Cold weather is the hot time for Great Lakes minnow harvesters

A perch is removed from a dip net full of minnows taken from a cut off Saginaw Bay.

Dec. 22, 2015

Falling water temperatures can mean a lot of things to those who enjoy the outdoors.

Cold water increases interest in steelhead fishing, for instance, and decreases the focus on bass fishing. However, to Jeff Slancik of Bay County, cold water means just one thing: It’s time to catch minnows.

Slancik, 49, of Pinconning is a bait dealer whose business heats up when the weather cools down.

In cold weather, the baitfish head inshore from the Great Lakes and that’s when Slancik can catch them in large volume and keep them alive in ponds for the winter.

The hand of a DNR worker is shown scooping up silvery emerald shiner minnows from a bucket shortly after they were harvested.“You have to wait until the water temperature comes down,” Slancik said. “I’d say in a typical year we start around Nov. 1 and you’re lucky to see past Dec. 1. We lost the first week of November this year because it was too warm. Once that water gets down to 40 degrees, you can catch minnows. The colder it is, the longer we can keep the minnows.”

Slancik has operated Jeff’s Bait Co. in Pinconning for 25 years. He’s one of a number of Michigan commercial bait wholesalers who catch minnows and sell them to distributors, who then get them to the bait shops anglers depend upon.

Minnow harvesters are licensed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Tom Goniea, the DNR fisheries biologist who oversees the program from Lansing, said there are about 80 licensed minnow catchers in Michigan, but only a handful of large operators like Slancik.

“Most of the catchers’ licenses belong to guys who own retail shops and may catch minnows every now and then to sell to their customers,” Goniea said. “Ninety percent of the state’s bait harvest is coming out of Saginaw Bay, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. It’s mostly emerald and spottail shiners. Your fatheads, golden shiners and suckers are largely imported.”

Minnow harvesters are restricted to the types and size of gear they can use.

“On the Great Lakes, they can use a 125-foot seine,” Goniea said. “Inland waters have different regulations that vary by water type. In Michigan, most waters are open to minnow harvest unless they are specifically closed.”

For Slancik, a recent day began on a cut (a nonflowing man-made channel connected to a larger body of water which aids in getting boats access to open water) along Saginaw Bay not far from home.

Two of Slancik’s employees manned the ends of a seine stretched across the cut, one on the bank, the other in a float tube along the edge of the deeper side of the cut.

Slowly, they pulled the seine toward the inside end of the cut, where Slancik directed them.Three minnow fishermen are shown in the water with a net pulled across a channel, with one of the men preparing to net minnows.

When they reached a point a couple yards off the back end of the cut, Slancik sprang into action, bringing dip nets and a larger floating pen net with him.

The trio began scooping up minnows, weeding through them to toss out the non-minnow captives, mostly perch, and transferring the minnows into the net pen.

The fish were then filtered through a “grader” — a floating device with a slotted bottom which allowed the smaller fish to slip through to the pen, but contained the larger fish.

From there, they again dipped the minnows up with hand nets and sorted, tossing out perch or other nontarget species, transferring the minnows into 5-gallon buckets.

Slancik took a bucket to his truck, which is equipped with numerous, oxygenated tanks. There, he sorted one more time, removing any non-minnow fish before he transferred the minnows to the truck tank.

Slancik said sorting takes a lot of time. Had they found many more perch or other unwanted specimens in the seine, he said he would have dumped the whole load back into the cut and gone elsewhere.

Slancik has been catching minnows his whole life. He started working for his great-uncle Frank — of Franks’ Great Outdoors in Linwood fame — who Slancik called “the Fred Bear of minnow-catching.”

Slancik works a territory from Pinconning north and east along the thumb of the state to Port Austin in Huron County. More than half the minnows he takes are used in the local Saginaw Bay area. In a cold winter, with good ice, 75 percent of his minnows are sold locally.

“From November first to December, it’s go, go, go, sometimes 24 hours a day for five days straight,” Slancik said. “On a good day, we’ll get 300 gallons of minnows, about 700 per gallon.”

A minnow catcher displays a net full of silvery-looking minnows.Minnows are sold by the gallon commercially in Michigan. In some others states, they’re sold by the pound.

Like most fishing pursuits, Slancik’s minnow catching luck runs hot and cold.

“I’ve had catches of 1,000 gallons, no problem. One time we caught 10,000 gallons and I only needed 1,000 gallons. I let the other 9,000 gallons go,” Slancik said. “But I’ve had times when I’ve worked all day and only caught 20 gallons.”

Slancik said he puts between 7 million and 10 million minnows in ponds, which he keeps aerated, for the winter season.

“I can keep up to 2,000 gallons in a pond, but I want to back off a little this year because we might have a warmer winter,” he said. “Bigger minnows survive better in the ponds. The smaller minnows don’t have the strength to be caught in warmer temperatures and held until spring.”

State law prohibits minnows caught in Michigan to be exported out of state.

“Any minnow that is harvested in Michigan is meant to meet the local demand of Michigan anglers, without disturbing the food chain for our predator fishes such as trout, walleye and smallmouth bass,” Goniea said.

 Goniea said minnow harvesters are not doing any damage to the fisheries resource.

“In almost all cases, human harvest has little to no effect on available resources,” he said. “On a place like Saginaw Bay, a million emerald shiners is a minute part of the population. Walleyes, bass and the other predator fish control the bait population. Human harvest is a drop in the bucket, and minnows are capable of explosive growth and reproduction.”

This fall, Slancik has mostly caught emerald shiners, the minnows anglers call “blues.” Spottail shiners, known as “grays,” were down a little.

“Spottails tend to run larger than emeralds. Lake trout fishermen like spottails, just because of their size. But big emeralds will work just as well,” Slancik said. “We noticed that last year because nobody caught spottails. But people get it stuck in their heads that they want spottails. These days, there are more emeralds than spottails. It used to be the other way around.”

Slancik said there are more baitfish in Lake Huron now than ever.

“Lake Huron is like a big fish tank — you can only put so many fish in an aquarium,” Slancik said. “When one is up, the other is down, but spottails are slowly coming back.”

Slancik said he’s seeing more gizzard shad and alewives lately, too.

The DNR monitors the minnow harvest to make sure invasive species and those that can carry diseases — such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) — aren’t spread.

In the summer months, when minnows can’t be kept in ponds, a lot of minnows are imported.

But in winter, if you’re seeking a Pure Michigan experience — say walleye fishing through the ice — you’re likely using minnows caught right here in Michigan, by commercial bait harvesters like Slancik.

For more information on Michigan minnows, visit the DNR’s webpage at www.michigan.gov/fishing.