I sometimes use minnows for fishing bait, but I never know what to do with the ones left over after a day on the water. I don’t want to just dump them into the river or the lake, because I am never certain whether they are native to that particular spot. I don’t want to bring them home either, because even when I regularly add fresh water to the minnow bucket, they rarely survive until the next time I go fishing. 

Two years ago I brought fifteen live minnows home. It was the height of the first COVID wave. Clare’s college had put all of her classes online and closed its campus, so she was back in La Crosse. She asked me what I was going to do with the tiny fish. When I told her I was going to put them in the garage where they’d probably die, she immediately went out and bought an aquarium. Even with fish food and an aerated tank, ten of the minnows died in the first two weeks. One survived for a year. Four of them are alive and well today. I did’t know minnows lived that long. Within their natural habitat, I they probably don’t.

A month ago Clare returned home for a weekend visit and decided she didn’t like the stark look of her minnow tank. She went to PetSmart and bought aquatic plants and a miniature Chinese gazebo to add structure to the aquatic environment. A week later she called me on the phone to ask how the fish liked their new surroundings. When I told her that the once peaceful fish were now fighting each other for the prime location inside the gazebo, she immediately ordered a second gazebo and had it mailed directly to me. The second gazebo brought harmony back to the aquarium, but now all of the fish hide themselves in the protective bric-a-brac. Such behavior is probably instinctive, but it makes them hard to see (which, I suppose, is the point). They come out only when I sprinkle goldfish flakes on the surface.

Recently I’ve been using minnows for bait far less often than I once did, and part of the reason may be that I now have minnows as pets. Henry David Thoreau fished his entire life, but once wrote, “I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect.” I am becoming a bit like Thoreau in this regard, and I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing.

Steven Simpson