single angler in Minnesota is missing how important this is," said Jon Thelen, host of Destination Fish Television and a longtime fishing professional who has worked for tackle manufacturers and as a guide. "This isn't some weird, tough-luck deal that's lasting a year or two. … This could be the beginning of a large falloff."

The long-term concerns being voiced behind bait counters from Bemidji to Lake Minnetonka are twofold. Will there be enough minnows to sustain fishing success by the hoards of Minnesotans who only wet a line three or four times a year? If not, the theory goes, they'll find other things to do.

Secondly, the craft of minnow trapping is a demanding way of life with few heirs apparent. According to the DNR, the number of licensed minnow dealers has declined by more than a third from 384 in 2001 to 233 in 2022. Live bait harvest in Minnesota, including leeches, declined at least 25% from 2017 through 2021.

"Every year our harvest declines," Koep has said. "Twenty years ago, we were trapping 20,000 gallons [of minnows]. Now it's 10,000."

The industry depends on a secretive milieu of mom-and-pop operators who tap public backwaters around the state that they hope won't be discovered by other trappers. They also pay rent, sometimes in the form of fresh walleye deliveries, to landowners who grant them exclusive access to natural ponds. They sell their catches to individual bait shops, resorts or wholesalers.

"It's a tough business, fighting the battle every year," said Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, a professional fishing guide and member of MN-FISH, the sportfishing foundation that has helped draw attention to the minnow quandary. "We've got to get younger age groups involved in harvesting."

Here and now

At Wayzata Bait & Tackle, big sucker minnows are a "backbone" commodity for catching muskie, northern pike and catfish. Owners Tim and Bob Sonenstahl sell them for $12 a dozen. But for the first time in 48 years, the big minnows are beyond scarce. This past week, Tim said, the shop's sucker tank sat empty.

"We've got fatheads and crappie minnows, but that's been hit and miss too," he said. "No one is sitting on any bait right now."

Other prime bait stores around the state are taking what they can get. Koep, a key supplier to fishing hotspots in areas around Fergus Falls, Brainerd, Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Duluth and International Falls, said he's being approached this summer by resort owners and other small outlets who simply can't find minnows.

"I've had to tell them, 'No,' " he said. "I don't have enough for my own customers."

The demand-supply imbalance has given Koep an opportunity to raise prices. Yet, he's standing pat.

"We need to keep fishing affordable," said Koep, whose Urbank Live Bait Co. in Clitherall employs seven full-time trappers who work six days a week, year-round. "You don't want to kill peoples' interest."

Declining participation is the big-picture fear among industry leaders like Neustrom and Thelen. They believe, like other fishing professionals, that minnows are the nucleus to fishing's popularity, often starting with casual outings with a parent or grandparent.

"Angler success is everything and live bait is so important for getting fish to bite," Thelen said.

Even makers of artificial fishing baits depend on minnows to keep and grow interest in the activity, Thelen said. Only if people are successful will they grow their fishing repertoire, he said.

Said Neustrom: "Without live bait, you'll lose some anglers forever. I hate to be so dramatic about it, but that's the truth."

Labs take a look

At a one-day meeting in Brainerd three months ago, high-ranking DNR managers heard firsthand from live bait dealers why the minnow harvest has fallen apart. Long term, they said, there is a growing scarcity of harvestable water.

Invasive aquatic species have effectively put many waters off limits; ponds have dried up from drainage systems installed on farms; previously undeveloped shorelines are being purchased by people who ruin minnow habitats; recurring floods allow predatory fish to swim into once-isolated minnow waters; and governments continue to put wetlands and other waterways into conservation projects that become inaccessible for minnow trapping.

What's more, two consecutive drought years have lowered water levels in minnow ponds, leading to freeze-outs during winter. Those deep freezes have been spotty in past drought years but were widespread in 2023 and worsened by oxygen-depleting heavy snows, said minnow trapper Chad Walhowe, owner of Albion Acres Bait of Annandale. When spring arrived this year, trappers across the state were greeted by gobs of winter-killed minnows, he said

"Hopefully the minnows come back and thrive. We've seen it before," Walhowe said. "For now, supplies are definitely short."

States like Arkansas have mastered the science and economics of minnow farming, with private businesses hatching billions of minnows and growing them to market length in outdoor ponds. Koep and others say Minnesota winters are too long for aquaculture to succeed on a large scale, but that hasn't stopped folks from trying.

Don Schreiner is a fisheries biologist and educator connected with the University of Minnesota Sea Grant program. A Sea Grant demonstration project is investigating ways to farm golden shiners for the bait industry. The operators have figured out how to boost reproduction of the minnows, Schreiner said, but they haven't yet looked closely at the economics of growing them to market size indoors or outdoors.

He agrees with today's minnow trappers that there are too few harvestable wild waters to go around. But he sides with the DNR on keeping the state's doors closed to out-of-state minnows.

"Once you open the door in regulatory things," Schreiner said, "that door seems to swing wider over time."

Meanwhile, he's received an increase in calls about minnow farming. Often, he said, the calls are from young people who would like to make a living in the world of fish and wildlife. It's made him cautiously optimistic that someone will figure out a way to augment the state's traditional harvest of minnows from the wild.