Fathead Minnow

Fathead Minnow, illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing.">


Fathead Minnow has a stout body form that is moderately compressed laterally with a broad flat area just before the dorsal fin. A typical Pimephales, they have a shortened and closely attached first ray in the dorsal fin and smaller, crowded scales in advance of the dorsal fin. The small, terminal mouth is oblique and without a barbel. Slender, slightly hooked pharyngeal teeth are arranged in a 4-4 array. Body color is dark olive above with a tinge of copper or brass behind the head and along the sides. The sides are lighter with a silvery hue, and the belly is white. A dusky band or blotch appears in the front and rear rays of the dorsal fin, which helps distinguish them from the Bullhead Minnow and Bluntnose Minnow. The lateral band is faint in specimens from turbid waters and prominent in specimens from clear water. An incomplete lateral line, which does not reach to the caudal peduncle, contains from 42 to 48 scales. Intestine length is about twice the body length and the peritoneum is black. Dorsal and pelvic fins contain 8 rays, while the anal fin contains 7 rays, and the pectoral fins contain 15 or 16 rays. Spawning males develop a swollen, black head with breeding tubercles appearing in three rows on the snout. Typical males are light silvery behind the opercle to the pectoral fins; then a dark bar extends to the insertion of the dorsal fin followed by a light bar to about mid-way along the dorsal fin.


Fathead Minnow Distribution

The Fathead Minnow is found in every watershed and is considered the most abundant and widespread fish in Iowa. It is listed as common to abundant in nearly all fish collections from streams, man-made lakes and natural lakes. The continental range of this cyprinid is centered in the Midwest and Great Plains states, but it also extends through the Great Lakes basin to New York, south to Texas and New Mexico, and north into the Yukon Territories.


Food of the fathead consists mostly of microscopic plants, small insects and larvae, and occasionally fish.

State Record

State Records are not documented for non-game species.

Expert Tip

Catch these at your bait shop but don't forget your wallet - they are the most common baitfish sold in Iowa!


The Fathead Minnow is considered the most widespread and abundant fish species in Iowa. It is found in every watershed in the state. The Fathead Minnow is common in nearly all fish collections from streams, natural lakes and man-made impoundments and reservoirs. It is found throughout both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

The Fathead Minnow can be found in streams of various sizes but is most abundant in sluggish, intermittent streams, ditches and ponds with soft, silty mud or firm clay substrates or backwaters and muck-bottomed pools of larger rivers. It is intolerant of competition and predation but uniquely adapted to stagnant pools, acid bog-ponds, and alkaline streams where extremes in pH, low oxygen levels, high turbidity, and high temperatures decrease fish diversity. In parts of Missouri, it is found along floodplains in shallow, silty sloughs. During extended dry periods it seeks refuge in stagnant pools of small Plains streams. It is usually abundant in areas where the Bluntnose Minnow is absent.

Fathead Minnows spawn from early May through August. The adhesive eggs are deposited on the under surface of floating objects, and the male guards them. The eggs hatch in 5 to 6 days. Adults reach a maximum length of about 3 inches. Food of the fathead consists mostly of microscopic plants, small insects and larvae, and occasionally fish.

Iowa anglers owe a great deal to this unobtrusive minnow. Besides being an important forage fish in most waters, it is the best bait fish available, and virtually millions are sold in bait shops each year. Aquarium enthusiasts also collect fatheads for display.

Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.


Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.

Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames

Illustration by Maynard Reece, from Iowa Fish and Fishing

Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Elm Lake Wright 5 miles Northeast of Clarion 458.00
East Nishnabotna River Fremont Red Oak city limits has river access and hard surface boat ramp 123.00
West Nishnabotna River Fremont 121.00
Little Sioux River (Correctionville to Missouri R) Harrison Little Sioux Park, 2 miles SW of Correctionville, Woodberry County Conservation Board 57.00
Yellow River Allamakee T96N, R6W, S3 to T96N, R4W, S24 25.00
Maquoketa River (trout portion) Clayton The Upper Maquoketa River from Joy Springs downstream to Backbone Lake contains trout year-round. The area 3 miles southwest of Strawberry Point off 400th is stocked with catchable fish. 8.00
Ambroson Pit (north) Winnebago 3 1/2 miles north of Forest City 4.28
Otter Creek Fayette Located 3 miles southeast of West Union. 2.50
Wapsi River Trout Section Mitchell Located 0.5 mile west of McIntire. 2.50
North Cedar Creek Clayton Located 3 miles west of McGregor off of CR B60 or Ivory Road. 2.00
Patterson Creek Allamakee Stream located 4 miles northwest of Waukon. 1.40
Little Turkey River Delaware 3 miles east of Colesburg in Hoffman Wildlife Managment Area off Hubbard Road 1.20
Bigalk Creek Howard Located 7 miles northeast of Cresco. 0.60
South Cedar Creek Clayton Located 2 miles south of Garnavillo and may be accessed from Jigsaw Road. 0.50
Bohemian Creek Winneshiek Located about 1.5 miles east of Protivin. 0.30