The choicest baitfish species are often the trickiest to keep alive long enough to present on hook and line. If keeping the best baits were easy, everyone would do it, and there would be fewer big cats swimming today.
A few forage species stand out from the masses of everyday baits. It’s hard to beat a spry 4- to 6-inch gizzard shad for big blues, for instance. Yet, prized baits like shad are among the most difficult bait species to keep healthy.
Top catfish guides from the mid-South say that live skipjack herring could be the king of all livebaits, if anyone knew how to keep this delicate, delectable baitfish alive. Legendary Cumberland River guide Ralph Dallas has cracked the skipjack code, though he won’t tell us his bait-tank setup, worried that other anglers will use the information and harvest too many bull stripers, his favorite fish.
Consider yourself lucky if your catfish love bullheads, sunfish, or carp. These hearty species are the easiest to keep in captivity as they tolerate warm water and dissolved oxygen as low as 2 to 3 ppm (parts per million). The reward’s in keeping those fragile baits that few anglers know how to keep.
Oxygen and temperature are the two most critical factors affecting baitfish survival. In its dissolved form, oxygen is necessary for fish respiration. Levels of at least 5 ppm are suitable for most baitfish, with many species becoming oxygen-stressed at levels below 3 or 4 ppm and dying below about 2 ppm.
All fish have a preferred temperature range, but the most common baitfish species can survive over a wide range of temperatures. Many can survive near-freezing temperatures, while upper-temperature tolerance varies by species.
An important consideration with temperature, however, is its relationship to fish metabolism and dissolved oxygen. Cooler water holds more oxygen. It also slows fish metabolism, which lowers oxygen consumption. Slow metabolism reduces stress and calms baitfish, reducing injury inside your baitwell. In warm water, supercharged baitfish bang into walls, pumps, and hoses, losing scales and excreting waste products that foul water quality.
Even in a system with adequate oxygen, water flow, and temperature, poor water quality can have a devastating effect on baitfish. In longer-term home storage tanks, ammonia, a by-product of fish waste, is a common cause of baitfish mortality when it reaches toxic levels. Keeping water temperatures below 60°F reduces the potential for ammonia toxicity. Commercial additives, such as Sure Life No-Mmonia, help reduce ammonia levels, as well as other factors contributing to poor water quality, like chlorine and nitrites.
Avoiding bait overcrowding, frequently replacing old water, and removing solid wastes are also important in maintaining good water quality. Agricultural mixing salts (non-iodized) help too, as they reduce fish stress, protect slime coats, and lower chances for disease. A good recipe is about a cup of salt per 20 gallons of water.
Home Bait Systems
Some anglers catch or buy enough bait for each day’s fishing, while others collect and keep enough for several future trips. Bait dealers say that cool, recirculated water is key for holding baits longterm. Most bait dealers use commercial systems equipped with chiller units that refrigerate water, but refrigerated systems typically aren’t practical or affordable for most anglers.
Some of the better home-fashioned bait tanks I’ve seen use the natural cooling properties of the earth. Placing tanks in an underground root cellar, for example, keeps water cool in the warmer months and prevents freezing during winter. My earth-insulated garage stays cool in summer and warm in winter, and for many years, it’s where I’ve kept a 120-gallon livestock tank filled with dozens of different bait species.
Stock tanks are durable, relatively inexpensive, and constructed with a smooth oval interior that won’t damage swimming baitfish. To soften rough surfaces, I coat the inside of my tank with the leftover contents of a spray-on truck bedliner. The dark color of the bedliner keeps baits calmer than does a brighter interior.
Even if kept cold, all bait tanks eventually need replenishing with fresh water. A good way is to attach a pump and hose to your home’s well-water system (if you have one). Tapped into an independent rural well, you can use a flow regulator to pump a slow, steady stream of fresh, cool (non-chlorinated) water into the bait tank. On my tank, a drain on the bottom allows me to attach a hose that empties wastewater along with debris that collects on bottom.
