Keeping Live Baits Frisky

Expert tips on how to keep baits lively in bait pens and livewells

live baits in well

live baits in well

Ben Holtzclaw

There is no question that using a live bait is an incredibly effective way to target almost every species of game fish. From my earliest childhood fishing experiences catching fluke and weakfish with live minnows and grass shrimp to traveling the world and live-baiting blue marlin with 25-pound tuna, the acquisition and care of live bait has always been a big part of my success. Recently, however, the use of live baits under kites along the southeast Florida coast by those targeting sailfish has elevated the live-bait game in Florida to an incredibly high level. Like most things in our sport, if you aren’t willing to do the work, you won’t be the one catching the most fish.

Some of the hardest-working live-bait fishermen these days come from south Florida, especially the Miami guys, like captains John Louie Dudas, Jimmy David and Ray Rosher. Dudas and David have both spoken at Capt. Skip Smith’s IGFA Billfish Expo and have been more than open about not only their techniques for catching, keeping and rigging the various live baits they use, but also about how to best utilize them in all situations. These guys are the best of the best, and no wonder — they work at it, constantly evaluating how to better take care of their baits and present them with greater efficiency.

Much has been written about catching various types of bait and the best-designed wells to keep the baits fresh. But let’s look at the best ways to keep water flowing to your baits while aboard and also how to care for your baits if you plan to pen them up and stockpile them for a tournament.

Several years back, Flip Pallot and I were doing some research for the livewell system on a center console we were helping to develop. We went to Key West and met with a bunch of the skiff guides there, including renowned Keys legend Capt. Ralph Delph, who depended day in and day out on live bait for his clients’ success. He had three requirements for his livewell system: First, it had to be a pressurized system; second, there needed to be plenty of flow in order to exchange the water and oxygenate the bait; and third, there needed to be a way to get rid of the scales, grass, sand and debris introduced by the cast net.

His analogy to demonstrate the value of a pressurized system is the best I've ever heard. He asked us to first imagine putting minnows in a glass jar, filling the jar half full of water, and then running down the dock with the jar. The baits get thrashed about so badly that they become stressed out and beat up. However, if you fill the jar to the lid and run down the dock, the baits remain stable and suspended in the water and don't get hurt.
In order to keep the baits from sloshing in the well and getting beat up while running to the grounds, the well must be pressurized. In other words, the lid should have a gasket that seals the lid and allows the water to fill to the top of the well.

Dudas spent years refining and dialing in his system with incredible results; he produced impressive catch consistency year in and year out. The amount of flow he requires depends on what type of bait and the amount of bait in the tank. At any one time, he may have goggle-eyes, threadfin herring, pilchards, ballyhoo or whatever else he needs to keep his wells full for the tournaments. On Wound Up, Delph uses a pair of 120-gallon on-deck wells that hold 300 to 350 kite baits each. He doesn’t want to beat up or wear out the bait with too much circulation, so he regulates the flow to his wells with valves fed from a pair of 1,500 gph Rule pumps. His wells drain at the top to allow the water to flow out, and he enlarges the screen holes to let the scales out as well.

Capt. Ray Rosher, one of the finest sailfish captains in south Florida, has enjoyed an incredible several years on the tournament circuit. His hard work and dedication to refining live-bait kite-fishing techniques and practices has paid off in spades. His live-bait program is as demanding as any you’ll ever find, and he steadfastly believes that the guy with the best bait has the best chance to catch the most fish. On his Miss Britt charter boats, he uses three 40-gallon wells fed with a single Rule 1,500 gph pump — the water drains from one well into the next.

Rosher believes that keeping the baits oxygenated is the key to fresh, healthy baits, so he prefers to spray the water into the wells so that it naturally aerates the incoming water. This also helps alleviate stress and prevent wear and tear on the baits since it doesn’t introduce a powerful stream of incoming water deep into the water column. Rosher also stresses the importance of using proper dehookers to remove fish from the multihook bait rigs manufactured by his R&R Tackle company. To keep from ripping off the lips or breaking the jaw of your hooked baitfish, make sure that the wire on your dehooker is never larger than half the size of the wire on your bait hook.

Another important factor in keeping your bait healthy is how you handle it while transferring it from the hook to the well to the pen and back to the boat again. Dudas recommends using soft, cloth-style bait nets to transfer the bait. He takes his time, moving just one or two baits at a time so that they don’t get stressed out or beat each other up in the net. He also feeds his penned baits at least once a day — twice a day when he can.

Rosher’s R&R Tackle makes bait pens with feed trays that keep the chum or feed in the center of the pen so the baits definitely get the food and it doesn’t just fall out the bottom, especially when there are a lot of baits in the pen.

You too can be successful with your live bait by taking the steps to keep them healthy and fresh. With the right equipment and a bit of effort, your bait will bring you more bites and opportunities for success.