August 19, 2021
Call them glass minnows, red minnows or simply bay anchovy fry, but the swarm of Anchoa mitchilli that appears each summer and fall in bays and estuaries across the Southeast brings with it some amazing saltwater angling action.
Two- to 4-inch-long adults spawn from May through September in most areas, with the peak occurring in July and August. Amazingly, females can spawn up to 50 times per season and will produce more than 1,000 eggs per batch, according to biologists.
The eggs hatch within 24 hours, resulting in pin-size fry that feed on zooplankton and quickly grow to lengths of 1 to 2 inches. They're easy for both fish and anglers to see as they swarm in schools that sometimes cover up to several acres.
Researchers say they make up the largest total biomass in the entire Gulf of Mexico, as well as in several other coastal zones—an incredible feat considering the minute size of the individual fish.
The juveniles have a pronounced silver stripe the length of their nearly transparent bodies. In clear water, they are almost invisible except for the oversized black eye and that stripe, which earns them the "glass minnow" name. The stripe appears red in the tannin-stained waters of many brackish bays, and sometimes the fish themselves become an orange-red as they feed on copepods—tiny shrimp-like crustaceans—thus the "red minnow" moniker.
Whatever you call them, everything from Spanish mackerel to bluefish to seatrout, redfish, snook and tarpon gorge themselves on this feast. Bay anchovies are so abundant from Chesapeake Bay to the Laguna Madre (though, oddly enough, they are not found in the Florida Keys) that they become the primary food source for many fish during August and September, and remain a partial forage species year-round.
From late spring through early fall along the coast from North Carolina to Texas, you can hardly avoid finding large schools of anchovy fry. But, if you need help, there are usually plenty of clues, as nature never ignores a food source. Terns, among the smallest shore birds, absolutely love these little fish. It's a rare late-summer day when a set of binoculars doesn't reveal a "white tornado" of terns whirling over glass minnows in most bays along the Southeastern coast. Pelicans also come crashing, mouths open, to scoop up the bounty, as do the usual sea gulls.
Less obvious from a distance in most cases will be the predatory fish, but rest assured they're there. Mackerel and little tunny like to skyrocket through swarms, arching like javelins with mouthfuls of bait spraying from their jaws. Tarpon create big whorls on the surface as they plow through them, but also occasionally go vertical—an amazing sight when they happen to be right beside the boat. For those who have seen how spooky the silver king tends to be in clear water, it's remarkable how boldly they will attack a lure when the feed is on for anchovy fry.
Juvenile tarpon don't miss out on the feast, either. When I lived on the Little Manatee River on Florida's west coast, the glass minnows would arrive in the river every July 4 like clockwork, and with them came schools of tarpon between 5 and 30 pounds. They sometimes chased the anchovies so furiously that my dock would be littered with the tiny baitfish in the mornings. On many days, getting hooked up was just a matter of getting a silver fly or small lure in front of them.
Redfish and (in Florida waters) snook maul the bait schools as they come along the outside bar that protects many grass flats. The sportfish also stack up in the river mouths and passes to gulp down fry on outgoing tides. Seatrout gather in large schools over deeper grass flats to gorge—you'll hear the "chug" as they run them to the surface on occasion.
This is to say nothing of the thousands of ladyfish, jack crevalle and other auxiliary players always found where glass minnows are abundant. Sometimes it's hard to catch your targeted "eating fish" because there are so many other species attacking the bait. Not surprisingly, about 95 percent of the young anchovies get eaten in their first year, according to researchers.
However, if you find the action, shut down the outboard several hundred feet from the school and slide in on the trolling motor, or let wind and current carry you into casting range—a noisy approach puts an end to the bite.
It's not a bad idea to carry a block of frozen anchovy fry chum, available at many coastal baitshops, to give yourself added assurance that the fish won't run off and leave you. This chum comes in a mesh bag that you hang off the transom of your boat. As it melts, it sends anchovy scent and bits of fish down-current to keep the gamefish close by. This is particularly effective on Spanish and king mackerel and bluefish, which rely heavily on scent to find their food.
There are plenty of lures that offer a good imitation of anchovies, and when the feed is on, all you have to do is get one of these baits in the same zip code as the fish to get bit. One of the best is the Tsunami Split Tail Minnow in the 3-inch size. The transparent soft body and foil interior weight presents a very good imitation of the fry. The Storm Wildeye Live Anchovy, available in 3- to 6-inch sizes, is another good soft bait with a swimmer tail and internal weight.
