Cocahoe minnow, bull minnow, mud minnow, Gulf killifish, or just plain killifish, whatever you prefer to call them, this baitfish rarely grows longer than a young child’s palm. Unlike most baitfish species that saltwater anglers across Florida are accustomed to fishing with, Gulf killifish can live in a wide range of environments ranging from nearly pure fresh water to extremely salty surroundings. Their territorial range includes northeastern Florida to Key West, and the northern Gulf of Mexico all the way down to Cuba. They prowl shallow grassy tidal areas, coastal rivers, marshes, and bays feeding on small animals and crustaceans that live on mud bottoms, their preferred habitat. Hence the nickname “mud minnows.”
As far the angling community is concerned, they are most commonly referred to as bull minnows, and are in great demand as live bait for several of the northern Gulf Coast’s most popular sport fisheries. Local bait dealers almost exclusively rely upon harvest of wild stocks caught by seine nets and minnow traps to supply the area market. However, the demand for the baitfish is year-round with supply being irregular and continually falling short of demand, particularly during the summer months. Populations generally reach their low point in May, before the new spawn has grown large enough to capture and sell. Some progress has been made on aqua-culturing this species with commercial pond production probably being able to provide a more stable supply.
The bull minnow is one of the largest of eight killifish species in the Gulf, and any killifish over three inches long with bars on its sides is likely a bull minnow.†These fish grow to three inches in length in only four to five months. Bull minnows are bronze-gray in color, although spawning males are darker with brilliant, glittering specks of color. This slippery, slimy little fish has only a single dorsal fin and no spines in any of its fins. Bull minnows may live up to four years, but few actually survive to see their second or third birthday.
Though relatively small and somewhat fragile, the bull minnow is an extremely tough fish, able to survive low oxygen, drought, high temperatures, and winter chills. In the northern Gulf, they spawn from March through September, with a peak of activity in April and another in September. A female produces only a few eggs, ten to twenty per spawn, but spawns repeatedly during the season. The eggs hatch in two to three weeks depending on temperature. Adults are aggressive, in spite of their small size, eating crabs, fish, shrimp, worms, insects, and small pieces of plant life.
As far as baitfish qualities are concerned, bull minnows are particularly prized by anglers targeting summer flounder, as they are one of the flatfish’s primary forage species. Bull minnows also serve equally well for numerous other inshore species including trout and redfish, and may also be suitable for offshore fishing, though are rarely fished in that arena.
Gulf Coast anglers, especially those calling the Panhandle home, prefer to drift bull minnows directly along the bottom with the assistance of some type of weight. Typical fish-finder rigs with sliding egg sinkers work well, as do weighted jig-heads. Use just weight to keep your bait along the bottom. Central East Coast anglers who regularly target summer flounder as the fish exit local inlets on their way to ocean spawning grounds also swear by bull minnows, when they can get their hands on them, that is. Anglers from both coasts agree that the ideal hooking method is inserting the hook point through both lips in an upward motion from the bottom of the jaw. A New England trick aimed directly at summer flounder, called fluke up north, is drifting a killifish and squid strip combo directly along the bottom. There is no reason the same approach wouldn’t be equally as effective in these parts.
For those of you who would like to attempt procuring your own supply of bull minnows rather than purchasing them (bull minnows are typically only available at a limited number of bait shops in the northern reaches of the state at approx. $3.50/dozen), a minnow trap placed along the edges of a tidal creek or grassy marsh will usually do the trick. Crushed crab has proven to be excellent bait for the trap. Once captured, bull minnows are quite hardy and will live well even in a poorly aerated baitwell, which is a good thing for anglers, consider this baitfish is much more effective alive and kicking than dead and motionless.
Far from the most glamorous of baitfish species, bull minnows hold their own in particular applications, and should never be discounted as an extremely effective offering.
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