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June 27, 2013

Keeping Live Bait Lively

Fifteen tips for assuring that baitfish stay healthy aboard your boat.

4. Tank Location

If you’re adding a livewell from a company such as Aquaworld or Kodiak Marine, choose the smoothest-riding area of the boat to install it, as Mr. Pilchard doesn’t care much for getting jostled around while you’re running to the fish. The best spots are usually near the transom, in the aft cockpit or under the leaning post. Resist the temptation to install your primary livewell in the bow area, as this section tends to bounce the most while under way. You might choose the bow area to install a second livewell, but reserve this tank for hardier bait such as goggle-eyes, mackerel and pinfish.

5. Plenty of Power

Make sure you have the battery capacity to run the bait pump(s) all day and then some without recharging, as the last thing you want to do is deprive Mr. Pilchard a fresh supply of life-sustaining water. Dedicate the largest marine deep-cycle battery or battery bank you can fit in your boat to running the bait pump(s), and make sure you leave the dock with a full charge. Also, connect the bait-battery system to the engine charging system with a device such as a automatic charging relay so it can get juice on the fly.

6. Loading and Handling

A credo of the computer industry — junk in, junk out — also applies to live bait, whether you’re cast-netting, jigging it up with a Sabiki rig or transferring it from a live-bait receiver. Once again, dress yourself in the scales of Mr. Pilchard and realize that he has never come in contact with anything hard in his life. With this in mind, the No. 1 rule in loading bait is: Don’t let bait fall on the deck. For Mr. Pilchard, dropping three feet to the deck is tantamount to your jumping off a two-story building. Even if you survive the fall, you’re going to be hurting.

This means after you throw a cast net, lower the loaded net directly into the livewell before shaking out the ballyhoo, mullet or pilchards. If that proves impractical, dip the net into a five-gallon bucket of water before shaking it out, and then gently pour the bait into the well as quickly as possible.

If you’re jigging bait, use a dehooker such as a Stingray stainless-steel bait dehooker to shake the bait off the hook over the well, allowing it to drop directly into the water. Avoid grabbing the bait with your hands, as this can damage the scales and protective slime coat — injuries that weaken and eventually kill the bait.

On the West Coast, boating anglers often purchase live bait such as sardines from floating bait barges. Transferring the bait with long-handled nets known as brails to maximize survival is an art form perfected by bait operators that supply the San Diego long-range boats. The most conscientious operators transfer just five to 10 “pieces” (as Californians refer to individual baitfish) at a time, thus eliminating the crushing effect of a loaded net. If you find an operator who’s not following this practice, politely ask him to lighten each pass (and tip him for his cooperation), which might result in healthier bait for a day of fishing.

7. Cured Bait

Curing refers to the practice of holding bait in captivity for a few days, allowing the weak individuals to fall by the wayside, leaving only the most resilient baits. It might seem counterintuitive, but cured bait survives longer in the livewell than freshly caught bait.

West Coast bait operators were the first to discover this, and knowledgeable boating anglers tend to gravitate toward the barges that sell cured bait. Today, savvy anglers coast to coast who keep their boats in the water often cure their own by catching baits ahead of time, and leaving them in running bait tanks or in floating pens, and feeding them until it’s time to go fishing.

However, curing is not always possible, particularly if the water at the marina is too warm or of poor water quality. In these cases, the bait just won’t survive. Also, delicate species such as pilchards don’t always to lend ­themselves to curing.