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Keeping Live Bait Alive
written by Ron Brooks

In many situations, lively baits are crucial to getting that big bite. Learn how to keep your bait alive and kickin' with these helpful tips.
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Keeping Live Bait Alive

After a couple of back-breaking hours throwing a casting net, the last thing you want is for your bait to die before reaching your hook.

Anglers today are opting more and more for live bait. It has become available at almost all bait shops and can be purchased for either the live well on your boat or for a portable live bait container. This live bait can be minnows, shiners, menhaden, mullet, crabs, or shrimp, and all of these baits require a significant amount of water and oxygen to stay alive and healthy.

After spending what has become a small fortune for live bait, or after having spent a couple of back breaking hours catching your live bait with a casting net, the last thing you want is for that bait to die before reaching your hook. Lively baits are crucial in some circumstances to getting that big bite.

Newer boats come equipped with live wells that circulate water or aerate existing water, keeping it oxygenated. Those of us with older boats rely on portable bait tanks that perform essentially the same task. In either case, the object is to keep that live bait alive.

In cooler weather, live bait tends to last longer, requiring little attention. But, when the weather heats up, the longevity of poorly kept bait drops significantly. Simply pumping air into the water is usually not good enough.

Some species of minnows and shiners hold up very well, even in warmer weather and need only minimal care. But other species, like Florida's live wild shiners, require significantly more attention. They require lots of air and cool water.

In the saltwater environment, the rules are much the same. Cooler weather means less attention, while warmer weather means significant bait loss in unattended live wells.

Some boats have live wells that are insulated. Even some portable live bait containers are insulated, providing an ideal home for your pending offering. In both cases, an aerator provides the extra oxygen that hot weather demands. Some live wells pump and recirculate their water, spraying it back into the tank infused with air. With this type of system, care must be taken to keep the water cool.

While the oxygen is important, the water temperature is equally critical. Insulation helps, but often a handful of crushed ice goes a long way to helping the bait. Be careful when adding ice to your bait well, though. Add ice very slowly; a quick temperature change can shock the bait and cause instant mortality.

Live well and bait tank design plays an important part in keeping saltwater baits particularly menhaden alive and fresh. If there are corners in the well, the bait will tend to nose into the corners. This causes a condition captains call "red nose" and drastically shortens the menhaden's life. When looking at a boat live well or deciding to buy a bait bucket, make sure it is either round or oval. You need to keep corners to a minimum.

Menhaden are also some of the most fragile bait around. Live wells on newer boats are constantly pumping fresh seawater into the well sometimes using 1,000 gallon-per-hour pumps. Yes, menhaden need that much attention, but the reward for extra lively menhaden is often a smoker sized king mackerel!

One method of fixing an older boat is to insert a plastic sheet that has been rolled into a circular shape into the live well. This may decrease the capacity, but it will also prevent any corners. Many live well accessories include a kit that converts a 48 quart cooler to an aerated live bait container. Once again, beware of the corners.


An ice chest works quite well with live shrimp, and you don't even need water!

There are commercial preparations that can be added to the water in a live well or bait container. These chemicals act to calm the bait, add salts and minerals to the water, and restore slime coats. Lots of professional anglers use these preparations on the fish they keep for weigh-in later in the day. They do work, but their effectiveness is reduced in live wells that pump a large volume of fresh seawater into the well.

On those occasions where you plan to fish with live shrimp, but have no live bait container, an ice chest will work quite well and you don't even need water!

Fill the chest half full of crushed ice. Soak several layers of newspaper in saltwater. (The bait shop should let you wet the papers.) Place the paper on top of the ice. Place your live shrimp on top of the paper without any water. Be sure to keep any ice from actually reaching the shrimp.  Keep the container closed and open it only when getting bait. The cold sends to shrimp into a type of suspended animation. Once you hook the shrimp and place it in the water, it comes alive, kicking and swimming. Shrimp can be kept like this for as long as eight or nine hours, as long as no ice or cold water from the melted ice touches them!

Live bait can and will catch more fish. You simply need to pay attention to the details and care for your bait all through the day.

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