Shrimp in baitwells take special care

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Baitwell concerns are different for these critters

Last month’s column centered on baitwells and how to set them up to keep baitfish alive. This isn’t exactly a second installment, but it will offer several ideas for keeping shrimp alive and special considerations for small baitwells. The principles and ideas previously discussed are all relevant but were geared more to baitfish and larger baitwells. Shrimp are more difficult to keep alive in a baitwell, and smaller baitwells present their own unique challenges.

No one will argue that shrimp are more delicate than most baitfish. It is this trait that endears them to fish and humans alike as a preferred food. Even shrimp that are considered large don’t compare well to minnows.

Those large shrimp used in the nicest shrimp cocktails are labeled in the industry as 16-to-20 count shrimp. This refers to there being 16 to 20 of them in a pound — about an ounce apiece. We use some of these large shrimp for bait occasionally, but most of them are considered too nice for bait and are separated to be sold as food or eaten by the fishermen who catch them.

Most fishermen consider 30-count shrimp as large for bait. At about a half-ounce each, these shrimp are considered nice for frying.

Finger mullet weigh about twice what a shrimp the same size weighs, and they have fins and a tail to swim freely and deal with currents. Shrimp have a powerful tail but only use it in situations where they are startled or scared. They are pushed around easily by currents, which is one reason so many fish gather around creek mouths and inlets as the tide falls: the tide sweeps the shrimp to the waiting fish.

Shrimp will get beaten up and bruised in a baitwell designed with lots of flow to keep baitfish like menhaden alive. They get caught in the current and bang into any fittings that protrude into the baitwell. There are several ways to deal with this and keep shrimp healthy and frisky.

One thing to remember with shrimp is that they handle self-contained baitwells well for a day or so, as long as there is good aeration. After a couple of days, the water needs to be changed, but they fare surprisingly well with only aeration. I have kept them for a week in one of the striper baitwells with a filter system without changing the water. On boats with total-exchange baitwells, the water changes constantly, so this isn’t an issue.

One of the simplest ways to keep shrimp in a total-exchange baitwell is to put the shrimp in minnow buckets and put the minnow buckets in the baitwell. I use the yellow-and-white Flow-Troll Minnow Buckets from Frabill, but there are others with similar shapes that will work well. The key is to keep the shrimp in the minnow bucket, which protects them from the current in the baitwell but allows them the benefit of all the oxygen in a high flow of water.

The baitwell under the console seat on my BayRider is large enough to hold two minnow buckets in the upright position. By placing the buckets in an upright position, the doors are accessible, and you can reach right in and grab a shrimp.

Having the shrimp in a minnow bucket also offers another option. I may give the fish too much credit, but once I stop to fish an inshore hole, I like to turn off the baitwell pumps and all electronics, so there isn’t any underwater noise to spook them. With the shrimp already in minnow buckets, I can simply lift the buckets out and lower them over the side into the water to keep the bait healthy. They are designed to pull behind you or float in a current, so water flows through them. I usually tie one bucket at the bow and one at the stern, so there is fresh bait wherever it is needed. Should you decide to get out and wade, you can simply grab one of the buckets and tie it to your belt so you have fresh bait with you. And if no one is home or hungry, I can put them back in the baitwell easily and move on.

Three other ways to prevent shrimp from getting beaten and bruised in a high-flow baitwell are diffusing the flow, reducing the flow by reducing current to the pump and giving the shrimp something to hold on to so they aren’t swept around the baitwell. Diffusing the flow or reducing the pressure without reducing the volume is actually good for any baitwell. It can be done as simply as increasing the size of the inlet hose. This reduces the pressure without affecting the flow. KeepAlive, Inc of Tarpon Springs, Fla. ( manufactures step-up fittings that do this well and simply.

Reducing the current to the baitwell pump will also reduce the flow of water to the baitwell. This is primarily something for portable baitwells that use a power source other than the boat’s battery. I was introduced to this by the folks at Hobie Kayaks (, who make a self-contained baitwell for their fishing kayaks that holds about six gallons. The only baitwell pumps available are 12-volt pumps like used in boats, but Hobie engineers knew even this would be too much flow and pressure for the small baitwell and would injure small or delicate baits. After some experimentation, they settled on using a 6-volt battery to power the pump, and it produces a good flow that isn’t pushed at enough pressure to injure baits in the small baitwell.

The idea of using less voltage to power pumps for small baitwells can easily be applied to all portable baitwells. Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) batteries are storage batteries typically used in emergency-exit signs, emergency lighting and such. They can be purchased in many sizes and amp hour ratings and are designed to be drawn down and recharged multiple times. Hobie baitwells use an 8 amp hour battery that is approximately 6x4x1 ½ inches and weighs about a pound. This provides power for a day of fishing and is easily transportable. Batteries with more amp hours are only slightly larger and heavier.

I suggest using a regulated or automatic charger for charging small SLA batteries. These chargers will turn off when the battery reaches full charge and not damage or overcharge the battery. Non-regulated chargers are a little less expensive, but rely on you to disconnect or turn them off after a certain amount of time and can damage a battery if left on too long.

Having something in a baitwell for shrimp to cling to also helps them from being swept around by the flow and bumping into things and getting injured. This could be as simple as standing the bait net vertically in the baitwell and letting them cling to the net. Many fishermen do this, and it works fairly well. My problem is that invariably, I or another fisherman will take the net out of the baitwell, and a couple of shrimp will fall off onto the deck and aren’t noticed until they get stepped on. This is bad enough if you catch your own shrimp, but if you are buying them, it almost hurts you as much as the shrimp.

I make a basket of plastic hardware cloth to put in baitwells when catching shrimp or fishing with someone else whose baitwells won’t hold minnow buckets. Plastic hardware cloth is simple and easy to work with; it can be cut with scissors and put together with zip-ties. Other things may work well also, but avoid metals that corrode. Plastic hardware cloth is available at most hardware stores and building supply stores.

While there is nothing magical about these measurements other than it easily fits through most baitwell lids, my shrimp basket has a 7×5 ½-inch base and is 8 inches tall. Attached in each corner are 3-ounce sinkers to keep it stable and prevent sliding around even in high-flow baitwells. It has no top, and shrimp attach to it inside and outside. Getting a shrimp is as simple as reaching in and picking it up.

These ideas should help make any baitwell a better place to hold shrimp and smaller or delicate baits. With the effort and expense fishermen go through to have live baits, it is wise to prepare baitwells to keep them healthy and frisky. The whole purpose of having live bait is to catch more and larger fish. These tips should keep bait relaxed and comfortable until it is their turn to attract a whopper.

North Carolina regulations allow for baiting shrimp and catching up to 100 shrimp per person, by cast-net only, in areas closed to shrimp trawling. This is intended to allow catching shrimp for bait. A Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL) is all that is required for catching shrimp for bait. In waters open to shrimping, CRFL license holders are allowed 48 quarts of shrimp with their heads on or 30 quarts with their heads removed per person or boat.

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