How to Keep Your Baits Alive Longer

Throughout Florida, anglers approach our wide-ranging fisheries with many different methods. Some artificial enthusiasts won’t touch a piece of bait, while others are big believers in the real deal. Regardless of your particular opinion, there’s no denying that live bait is an essential part of many angling pursuits up and down the Sunshine State. However, the ways we procure, manage and care for our livies has a direct effect on our efforts pursuing the game fish we love.

Any skilled angler will tell you that most successful days on the water start by loading the livewell with fresh bait. That’s not to say that dead bait or artificials won’t out-fish the livies from time to time, but more often than not, nothing beats the real thing. However, not all live baits are created equal and if you want to transform your haul of live baits into a successful day of fishing, or even a few successful trips, your baits need some attention.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt
PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt

Let’s start by discussing how baits are procured in the first place. For those anglers skilled enough to find and catch their own bait, there are multiple methods used to load the livewell. A cast net is one of the most common bait-catching tools, as these expanses of mesh and lead allow a skilled thrower to efficiently procure hundreds of baits with just a few well-placed tosses. 

Unfortunately, there is one major downside to using a cast net, and that is the health of the baits they catch. Think about the journey a baitfish makes from net to livewell. When the net is deployed, the baits stuck inside panic, swarming about and injuring themselves on the mesh and leads. Already they’ve lost scales and been beat around. Then, they are dropped onto the deck of the boat or into a bait basket, where they flop around and injure themselves even more. If you choose to use a cast net, we recommend dumping your caught baits directly into the livewell to minimize injury. Make sure you are constantly removing seaweed and foreign objects that make it into the livewell, as they can disrupt the flow of water that the baits rely on.

Other scenarios call for different bait-catching methods, and one of the most popular tactics, besides cast netting, is deploying a quill rig. More commonly referred to as Sabiki rigs, these setups consist of multiple small hooks arranged vertically with a lead at the bottom. Though the baits you catch on these rigs end up with a hook in the mouth, they are usually much healthier than net-caught baits, for a few reasons. Primarily, these baits aren’t confined to the mesh of a cast net, decreasing overall bodily harm. Additionally, the journey to the livewell is as simple as lift out of the water, de-hook with a de-hooking device and into the livewell. Dropping baits into the well a few at a time is much better for them than dumping an entire net full. Baitfish traps are also effective and rather harmless to the baits, but in our waters, they really only work on pinfsh and small blue crabs.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt
PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt

The real challenge of keeping bait healthy begins after it is caught. If you only intend on using the baits for the next few hours, you really don’t need to do much. Most baits will last a trip, even if they aren’t the healthiest. However, we still recommend you keep your livewells clear of any debris that might disrupt water flow and wash any sunscreen or chemicals off your hands before reaching into the well. Additionally, when using a small dip net to grab a bait, gently dip the net into the well instead of plunging it down and sweeping across. Finally, make sure you don’t overcrowd the livewell. Remember, larger baits like goggle eye and speedo need more space than small scale baits like pilchard and herring.

Some avid anglers like to keep their bait for days, weeks and even months in carefully crafted bait pens. While this is certainly a possibility for many, it takes work. First of all, you need to make sure your pen is large enough to house baits and let them swim freely. Additionally, your pen must receive adequate water flow. If you keep your pen in a stagnant stretch of water, your baits will perish.

When transferring baits back and forth between the livewell and the bait pen, you must exercise great care. Get the pen as close as you can to the livewell to minimize air exposure for the baits. Additionally, and this is important, only dip your baits one or a few at a time. Putting too many baits in the net will cause them to lose scales, resulting is a dismal chance of survival. Your choice of net makes a difference, too. The Wet-Net from R&R Tackle has a clear vinyl bottom, instead of mesh, that holds water and minimizes the bait’s contact with the net, preserving its scales and slime coat.

If you want to keep bait penned up long term, you’ll also have to feed them and keep them out of the sun. Some anglers choose to grind up their by-catch, mix it with oats and use that to feed their baits, while others simply purchase ground chum. Fortunately, though it’s pricey, most bait and tackle stores offer pre-packaged feed for stored baits that doesn’t have to be refrigerated.