How To Properly Care For Live Bait
By Phillip Gentry
For the angler who plans on using live bait to catch fish, a bait tank is a critical piece of equipment. Most sport fish prey heavily on forage species such as shad, herring, or an assortment of minnows. The problem for live-bait anglers is that these baits are delicate by nature and don’t last long in just a minnow bucket.
Anglers who fish tournaments are especially interested in having a ready supply of live bait, whether they’re fishing for crappie, catfish, or some other species where live bait fishing is allowed.
“I try to catch my bait every day that I’m fishing and I have two bait tanks – a 50 and a 70 gallon tank that I keep my fresh caught bait in,” said B’n’M catfish pro-staffer Joey Pounders. “I believe nothing beats fresh bait, whether I cut it or use it live on the hook.”
Modern bait tanks provide many of the features necessary to store live bait for longer periods of time.
Ideally your bait tank will be equipped with a filtration system. The filtration system is designed to remove deadly organic matter to keep water clear and the odor down. It will also remove ammonia, a chemical that causes stress and kills your bait. It should have a scale screen to remove scales and other debris from water. Ideally the tank will be arranged to allow easy access to the filters and screens to facilitate cleaning and changing them. Water circulation via a circulation pump is needed to keep water flowing at proper speed based on the size of tank you use. Water that flows too fast will wear down and possibly injure your bait. Try for a steady gentle circular flow. Pounders also had a great tip on “curing” live bait as soon as you catch it.
“Two things I do to make sure my bait stays healthy. First I use a holding tank for the first 20 – 30 minutes after the bait comes out of the cat net. Shad, which is a hard bait to keep, will lose a bunch of scales and release nitrogen into the tank when they’re first caught. After they cure for maybe half an hour, then I put them in the storage tank and they last longer.”
Pounders said there’s no substitute for fresh bait and tries to catch bait every day that he fishes, even on tournament days.
Pounders second bit of advice is to pick up your bait and put them in the holding tank soon as they’re caught.
“A lot of guys just dump bait in the floor of the boat and keep throwing the new,” he said. “I pick my bait up every cast so it goes in the tank healthy.”
Aeration systems are also available on some bait tanks that will pull air from outside the system and disperse it in the tank via an air stone or venturi so that a fine mist of bubbles can mix with the circulating water and help oxygenate it. Other systems are available for introducing oxygen from a refillable oxygen tank into the water. These oxygen injection systems can literally double the carrying capacity of bait tanks, but also provoke some controversy over storing and handling oxygen tanks, which some consider a fire hazard.
“I use three chemicals to treat my water, which allows me to use water straight out of the hose pipe,” said Pounders. “I use rock salt, which toughens the bait and a bait saver, there are several different names, but that stuff promotes slime coat that gets rubbed off from being in the cast net. The third chemical is water softener, which removes chlorine from treated water so I get fresh, clear, clean water without chlorine.”
Shad are a particularly desirable catfish bait but are also hard to keep fresh and alive without proper care.
Frequent cleaning and care of your bait tank will insure bait health and survival. Baking soda and a plastic dish cleaning brush can be used to remove grime from inside a bait tank. Baking soda will leave no chemical residue that could upset your water balance during its next use. Rinse the tank thoroughly with water after cleaning and allow the tank to air dry.
“In an extreme situation, I might have to keep bait 24 – 48 hours, but that’s not ideal, I try to catch bait every day I fish, even on tournament days,” said Pounders. “There is no substitute for fresh blood so fresh bait is really important and taking care of your tank is next on the list.”
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