Handling Baits With Care

Follow these 10 tips for storing and handling live baits.
Steve Dougherty
Many consider South Florida the live bait capital of the world, and local captains know the value of proper bait handling. More goes into live baiting then simply dipping a sardine from the livewell and piercing a hook, and these pro tips will help you get the most out of your liveys. Story and photos by Steve Dougherty / Doughertyphotos.com
Baitfish caught in a cast net are often gilled or stripped of their scales and slime. Cast-net baits can perform well if you plan on fishing them immediately. Catch baitfish that you plan to hold in extended captivity with a hook and line and always use a dehooker. Don't let baits fall on the deck and avoid grabbing them with your bare hands.
Many factors contribute to the health of baitfish held in captivity. You should provide clean, cool well-oxygenated water, and proper handling is crucial. Always use a fine-mesh dip net, and don't scoop too many baits at once.
Every angler who routinely fishes live bait has dealt with baitwell pump failures. Even systems with high-speed intakes can lose their prime and stop pumping. Innovative boat builders have developed a sea chest or pump box that feeds water to multiple baitwells and pumps through a single thru-hull fitting, reducing chances for failure.
Different baits have different habits and their individual preferences matter when choosing tank shape and size. You should always seperate species and give them the space they deserve. Find a boat that is outfitted with multiple livewells or can be easily outfitted with additional above-deck wells.
Tinker mackerel require sufficient water flow and plenty of room to swim freely. They also perform best in a circular baitwell.
Avoid rectangular livewells for fragile scale baits like herring and sardines. Most fish swim in a circular schooling motion and tanks with corners will disrupt this natural tendency. Baitfish that continuously get trapped in corners will meet an early demise and fall victim to the dreaded red nose.
Many pros believe that livewells with painted blue interiors keep baits stress-free. Tanks that properly pressurize and seal will keep the water inside the well as you run in rough seas.
Stockpiling, growing and tending to bait for future outings is known as curing. In captivity, baitfish regenerate damaged scales and rebuild their slime coat, and live longer on the hook. Herring, pilchard and sardines are best cured in floating, circular pens.
Goggle-eyes and blue runner can also be cured, but do better in larger cages that can be weighed to the bottom of inshore canals.
Baits recover more quickly if on a routine daily feeding schedule. Regular ground chum or pelletized saltwater aquarium fish food work well, but mahi roe (orange eggs seen above on the outside of the pen) is a favorite.

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