What Kind of Fish Are Minnows?

Minnows are a popular live bait used to catch mid-size fish species such as bass, sunfish, crappie, catfish, and walleye. Most minnows are classified as freshwater fish, but some minnow species can survive in brackish habitats. 

But, what kind of fish are minnows? The term “minnow” is used to describe several small freshwater fish species that belong to the fish family Cyprinidae. Minnows are usually small in size, though a few species can grow very large. Most minnow species feed on plants and have an average life expectancy of three years. 

Keep reading to learn about different types of minnows, how big they get, and the difference between a minnow and a fish.

What Are Minnows?

What Are Minnows

The name minnow is often used to describe a small silver-colored fish. But, the term “minnow” is also a common name for the largest family of fish in North America.

The North American minnows include many species of small freshwater fishes, including the shiner, bluntnose, and fathead minnow. Many minnow species are abundant and are commonly used as live bait. Some minnow species are kept solely for this purpose. 

Popular bait species among anglers are the bluntnose minnow, fathead minnow, common shiner, and blue and silver minnow. 

Different types of minnows live in almost all freshwater, ranging from springs, rivers, ponds, and lakes to swamps and bogs. Most minnows are freshwater species, but a few are classified as saltwater varieties as they prefer living in brackish conditions. 

Some types of minnows are found alone or living with only a few other individuals. But, most minnow species live in large groups.

Depending on the species, some minnows are found only in cold waters, while others are spread out in both warm and cold-water environments. Species like fallfish favor living in lakes, rivers, and large streams, while others like pearl dice prefer small headwater tributaries.

Minnows spawn in spring and early summer, and their abundance results from a relatively short period of time to reach reproductive age. During the spawning season, male minnows change color to orange or red to attract a mate. 

Male minnows build nests of rocks for females to lay eggs. A female minnow can lay up to two million eggs per spawn, which is why minnows are so widespread in the water. 

In the fish world, most minnow species are at the bottom of the hierarchy and serve as food for many medium-sized and large fishes. Most minnows feed on plant matter, mainly algae, which they turn into protein. 

How Big Do Minnows Get?

There are many different species of minnows, some of them are small, while others are large. However, most minnows are small, averaging 6 inches long. 

The Colorado pikeminnow, one of the rarer species of minnows, is the largest member of the Cyprinidae family, with reports of individuals growing 6 feet long and weighing over 100 pounds. On the other hand, the Blacknose Dace is a small freshwater minnow that grows between 1 and 3 inches long on average.

Different Types of Minnows

The Cyprinidae family is the largest fish family, with around 2,400 species worldwide. There are about 1,600 minnow species in North America alone! 

Listed below are the most common types of fish minnows that are commonly used as baitfish:

1. Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus)

The bluntnose minnow is species of small freshwater fish. This minnow species is ever-present and lives in the area that covers the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Midwestern United States, all the way to New York State. 

Bluntnose minnows are generally 2.6 inches long, with a maximum length of 4.3 inches. They have a rounded head, terminal mouth, and darkly pigmented spots on the first two or three dorsal rays. 

2. Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas) 

The fathead minnow is a freshwater fish found throughout North America and Canada. Fathead minnows are olive-grey in color, with a lighter belly and a dark stripe extending along the back and side.

Fatheads grow between 2.6 to 2.8 inches long, with males being bigger than females. This species of minnow is tolerant of muddy, low-oxygen water and is commonly found in wetlands, ponds, and small lakes. 

3. Common Shiner (Luxilus cornutus)

The common shiner is a freshwater fish found in North America and inhabits rocky pools and small to medium rivers. This fish grows between 4 and 6 inches long but can reach up to 8 inches.

Common shiners are silver-colored fishes with an olive back and black dorsal stripe. This species of minnow live around four to six years and feeds on insects, vegetation, and other fishes.

4. Emerald Shiner (Notropis atherinoides)

The emerald shiner is native to North America and is found throughout Canada and south of Virginia and Texas. Emerald shiners are small freshwater fishes commonly used by anglers as live bait.

Emerald shiners grow up to 3.5 inches long, with females being larger than males. A live emerald shiner has a silvery green color with a silver mid-lateral band. Emerald shiners prefer to live in large open rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with clear water over sand or gravel. 

5. Golden Shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas)

The golden shiner is popular baitfish in the United States. Native to eastern North America, the golden shiner grows between 3 and 4.9 inches long. Golden shiners have a laterally compressed body with a silvery-white belly and dark greenback.

These fishes are found in ponds, sloughs, ditches, and lakes or the quietest part of the river. Golden shiners are tolerant of pollution, turbidity, and low-oxygen levels, and like weedy areas. 

6. Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum)

The central stone roller is commonly found in freshwater streams throughout the eastern, central, and midwestern United States. These fishes live in either the middle or bottom levels of streams and rivers. 

Because central stone rollers need some current, they are found in cascades and pools of moderate to high-gradient streams. Central stone rollers are herbivores, feeding on algae scraped from logs and rocks. 

7. Eastern blacknose dace (Rhinichthys atratulus)

The eastern Blacknose dace lives across southeast Canada and along United States’ east coast. This fish species inhabit creeks, small rivers, and headways with fast-moving water, but the fry matures in slow-moving areas of the water, like shoals. 

As fry, eastern Blacknose daces are 5 millimeters long but can grow over 4 inches long. These fishes live for three to four years and continue to grow throughout this period. The eastern Blacknose dace has a torpedo-shaped body and a darkly colored lateral fin. 

8. Fallfish (Semotilus corporalis)

The fallfish is one of the largest minnow species in North America. An average fallfish is 5 inches long, but fallfishes can grow up to 15 inches long. Fallfishes have white bellies and a silvery shade on the top and sides of their body.

The fallfish live in clear streams, ponds, and lakes. The fallfish prefers swift currents but is also found in well-oxygenated pools and at the base of waterfalls.  

The diet of juvenile and young fallfish consists of zooplankton and chironomids. Once fallfishes reach 4 inches, they start eating small fish and various prey, including fish eggs and insects. 

What Is the Difference Between a Minnow and a Fish?

The word minnow is used to describe small freshwater fish belonging to the Cyprinidae family. Having said that, the biggest difference between a minnow and a fish is size, as minnows are smaller than most other fish species. 

Because of their small size, minnows are also more commonly used as live bait than other kinds of fish. 

Are Minnows Just Baby Fish?

Minnows aren’t baby fish. Over the years, anglers started to use the term “minnow” when referring to any small fish in the water body. 

But, minnows aren’t just small fish, and not all small fishes are minnows. Minnows are the largest freshwater family in the world. 


Minnow is a commonly used name for many small freshwater fish species used as live bait. The minnow fish family is the largest freshwater fish family in the world. 

There are many different types of minnows. The most commonly found minnow species in North America are the bluntnose minnow, fathead minnow, common shiner, emerald shiner, and golden shiner.

Most minnows are freshwater species, but some can be found in brackish waters. Minnows are typically small, growing on the average up to 6 inches long, and live three to four years. The rare and large types of minnows, like Colorado pikeminnow, can weigh up to 100 pounds and live around 50 years.