LiveTarget took a different angle on fry baits with the lures in their Baitball series, which feature images of multiple tiny fish inside one larger bait that’s easy to cast. Their Glass Minnow Baitball Jerkbait is particularly effective for snook, reds and trout on the edges of flats over grass 3 to 4 feet deep. Their Twitch Minnow, a 3-inch soft bait that imitates a single anchovy, is also an impressively close imitation.
Yo-Zuri makes three lures that work well when anchovies are the favored forage. The tiny Pin's Minnow, 2 3/4 inches long and weighing just 1/8 ounce, works great around schools of glass minnows for Spanish mackerel and blues when the very small fry first show up. The Crystal 3D Minnow is mid-sized at 3 1/2 inches and weighs a quarter-ounce. It excels when fingerling-size bait is present, and it’s killer on trout, reds and snook. The larger Real Glass Minnow is 4 3/8 inches, about the size of a grown anchovy, and weighs 3/4 ounce, allowing for longer casts on more substantial tackle. The hooks are adequate to take on tarpon or blackfin tuna.
All of these lures are readily cast on the typical inshore spinning rig—a 7-foot, medium-light rod, a 2500- to 3000-size reel and 10- to 15-pound-test braid with an 18-inch leader of 20-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon. For adult tarpon, move up to a medium-heavy stick, 5000-size reel and 40-pound-test braid with 80-pound-test leader.
MATCH THE HATCH
One of the simplest and most effective lures when fish are feeding on the smaller fry is what’s commonly called the glass minnow fly, available in many iterations. The most common is a white bucktail with silver foil tied on a long-shank hook in sizes 2 to 4, sometimes with heavy monofilament overwrap and an epoxy dip securing the head.
The fly can be thrown on an 8-weight rod and weight-forward floating line. Or, for greater distance, use a popping cork and fish with medium-light spinning gear and 10-pound-test braid. When Spanish, kings and blues are the target, flies last longer when fished on a 25-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Fluoro is harder than mono and offers better protection against cutoffs. For seatrout and reds, drop down to a 12-pound-test mono leader for better action and more hits.
5 MINNOW MECCAS
These waters offer some of the best angling opportunities when anchovy fry are on the move.
- Charlotte Harbor, FL: This 42,000-acre bay and estuary complex on Florida’s west coast gets jammed with bay anchovies in late summer. Tarpon are drawn into the black backwaters where they provide obvious targets by blowing up on the bait at the surface. Expect trout, snook and reds to add to the action along the bar that separates the grass flats from the open harbor here. Launch ramps are available on Pine Island, north of Fort Myers.
- Tampa Bay, FL: This 400-square-mile estuary, fed by four rivers, is a perfect spawning area for anchovies, and it produces them by the billions. The area from the Little Manatee River to Anna Maria Island, known collectively as the “South Shore,” is all prime water where anchovy-type lures catch loads of gamefish from May through October. The fishing is getting even better here thanks to massive restoration efforts along thousands of acres of shoreline in the last 30 years. Launch in Ruskin on the Little Manatee, in Bradenton on the Manatee or at Anna Maria Island.
- Mississippi Sound: Though there are so many shrimp in this fertile estuary that they are the dominant food source much of the year, there’s also an enormous spawn of bay anchovies that provide fodder in August, September and October. Loads of birds offer guidance—or look for slicks, where hundreds of fish below have burped up oils after gorging themselves on the baitfish.
- North Carolina Outer Banks: Anchovies spawn from July to September becoming the predominant food for many species in the fall migrations along the beach—blues, Spanish and king mackerel and giant red drum feast on the goodies anywhere from in the wash to several miles off. Surf fishing with a long rod will get them, and intrepid kayak anglers launch off the beaches on days with west winds and modest surf. Stay away from the inlets, which are frequently dangerous on tide changes for inexpert boatmen.
- Laguna Madre, TX: From July into October, glass minnows are everywhere both inside and off the beaches here. Look for diving birds to pinpoint the exact location of massive schools of redfish and trout, usually with plenty of ladyfish and jack crevalle mixed in. Padre Island National Seashore south of Corpus Christi is one of many locations where the action is often good both inside the bay and off the beach when the bait swarms show up.