Nowadays, thanks to the internet and social media, word about new or extremely productive baits spreads like wildfire. Sometimes it seems that every angler is splattering the web with grip-and-grins and raving about one new wonder bait or another. Some of these are legit and others are just gimmicks. One such bait trend that took the internet by storm this winter is the rosy-red minnow. Across the Upper Midwest and down South as far as Arkansas there are dozens of social media threads and testimonials about using rosies for everything from crappie and bass to walleye and catfish. With all this online chatter you have to wonder: Are rosy-red minnows really worth the hype?
The Rosy Red Hype Train Despite the internet users frantically posting locations of pet shops that carry rosies, this bait is not a new thing. These reddish-orange color variations of the common fathead minnow, a form of albinism, first began showing up in minnow tanks in the late 1980s. Selective breeding to isolate the trait is credited to fish farmer Bill Bland of Taylor, Arkansas, who noticed the odd orange fish showing up in his minnow tanks and decided to make more. He originally intended the rosies be used as food for predatory aquarium fish because they were much hardier and easier to transport than other feeder fish. But anglers quick took note of the rosy reds too.
Anglers know that gamefish react to certain colors. The mutant minnows were also much livelier than the more common fathead, so fishermen quickly convinced Bland to start selling his newly-bred brood as bait. They believed the ginger minnows would outperform normal fatheads and, apparently, they were right. The early pioneers of the rosy trend swore up and down that the minnows caught more catfish, crappie, walleye, and bass than anything else they had ever used before. Word quickly spread, and soon enough bait shops caught on, making rosy reds available in 33 states.
Eventually, a lot of these shops started having difficulties keeping up supply to meet demand and began to sell the minnows at outlandish prices, perhaps creating the belief that the minnows were more effective because they cost more. This continued to increase the demand, raising rosies to the peak of the baitfish pedestal.
Yet if all this rosy rage was happening more than a decade ago, why are we only hearing so much about it now? Are ever-evolving gamefish suddenly targeting the fluorescent baitfish as prey? Is there any real validity to the idea that these minnows’ bright colors actually attract more fish? Or is it all simply a reflection of the times?
A Rosy-Red Perspective Many long-time anglers believe this sudden resurgence of the rosy-red minnow has nothing to do with the evolution of gamefish, but rather with the evolution of anglers themselves. According to lifelong Minnesota fisherman Wille Dellwo, this rosy-red minnow renaissance all stems from new social media-savvy anglers discovering them.
“I think that this rosy craze is more of a generational thing than anything else,” Dellwo said. “Back in the day you didn’t have every people out there posting about every little thing, so catching fish on rosy reds wasn’t a huge thing. It was just part of a day of fishing. Now we have these younger fishermen out there who are not only looking to catch fish but are also looking for something cool to share on Facebook or Instagram about their day. Catching a bunch of crappie or walleye on a bright orange minnow just fits the bill.”
Dellwo went on to say that while he does use rosy-red minnows, he hasn’t found them to be particularly productive when compared with other live baits: “I like to use them for spring walleye because their a bit more lively than regular minnows and seem to work better during that time of year, but then again sometimes they don’t. I think it’s more of a day-to-day thing than anything else.”
The Truth About the Rosy Red The idea that the recent rosy hype is being blown out of proportion on social media, and that the minnows work as well as every other minnow on a day-to-day basis, is a sentiment shared not only by anglers but by the bait shops that sell them.
“In our experience, rosies really don’t sell as well as regular minnows,” Linda Ebinger, owner of Dicky’s Baitshop in Montgomery, Illinois, told MeatEater. “We always sell through them, but we do a lot more orders of regular fatheads. A few people swear by them, but mostly fishermen come in and buy their regular minnows and then throw in a dozen rosy-reds just to see what happens.”
She went on to say that there are times when the red minnows seem to sell better. “On certain days, we do have fishermen come in for another dozen rosies when nothing else seems to be working, but the same thing happens with other shiners as well. It seems to be a trend where some days they work better than anything else and some days they don’t.”
Rosy-red minnows are usually more expensive than regular minnows. So, while there is still high demand in some places, most bait shops only order a limited supply and sell out when they sell out. Many of the shops that keep rosy-reds stocked simply do so to fill what is often a niche market focused on a specific body of water.
“Most people around here just use them on the Mississippi River backwaters when fishing for perch and crappies,” Mike Smith, owner of Dick Smith’s Live Bait and Tackle in Delafield, Wisconsin, said. “I think the success rate for people using them has more to do with fishing them in stained water situations. A lot of guys think it has to do with the rosy-red’s color that attracts them. We sell regular fatheads two to one over rosy-reds for fishing clear lakes, but we keep the reds around because they seem to do much better in stained river water. I believe this is because of the color, but whether that’s the entire reason, I couldn’t really say.”
The idea that the color of rosy-red minnows is what makes them such a keen fish attractant holds merit. After all, we’ve all had those days on the water when a certain color seemed to catch more fish than any other. Yet this idea of a “hot color” usually only applies to artificial lures and flies. According to some experts, color may have less significance when it comes to fishing with live bait.
“I think as far as minnows—natural, live bait—the color thing is less important,” Ph.D. fisheries biologist and MeatEater contributor Stephen Klobucar said. “Something ‘foreign’ may stick out from the typical search image, but a lot more sensory information is going to be happening beyond colors, like lateral line, and chemical or scent signals. The novelty of different colors seems to be more of a thing for lures. But it's all very context and condition specific.”
Stephen said that most warmwater fishes don’t target a specific forage like trout do.
“Generally, there's enough natural diversity of small fishes around that gamefish might not be totally keyed in on one specific prey. But, then again, we as anglers know how that can be subtly different in practice,” he said. “The Schrekstoff response is common in prey fishes, which will warn other prey fish but also attract gamefish. Red might help signal "wounded" prey, at least tackle companies sell it as such, but I'm not sure science backs that up. Red doesn't translate the best in many natural conditions, but again, that depends.”
So, the biggest thing that makes rosy-red minnows different from regular fathead minnows—their color—has very little consistent bearing on gamefish singling them out as a prey item. It simply seems that on some days and under certain conditions, the fish are just in more of a mood to eat them. In talking with so many different anglers about the rosy-red minnow and whether it lives up to the hype, the general consensus is similar to asking an elderly New Englander about the weather: “It were pretty good yesterday, not so good today, maybe be better tomorrow.”
Out of all the anglers I talked to, I think 2021 Minneapolis Fishing Guide of the Year, Wil Neururer of Longville, Minnesota, said it best:
“Ten years ago, Rosie Reds were going for something like $11.00 a dozen!” Neururer said. “It was absolutely crazy, people just had to have them. Now though I think we’ve moved beyond the idea that there is one super bait out there that works better than all the rest. With all the options available to us now, I think the hype around the rosy-red minnow has become a lot like that lure you have in your tacklebox that one day worked magically so you told all your buddies that they had to get it—and it hasn’t really worked since. Yet you keep it around because one day it will probably work again.”
Keeping the Faith For years now, my father has claimed that dyed neon green nightcrawlers are the greatest walleye and smallmouth bait in existence. Despite my arguments to the contrary, insisting and even demonstrating that lures like crankbaits work better, my dad sticks with the nightcrawlers because it’s what works for him. That’s the beautiful thing about fishing baits. No matter the hype surrounding a bait or how often it’s discredited, the one that works for you is the bait you believe in. Whether it’s a high-tech, battery-powered, super lure you saw on TV, a simple spoon, or a special blend of herbs and spices for catfish passed down by your grandfather, it all comes down to having faith and fishing on.
Feature image via Anderson Minnow Farm.