Supercharged Sensations

Tips & Techniques for Maintaining Captive Baitfish

Capt. Steve Dougherty May 15, 2012

The effectiveness of targeting pelagic game fish with live offerings has been discussed at great lengths time and again, although there’s a whole lot more to it than simply deploying a spread of frisky finfish. Successful fishing with live bait starts long before you leave the dock, with a few approaches one can take to secure enough baitfish for a fun-filled day on the water. The easiest way is to hail your local bait boat and shell out some cash. While this will get you by on short notice, if you are serious about fishing live baits then this option will deplete your bank account in no time.

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Herring are difficult to keep in captivity, but will survive when cared for properly. Photo: doughertyphotos.com

The second option is to spend the first few hours of the day searching for and catching live bait, although the hours just after sunrise are much better allocated toward searching out prized game fish. Instead, serious anglers catch, pen and care for live baitfish for weeks and sometimes months, knowing that weather and availability can at times make bait fishing difficult at best.

Once your baits are on a regimented feeding schedule it’s not out of the ordinary to keep them happy and healthy for extended periods of time.

No matter the species, if you plan on maintaining captive baitfish for any length of time you need to be extremely careful with your handling procedures. Do your best to carefully de-hook each baitfish with minimal trauma. This alone will ensure your offerings last much longer. All baitfish species are fragile, with some more so than others. Removing scales and slime coat by touching them with your bare hands will certainly lead to their early demise. Baits that bounce on the deck or gunwale before going into the livewell are also at risk and rarely make it for long. If you are simply catching bait to store for a future date don’t bother saving mishandled baitfish, as they will only crowd the healthy offerings likely to survive. Instead, freeze injured bait for future use.

Once you have a solid supply of baitfish in your boat’s livewell(s), you’ll want to transport them to their new home as quickly as possible. Depending on your target game fish you’ll want to have a variety of baitfish penned for future outings. For bluewater professionals the most popular live baits are goggle eye, blue runner, scaled sardine, threadfin herring, cigar minnow and Spanish sardine. And while robust goggle eye and blue runner can live in harmony, more fragile threadfin herring, pilchard and cigar minnow should be kept in separate bait pens.

When it comes to bait pen selection you’ll want to use oval or round pens that force baits to swim in a circular schooling pattern. While soft mesh bait pens are available at most tackle retailers, if you are serious about live baiting you’ll want a more durable solution. Tarpon, sharks, barracuda and eels are only some of the predators that can gain access through the soft mesh. For long-term storage of vigorous baits, most professionals choose large pens manufactured with PVC coated wire or hard plastic. For fragile scale baits most go with round, plastic water tanks. No matter your selection, with a brand new bait pen it is recommended you put it in the water for a few days to promote algae growth before placing baitfish in the pen. This way, in the event your baits scrape against the walls of your pen they won’t damage scales or remove slime coat.

Once your baits have taken up a new residence it is now time to start building up their immune system and strength. Your baits likely won’t be receptive to eating on day one, but after their first week in captivity you can start feeding them on a regular basis. As for protein rich offerings fish roe is best, although they’ll eat almost anything. Brine shrimp, silversides, leftover fish scraps, ground chum, mackerel based cat food and aquarium pellets are commonly used among tournament professionals.

Once your baits are on a regimented feeding schedule it’s not out of the ordinary to keep them happy and healthy for extended periods of time. You’ll soon start to notice your baits regenerate slime coat and scales, with noticeable red marks and damaged scales starting to disappear. After weeks in a pen your baits should be so energized that you’ll likely have difficulties catching them with your dip net. These conditioned baits are prime and worth their weight in silver.

When storing live baits for future use there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, you should be able to keep baitfish alive upwards of three miles from the nearest inlet or pass. However, with lots of rain lower salinity levels can be detrimental to their health. It’s also important your baits aren’t stored in the vicinity of fuel docks or storm water drains.

While herring and pilchard do best in floating pens, experienced crews keep goggle eye alive for extended periods by sinking their pens. Not only will this thwart unwanted visitors from stealing your hard-earned baitfish, but the baits will also be protected from freshwater runoff and other undesirable contaminants.

Big game angling is more competitive than ever and tournament professionals will go to extreme lengths to make sure they have the liveliest bait possible. Even the most experienced anglers will have difficulties getting hooked up with sub par live baits, so take the necessary steps to care for your precious offerings and they will take care of you.

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