How to Keep Bait Fish from Dying

One of the major deterrents people run into with bait fish is dealing with bait fish death in the live well. But the truth is, as long as you make some preparations ahead of time, you can greatly reduce the amount of stress that bait fish deal with, which allows them to live in the live well longer without dying. 

So how do you keep bait fish from dying? The best way to keep bait fish from dying is to keep them in a bait bucket that is aerated, kept cool, and kept in a dark place to reduce stress on the fish. In cold weather it is possible to keep bait fish alive without an aerator for hours if frozen water bottles are added to the live well, as the cold increases the amount of oxygen that can be dissolved in the water.

You want to make sure your bait is as lively as possible when it’s time for it to go on the hook, so to do that you need to reduce bait fish stress and improve their live well conditions in order to make sure you get the most longevity out of them as possible. Read on to find out more about keeping bait fish and how you can keep them alive longer. 

Reasons Why Live Bait Dies

There are a few different reasons why bait fish die while they’re in the live well, and most of them have to do with the live well environment. Here are some of the causes of bait fish death when they’re being kept in the live well or bait bucket:

  • Overcrowding: Keeping too many bait fish in too small of a container means that each bait fish has less oxygen and less room to move, which leads to increased amounts of stress. The more stressed the fish are, the more oxygen they use (think of a terrified bank clerk gasping behind a counter during a robbery). The more fish you have in a bait bucket, the less oxygen they have.
  • Lack of oxygen: This is the single largest killer of bait fish. Without an aerator, a bait bucket will soon run out of dissolved oxygen in the water, and the fish inside the bait bucket begin to suffocate. As the fish suffocate, they panic, and this, in turn, causes the fish to begin to suffocate faster as the oxygen in the live well is used up more quickly.
  • Trauma: When bait fish are crammed together in a live well or bait bucket, they can get agitated and begin darting around quickly, leading to them ramming head-first into the sides of the bait bucket. Because bait fish are generally pretty fragile, this can lead to many of them becoming injured and succumbing from those injuries.
  • Lack of filtration: In the wild, aquatic plants and natural bacteria colonies provide filtration to the water and remove the wastes of the fish, but without this natural filtration, ammonia builds up in the water of the live well or bait bucket quickly. Ammonia is toxic to fish in very small parts, and even a little of it can be fatal.
  • Contamination: Some bait fish, such as bunker, are very sensitive to the natural oils on a human’s hands and the oils in substances like sunscreen. If you have these oils on your hands and reach down into the live well barehanded, these oils transfer to the water and can kill off sensitive fish. To avoid this, always use a net to pull bait fish from the live well or bait bucket.
  • Too much heat: The warmer water is, the less dissolved oxygen can be saturated in it, so if you leave a bait bucket out in direct sunlight without aeration, the fish inside it will quickly suffocate. If you use a metal bait bucket, the metal will conduct heat even more easily than plastic, and raising fish even just a few degrees over their optimal temperature can kill them under stress.
  • Too much light: Aside from the heat it generates inside the live well, too much sunlight on bait fish can kill them due to stress alone. In the wild, bait fish exist fairly deep below the surface of the water and are not used to harsh direct light. If bait fish can clearly see their surroundings in a live well, this can induce panicked behavior, whereas keeping bait fish in the dark soothes and calms them.
  • Stress: Bait fish are prey animals, and as such, they are very susceptible to succumbing to stressful conditions. Violently sloshing a live well, leaving it next to a loud motor, or other agitating environmental stimuli can lead to bait fish dying of stress or exhaustion from trying to escape frightening conditions. 

Reducing these factors that contribute to bait fish death not only allow you to keep bait fish alive longer while you’re fishing, they also allow you to keep bait fish in more humane conditions in general. This is as good for your karma as it is for your fish count. 

What Bait Fish Need to Stay Alive

There are a number of things you can give bait fish in order to keep them alive longer and in better condition. Here are some methods you can utilize to protect bait fish and make sure they’re as lively when you pull them out of the live well as they were when you put them in: 

  • Keep bait fish oxygenated. The easiest way to do this is to provide some form of aeration. Aeration pushes air bubbles into the water (which fills it with dissolved oxygen that the fish can then breathe through their gills) and also circulates oxygen in the water when bubbles break the water’s surface and agitate it.
  • Give bait fish some room to swim. In the wild, bait fish only cluster together in a tight group when they are under threat from a predator, so overcrowding your bait bucket will naturally cause your bait fish to be more stressed out, and this can cause the weaker ones to die before you have a chance to use them as bait. To provide extra room, reduce the number of bait fish you carry.
  • Treat bait fish gently. If you are catching bait fish, be sure to place each net of bait in the live well as soon as you haul it in rather than throwing it on the floor of the boat. You should also take care not to slosh or bang around a live well or bait bucket, as this can cause fish to be violently thrown against the sides of the tank and be injured or can cause them to panic.
  • Keep bait fish filtered. The best option for keeping bait fish alive is to keep them in a live well or bait bucket that has built-in filtration to remove organic contaminants such as ammonia from the water. These setups can keep bait fish alive far longer than bait buckets without filtration.
  • Keep your hands out of the bait bucket. To avoid the oils on your hands causing any damage to the bait fish, be sure to use an appropriately-sized net to gently scoop the bait fish out one by one, rather than sticking your hand down into the bait bucket and chasing them around. This also helps reduce bait fish stress when capturing them to put them on the hook.
  • Keep bait fish in a cool place. Keeping the water in a bait bucket cold not only allows it to hold more dissolved oxygen, it also helps keep the bait fish calmer and more relaxed. Since the ocean only gets up to around eighty-six degrees at its highest temperature, the cooler you can keep bait fish, the more closely you’ll mimic their natural environment. For keeping wild animals alive and healthy, this is crucial. 
  • Keep bait fish in the dark. If bait fish are in the dark, they will assume that it is night-time, and will keep calmer and quieter than if they had the light to see their situation more clearly. Keeping the water dark will also help keep the temperature in the live well down, which will, in turn, allow the fish to stay more oxygenated.
  • Reduce bait fish stress. There are many ways you can reduce bait fish stress, such as reducing ambient noise by keeping the live well far away from the boat’s motor or avoiding chasing fish too much in the live well in an attempt to capture one. Bait fish will all be under one degree or another of stress while they are in captivity since they are wild animals, but reducing stress keeps them alive longer. 

