Kentucky has several large reservoirs and lakes as well as many smaller lakes, thousands of miles of rivers, and over 135,000 farm ponds. These countless shorelines and waterways offer recreational and sport fishing opportunities for Kentucky residents and visiting tourists. One thing is certain, when our fishermen sit back and relax to "wet a line," they need to bait their hooks.
Baitfish are usually purchased at local or area bait shops (retailers). Most of the minnows sold in the United States are raised on fish farms in Arkansas and several other southern states. It is estimated that in 1989, Arkansas had 27,800 acres of ponds dedicated to the production of baitfish or minnows, solely.
The income generated from these baitfish was estimated at over $25 million. By 1995, Arkansas baitfish production had increased to 28,900 acres with farm gate sales of over $47 million. Today, baitfish aquaculture ranks fourth with more than 60,000 acres of production in the United States. Annual retail sales of baitfish in Canada and the U.S. have been estimated at $1 billion.
The word "baitfish" is a common term used to describe small fish used as bait for sport fishing. Several species of fish are raised as bait: golden shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas), goldfish (Carassius auratus), and fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas). Golden shiners are the primary species that is farmed for bait (75% of sales in Arkansas).
The techniques used to produce the different types of baitfish are similar. Golden shiner fry for stocking are produced on the farm in broodfish ponds. Mature adults are stocked into broodfish ponds at approximately 400-500 pound of fish per acre. Spawning mats are placed in shallow water around the pond’s edge at 100 mats per acre when water temperatures have warmed to 65°F.
When the mats have been covered with eggs, they are transferred to fry-rearing ponds (50-100 mats per acre) to allow hatching. After the fry have hatched, the mats are removed from ponds, dried and stored.
Commercially prepared feed is offered to golden shiners in rearing ponds at an initial daily rate of 5 pounds per acre. Feeding rates are increased to 35 pounds per acre by the end of the production season. Pond management includes liming and fertilization, and chemical applications to control diseases if they occur.
Water losses due to evaporation are replaced by pumping from wells. Baitfish are harvested by seining the entire pond or by seining a small area of the pond where fish have been congregated for feeding. With good management and carefully controlled daily feeding, minnow harvests of 600 to 800 pounds per acres can be achieved.
Baitfish are transferred from seine nets to tanks mounted on trucks, using buckets and dip nets. Fish are stocked into transport tanks at a rate of 1-2 pounds of fish per gallon of water. The fish are then transported to a holding facility where they are placed in concrete tanks.
They are held in these tanks for 24 hours to allow acclimation to crowding in a small volume of water. Baitfish are then graded according to size (number of fish per pound) and delivered to wholesalers or retailers. Small minnows or "crappie bait" contain 125 to 333 fish per pound.
Estimating an average yield of 400 pounds per acre and a price of $2.75 per pound, annual returns for a 160-acre farm would be approximately $137 per acre with an annual income of $21,920.
While all of the baitfish species mentioned can be farmed in Kentucky, reliable and consistent markets are the most important consideration for baitfish production in Kentucky. Producers must decide whether they will sell to wholesalers, deliver directly to retailers, or raise, haul, and sell their crop personally.
Baitfish sales in the United States are characterized by organized marketing which is structured to prevent entry of newcomers into the industry. These large markets are controlled by large producers who have advanced experience and technology.
Also, baitfish producers must be aware of oversupply, shortage, changes in weather patterns that affect sport fishing, and the temporary whims of fishermen concerning "the ideal bait."
Large producers and wholesalers make weekly deliveries to retail baitfish distributors and bait shops surrounding Kentucky’s larger lakes and reservoirs. However, it is impractical for them to make return trips to an individual bait shop that is having a busy weekend and who runs short on bait late on a Saturday afternoon.
"Topping off" at these bait shops with sudden and heavy, weekend fishing traffic could provide new markets for small, local baitfish producers. Rather than attempting to supply a bait retailer’s weekly minnow needs for an entire season, small farmers could replenish or "top off" weekend shortfalls at several area bait shops (i.e., weekend route sales at multiple locations).
The best markets are located near large urban areas and newly established lakes. However, these two conditions rarely occur together. Isolated fishing areas that are difficult for large producers to access provide market opportunities for small, local baitfish farmers.
It is possible that a farm with 60 to 70 acres of ponds could provide a baitfish producer with a reasonable income if the farmer could produce 800 pounds per acre of high quality, small baitfish and sell directly to retailers.
Small-scale, niche marketing appears to be the best opportunity for bait producers in Kentucky. Direct retail sales in remote fishing areas could provide additional market openings throughout the commonwealth.
Kentucky minnow farmers should start small and expand their acreage as their markets show stable and steady growth. To become a successful Kentucky baitfish producer, you must establish solid markets and provide a high quality product.
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