Baitfish Care and Survival
May 28, 2014
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.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.