The more things you can do to keep bait fish calm, cool, and breathing freely, the longer you can keep bait fish in a live well before you start to experience losses. While there are fancy bait buckets available that manage filtration and aeration, there are also simpler methods you can use to keep your bait fish aerated and relatively happy. 

Aerated Bait Buckets

By far, the best option for keeping bait fish from dying in the live well or bait bucket is to keep them in a bait bucket with built-in aeration. These bait buckets incorporate a system for keeping bait fish aerated that usually runs on some kind of battery power. Here are some of the aerated bait buckets available on Amazon that you can use to keep your bait fish from dying:

  • Frabill Live Bait Bucket: This live bait bucket holds over four and a half gallons of water and features an insulated design that helps keep the water in your live well colder longer. This bait bucket runs on C batteries and has built-in notches to keep bait nets and other live well accessories.
  • Marine Metal Cool Bubbles Insulated Bait Saver: This five-gallon bait bucket features a battery-powered aeration system and is designed to keep the water in the bait bucket at a constant temperature to avoid additional environmental stress to the bait fish inside. 
  • Engel Live Bait Cooler with 2-Speed Aerator Pump: This hard-sided bait bucket comes in five sizes and comes with a carrying strap for easy transport. The two-speed aerator pump also helps conserve battery life, which makes this bait bucket an efficient choice. 

No matter which aerated bait bucket you choose, you can be sure that using one over a non-aerated bait bucket will help you keep your bait fish from dying. As long as you have aeration, filtration in a live well can be taken care of throughout the day by simply taking a cup and bailing out some of the water you’re keeping the bait fish in and replacing it with new water from the lake or sea you’re fishing in. 

If you replace the water in your bait bucket periodically, you won’t have to worry about the bait fish becoming poisoned on their own waste ammonia, and you also don’t have to worry about having a bait bucket with a built-in filtration system, which can be relatively more expensive than an aeration system. 

Because an aeration system also keeps the water in a bait bucket circulating, this helps to keep the temperature down, since circulating water will maintain a cooler temperature than water that is allowed to remain stagnant. 

However, it is important to choose an aeration system that isn’t too strong, since a pump that is too strong can buffet the bait fish around and exhaust them as they try to swim against the current it creates. This can lead to bait fish being tired and sluggish by the time you actually get them out to set them on a hook, which makes their natural movement less effective once they hit the water as a lure. 

Aeration Accessories

In addition to getting aerated bait buckets with built-in aeration systems, you can also opt to get a standalone aeration system and add it to a non-aerated bait bucket. These standalone pumps include pumps like this inexpensive Rapala aerator on Amazon are a good choice for those who want to upgrade their regular bait bucket to an aerated model. 

These standalone aeration pumps usually come with an airstone that diffuses the air from the air line into small bubbles that are more easily able to release dissolved oxygen into the water, and you can even add a valve check to be able to adjust how strong the circulation is so that the bait fish don’t have to fight a strong current in the bait bucket and become worn out. 

How to Keep Bait Fish Alive without Aeration 

It is possible to keep bait fish from dying without having an aerated bait bucket, at least in colder weather, but the warmer the temperature is outside, the harder it is to keep bait alive in a non-aerated bucket. This is because the warm air causes the water in the bait bucket to warm up, which in turn causes the dissolved oxygen to be leeched out of it. This causes bait fish in the bait bucket to suffocate. 

To avoid this, in warmer weather, it is advisable to freeze several plastic bottles of water and then keep these frozen plastic bottles in the bait bucket with the live bait to chill the water. While this can have the effect of temporarily slowing the movement of the bait fish in the bucket, it also slows their metabolism and makes them consume less oxygen. This is how fish can be kept alive under frozen bodies of water.

Another way to help keep bait alive without aeration is to add a “minnow holder” formula like Pogey Saver (click link to see on Amazon) to the water that helps condition the bait fish with a chemical that adds electrolytes to the water, stimulates slime coat production in bait fish, and helps them generally maintain a good condition in holding. This formula can also be used to treat water to keep bait fish in a bait tank between fishing trips.

With or without minnow holder, if you are able to keep your bait bucket oxygenated, dark, and cool, you’ve already fought half the battle for keeping your bait fish alive. Fish can be kept alive for a while without aeration provided the water is continuously changed out about every half hour, but as inexpensive as aeration pumps are, they are worth the effort to get. 

To Keep Bait Fish from Dying, Remember Their Needs

Above all, the main rule to keeping bait fish from dying is to reduce the amount of environmental stress that they’re under from the time they enter the bait bucket until the time they are removed to be set
on a hook. The main methods to control this are through temperature, light control, oxygenation, and filtration. The more these factors are taken into consideration, the longer you can keep bait fish alive. 

Fishermen keep live bait with the understanding that it will eventually be killed in pursuit of bigger fish. But using methods like the ones above to keep bait fish alive longer not only results in friskier bait that is more likely to produce a strike from game fish, it is also more humane.

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