Background on Michigan's Commercial Bait Industry

Anyone who has bought live minnows in Michigan for fishing has supported the state's bait industry, but most people probably know little about the bait they buy or where it comes from. Michigan gets some of it bait supply from out of state. Species such as fathead and golden shiners, as well as suckers, are often produced in southern states and imported north for use as bait. Many times if you purchase bait in the summer months chances are it probably came in from a source outside of Michigan.

While some commercial bait is imported every year, a significant portion of the bait sold in Michigan is harvested right here. This is especially true during the fall and winter months. Most wiggler production comes from Michigan's Mason County and is used as bait for bluegill, yellow perch and other assorted panfish while ice fishing. The Sable River in Mason County year in and year out provides the largest amount of wigglers to Michigan's in-state bait supply.

Minnows such as emerald and spottail shiners are staples in Michigan's walleye, yellow perch and lake trout fisheries across the state. Emerald shiners are commonly referred to as "blues" while spottail shiners are "greys". Most of the shiners harvested in Michigan are collected from Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, the St. Clair River, Detroit River and Lake Erie beginning in late fall or early winter with November being the busiest harvest month of the year. Additionally, the small tributaries and cuts (non-flowing man-made navigation channels) to these larger waterbodies also produce a substantial amount of bait minnows each year.

commercial minnow harvest location map
Were in-state commercial minnow harvest takes place

Most of Michigan's in-state bait supply is provided by about a dozen large wholesale catchers, however, it is also common for inland bait shops to sometimes have a catcher's license. At certain times of the year, the inland shop will catch smaller amounts of minnows from local creeks, ditches and small streams to supplement the minnows in their shop they purchase from the large wholesalers. Usually the minnows caught by local retailers are different from the emerald and spottail shiners produced in the Great Lakes and provided by the wholesalers. Often inland harvest includes more obscure species of chub and dace that are also native to Michigan.

typical cut when collecting minnows
A classic Saginaw Bay cut where emerald shiners congregate in November

You may be wondering where bait can be sold once it is harvested. State law requires all commercial bait harvested in Michigan must be sold in Michigan. In fact…

State law prohibits minnows, wigglers, and crayfish that are harvested in Michigan from being exported and sold out of state.

This is an important regulation because it insures Michigan's commercial bait harvest exists solely to meet local in-state bait demands of the state's recreational fishery. Public support for the industry is heavily dependent on an understanding that Michigan's bait resources are harvested for the exclusive use of the state's anglers. So if you ever run across a commercial bait catcher out in the field, know for certain the minnows, wigglers or crayfish they are harvesting are going exclusively to Michigan retailers and anglers.

bucket of emerald shiners
A bucket of emerald shiners at the time of harvest