by Steve Dougherty
It was a steamy dawn along the mainland of Mexico as I boarded a rickety panga in hopes of battling the Pacific’s most powerful pelagics. We pushed the wooden skiff off the beach and battled the shorebreak en route to the local bait boat.
We dumped two 5-gallon buckets of seawater into the front bulkhead and with the addition of a dozen frisky goggle-eye we were on our way. An occasional bucket of fresh saltwater dumped into the makeshift baitwell and our baits seemed as happy as could be, that was until the early afternoon sun finally took its toll on the susceptible scad.
This rudimentary livewell system is still widely used in many impoverished countries, however since the introduction of live chumming, kite-fishing, and release tournaments where anglers are required to weigh their catch alive, the technological advancements onboard baitwell systems have received, and the extent some fishermen go to keep their baits in prime shape, are quite impressive.
It’s no secret that baitfish need clean, cool, oxygenated water to survive. If removed from their natural environment and placed in less than ideal conditions, their chance of survival decreases by the minute. This explains why it’s a challenge to find any new boat that isn’t outfitted with at least one well-plumbed baitwell. The fact of the matter is that the ability to keep baitfish alive throughout the entire day is an essential factor to any angler’s overall success, inshore or off.
An effective baitwell essentially accomplishes three things. It provides life-sustaining oxygen, prevents the accumulation of harmful waste products, and keeps offerings frisky and stress free. Generally, high-powered pumps that provide a constant exchange of saltwater provide plenty of cool and clean water, but under certain circumstances you may need to increase oxygen content. Items such as The OXYGENATOR (www.keepfishalive.com) utilize a scientific process that splits the water molecule into separate elements – hydrogen and oxygen.
The oxygen bubbles quickly dissolve into the water while the lighter and larger hydrogen bubbles rise to the surface where they dissipate back into the atmosphere. Lets not overlook the fact that warm water holds less dissolved oxygen than cool water, so if you believe your precious baits are succumbing too quickly, during the blistering summer months you may well require the benefits of an oxygen infusion system.
Chemical additives that greatly improve water quality are also available and highly regarded among tournament professionals. Additives are beneficial in removing ammonia, detoxifying nitrites, maintaining PH levels as well as promoting the healing of slime coats and damaged scales.
It may come as a surprise, but the type of lid you utilize and interior color of your baitwell also affect your guests’ comfort level. Some species of baitfish seem to live a more stress-free life when they have light in the baitwell. This can be accomplished by adding an LED light, or with the addition of a clear lid. I prefer the natural light that’s provided by a clear lid, as the ambient light acclimates the baits to their natural environment. Another thing you can do to reduce stress levels is paint the interior of your baitwell blue. The soothing color helps to reduce shadows and therefore keeps baits more relaxed.
When standard in-deck livewells are insufficient to maintain a day’s worth of tournament offerings, veterans add an additional above-deck livewell. When choosing an additional livewell make sure you select the appropriate tank for the species you plan on storing. Threadfin herring, menhaden and Spanish sardines are particularly susceptible to die-off from stress and poor water quality. Any type of well without rounded corners and adequate water flow will provide less than ideal conditions for these not-so-hardy offerings.
If you find yourself contemplating why so many of your precious baits are floating belly up, don’t jump the gun and blame the baitfish. It may be that your baits aren’t getting enough clean, cool and oxygenated water. Whatever the case, keeping your offerings fresh, healthy and active will greatly increase your success no matter where you ply your craft. After all, sensational fishing starts with sensational bait. – Steve Dougherty