Face the facts: Most days, a frisky live bait outperforms an artificial or dead bait, whether you’re targeting snook in Charlotte Harbor, sailfish off the Keys, striped bass in Long Island Sound or yellowfin tuna off California.
That’s why today’s top saltwater-fishing boats feature circulating livewell systems. Without one, you’re at a serious disadvantage. Yet’s there’s much more to the fine art of keeping bait alive and kicking than just having a livewell (or bait tank, as they are known on the West Coast). In these onboard life-support systems, details count big-time, particularly for delicate live baits such as anchovies, pilchards and sardines. (For a guide to the most common and effective fin baits, check out our printable catalogue of 21 popular live baits around the world.)
Fishing with live bait was pioneered on the West Coast beginning in the 1940s. Today, boats fishing the waters off Southern California and Baja are often characterized as motorized livewells, and anglers adhere to the belief that you can never have enough love, money or live bait. But anglers on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico also have contributed mightily to the school of live-bait fishing, especially over the past three decades, and are now teaching the Left Coast a few tricks. Let’s look at 15 of the most important factors gleaned from coast to coast about keeping captive live bait as lively as possible.
1. Tank Geometry
Put yourself in the fins of a pilchard. Before finding yourself aboard Live Bait Express, you’ve scarcely touched anything more solid than a blade of turtle grass. Now you’ve been dumped in a livewell and discover a ring of walls that can bruise, batter and bloody your nose.
You can help Mr. Pilchard from getting banged up by choosing a livewell that’s taller than it is wide. The idea is to create something akin to a column shape versus a bathtub shape, achieving two major goals. First, when the tank is full of water, it minimizes sloshing that can slam live bait against the sides of the well. This is especially critical for boats that fish offshore and often run in rough water.
Second, a column shape promotes “milling” — the tendency of the bait to swim in a relaxed circle. There’s a popular perception that round or oval wells are better than tanks with square corners, but all factors being equal, a square tank will hold bait just as well as a round or oval shape, according to Mark Wisch, owner of Pacific Edge Bait Tanks in Huntington Beach, California. “Our original PE-28S 28-gallon bait tank has a square footprint, and it holds bait exceedingly well,” Wisch reveals.
2. Minimal Obstructions
Choose a tank that has as few obstructions inside as possible. One of the most common obstructions inside older livewells is an exposed standpipe, usually in the middle of the tank. Water fills the tank until it reaches the top of the pipe, then it exits through the screened top. While it works for maintaining the water level, it does not always work well for maintaining live bait — it’s just something foreign for Mr. Pilchard to bang against.
Newer livewells have the standpipe inside a baffle within the wall of the tank, eliminating the obstruction. But look for other obstructions such as screws used to secure rod holders on the outside of the live well. Make sure the inside walls are as smooth as possible.
3. Water Flow
West Coast fishermen learned long ago that there are two secrets to good water flow in a bait tank. One is to regulate the water flow with a valve on the downstream side of the pump. “You don’t want too much water flow, as that creates turbulence that tires the bait and knocks scales loose,” Wisch explains. “You need just enough to flush impurities from the tank.” Wisch offers some rules of thumb: For livewells ranging from 20 to 32 gallons, a fill time of six to eight minutes is best, while tanks ranging 33 to 50 gallons should fill in eight to 12 minutes.
The second factor focuses on how the water enters the livewell. “It should trickle in from the upper portion of the tank,” says Wisch. “Bringing it in from the bottom blows scales throughout the tank, and that’s not good for the bait.”
The idea that water should enter in a cyclonic manner to create a swirling current is also off-base, according to Wisch. “You want the water to be tranquil yet fresh,” he explains. “Any current inside the tank just stresses the bait.”