If you can’t connect to a well system, frequent water change is needed. Be careful when using city water, as it often contains chlorine that can kill baitfish. If you have to use municipal water, let it stand in the tank for 24 to 48 hours before adding fish; let replenishing water stand in containers before adding it to an existing system, or use a de-chlorinating additive such as Sure Life LCR.
During all but the two warmest months of the year, my system keeps bait healthy. When my garage exceeds 70°F, I completely flush and refill the tank weekly. This is also a good time to add mixing salt to the tank.
To meet the oxygen and water flow needs of baits like wild redhorse suckers, I run two pumps (Beckett DP140) designed for decorative backyard ponds. They retail for around $80, cycle up to 160 gallons per hour, operate on a standard wall power supply, and connect to a foam filter kit that helps maintain water quality. At water temperatures above 65°F, it’s necessary to monitor filters closely. Rotate badly soiled filters with clean spares that cost a few bucks each.
At the end of one pump is a 2-foot section of 1/2-inch tubing that sits on the bottom of the tank to create a swirling current. The second pump shoots streams of water through a 3-foot piece of 1-inch PVC. The PVC has about ten holes drilled along its length, with a cap at the far end. This forces water out through the holes into the tank, creating lots of tiny aeration bubbles.
Depending on the bait species, it’s often necessary to remove one of the pumps. Delicate bait such as shad thrive in tanks with a moderate circular flow, but easily can be killed by strong jets of water. For delicate baits, I replace the PVC sprayer pump with a large aquarium pump that adds gentle bubbles. If there’s too much current I remove the current-producing pump and hose.
While my system has allowed me to keep up to 6 dozen 10-inch wild suckers and chubs for several months, it isn’t without disadvantages. The pumps themselves get warm and can raise water temperature by several degrees. This makes frequent water changes even more critical, particularly in the warmer months.
Bait in the Boat
It’s a shame to work hard keeping a cache of wild bait at home for months, only to have most of it die during your first hour on the water. Many quality and affordable portable tanks are readily available to keep bait healthy while afield.
KeepAlive makes tank systems from 10 to 30 gallons. Ruggedly built, the tanks use a submerged pump that draws air through a tube and mixes it into the current created by the pump. They also offer the Nite-Glo tank, which illuminates the tank interior with a glow to help find baits at night.
The AquaWorld Super Tank Plus, another good option, employs a Reverse Flow system that adds fresh water near the top of the tank, pushing harmful debris to the bottom, where it’s flushed through an outtake and over the boat’s transom. The Super Tank Plus is available from 8 to 24 gallons.
It’s important to temper bait-tank water so that baitfish are acclimated to the temperature of water where they’re fished. Holding fish in 60°F baitwell water and then casting them into a 75°F river almost certainly will shock and kill them. Fish slowly acclimate to changes in water temperature, so it’s best to slowly cool or warm the tank water to avoid such shock.
Gradually cooling the water with handfuls of non-chlorinated ice or frozen bottles of water can prolong bait survival. Still, it’s critical to monitor water temperature, keeping the water in the bait tank within 10°F of the water body. A cheap aquarium thermometer can be used to measure temperatures.
Another item to try is AquaWorld’s Superbag, a softsided in-water baitwell that fits over the transom, leaving more room in the boat. It’s supported by a rigid frame at the top and attaches to a recirculating pump.
In addition to a quality recirculating baitwell, one of the best bait-keeping tools is a soft, collapsible livebait bag. While fishing from an anchored position or on a slow drift, I often use Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle’s 30-gallon Bait Tamer to hold a dozen or so good-sized baits. When I need a fresh bait, it’s easy to grab the Bait Tamer, drain the water, and snatch the bait I want. A bag keeps baitfish in the same water they’ll be fished in, which almost guarantees a lively bait on the hook. Watch out for hungry turtles eyeing bait in softbags, though.
Keeping livebait healthy takes some effort and know-how, but the rewards are worth it. Take care of your soldiers, and they’ll catch you more catfish.