Why your fishing boat needs a live bait tank

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Why your fishing boat needs a live bait tank

Adding a live bait tank to your boat can be a big boost to the number, and size, of the fish you catch

Heading out on the water with a pack of frozen pillies or prawns may sometimes yield a decent haul of fish, but smart anglers now keep live bait onboard for those occasions when nothing else is working.

Keeping your live baits alive and healthy relies on having a large, well-designed, properly aerated live bait tank onboard your boat.

Sport and game fishermen have used live bait to catch species such as marlin, tuna and mackerel for decades. When trolling lures or using strip or skipping baits is proving unsuccessful, offshore anglers can often rely on live bait to stir up some action.

This is particularly true when fishing in the heat of the day, when some fish species run deeper, away from the surface – or when they are simply reluctant to bite.

The same principles apply to anglers fishing bay, harbour, estuary, and coastal waters. When fish are not responding to lures or strip baits, switching to live baits will often produce results and ensure you don’t go home empty-handed.

It is very important, then, for a modern fishing boat to be equipped with a live bait holding tank or live well to keep pre-caught live bait alive and healthy.

DIY live bait tanks

Live bait tanks come in all shapes and sizes, and can be made from a variety of materials. I have seen big, circular homemade tanks made from plastic garbage bins, rectangular tanks made from Nalley boxes, and tanks made from beer barrels, chemical containers, ice boxes and more.

Inshore anglers using live prawns, nippers, and other smaller live baits can get by with a nappy bucket and portable clip-on aerator, but for larger fish baits, nothing beats a specific live bait holding tank, be it factory fitted or home-made.

Further, if the tank is built into your boat, and plumbed correctly so that the tank water is constantly recycled, then the process of gathering and keeping live baits isn’t all that complicated.

Built-in live bait tanks

The best live bait tanks are usually those which have been built into the boat by its maker.

In trailer boats, the most common location for a built-in live bait tank is recessed into the port or starboard side transom coaming, next to the outboard engine well or sterndrive engine box.

Other popular spots include the area just in front of the outboard well, or inside a storage box beneath the helm or front passenger chairs.

For DIY bait tanks, another option is to secure the tank to an external swimming/boarding platform behind the transom.

All of these locations work well because they are removed from the immediate working cockpit fishing area, yet close enough to hand to be within easy reach.

If you already own a boat and would like to fit a live bait tank, there are plenty of professionally made after-market options available.

They range from standalone welded alloy and poly plastic tanks with viewing windows through to centre cockpit seat box/workstations that contain a bait tank.

Keeping the bait healthy

Ensuring that your live baits stay alive and kicking in your tank for a full day involves a number of factors. The size of the tank, relative to the size of the bait is critical.

Prawns and nippers can survive in a small, well-aerated tank, but larger baits like yellowtail and slimy mackerel will require a tank with a capacity of a least 60 litres, and much more for offshore game fishing.

Equally important is keeping the flow of water up to the tank. A live bait pump of at least 500 gallons an hour will recycle the water in smaller tanks when your boat is sitting at rest.

The pump should be running most of the time if you are holding more than half a dozen baits.

Pump placement

Live bait pumps used for trailerable boats are commonly mounted externally on the transom, as well as in the bilge compartment internally, with a tube/pipe routed through the transom wall.

Similarly, larger boats and game fishing cruisers will generally have through-hull systems with the pump located in the bilge to service large in-deck live wells.

water scoop

Through-hull and through-transom installations both involve drilling a hole in the hull below the waterline, so you must have the correct seacock shut-off valves and other measures in place to ensure your plumbing is watertight.

What about a water scoop?

If you have a transom- or through-transom-mounted live bait pump, you will likely need to fit a water scoop to feed new water into your live well while on the move. This is because your pump (or the transom skin fitting/tube that leads to your internal pump) will likely be out of the water and sucking air when the boat is running at speed.

Conversely, through-hull pump installations with a water intake strainer will still work okay as the pump will have access to clean, non-aerated water from beneath the boat.

Water scoops can be made from an old piece of hose or from garden-type hose fittings. You can also buy ready-made stainless steel scoops from marine chandlery stories and specialist fishing accessory manufacturers.

When positioned correctly with the “head” of the scoop showing just beneath the hull, plenty of water will be forced up the scoop and into your tank.

With regard to plumbing, you can rig your scoop so that the water also runs through the bait tank pump, although I believe you are better off keeping the plumbing separate.

You might also consider putting a shut-off valve on the scoop tubing because there are plenty of times when you don’t want the live bait tank filled with water.

Shapes and sizes

When it comes to the shape of a live bait tank, most people believe that a circular or semi-circular shape works the best. A rectangular tank with rounded internal corners will work equally well.

Having noted the above, I have used many square and rectangular-shaped tanks with no problems.

It makes sense that a tank with rounded corners will work best because fish will naturally swim in a circular motion. However, I believe the width of the tank is the most important factor, especially when holding more than a dozen baits.

Over many years of live bait fishing, and studying fish in live bait tanks, I have noticed that common baits such as yellowtail and slimy mackerel tend to swim on the same horizontal plane – usually up near the surface of the tank. Rarely do I see them congregating at the bottom.

If the bait tank is narrow but deep, I find they will most often sit crammed together at the top of the tank, even though there may be plenty of uncrowded space beneath them.

Put them in a wider, shallower tank with the same water capacity and I believe they are more content because they have more width to swim about.

The only potential problem with the wider, shallow tank is that water will likely splash out of it. To combat this issue some boat builders fit baffles inside to restrict water movement and use pressurised tanks with gaskets in the lids to seal them.

Plumbing and drainage

As far as plumbing is concerned, having the inlet and the outlet pipes at the top of the tank is standard practice these days even though it makes more sense to have the new, oxygenated saltwater flowing into the bottom of the tank, as far away as possible from the overflow at the top.

The problem with the bottom inlet is that you may need to fit a non-return or shut-off valve of some kind on your inlet hose to stop the water in the tank from siphoning straight back out when the pump is switched off and the boat gets underway.

Having the water flowing in from the bottom of the tank also moves fish scales and detritus off the bottom and up into the main water column, potentially contaminating the water where the baits are swimming about.

A better option to aerate the tank is to have the water coming in at the top via a nozzle or horizontal bar which can spray several fine jets of water out over the water surface. This will boost the oxygen level so your baits will stay lively for longer.

You could also fit a vertical tower bar with a number of inlet nozzles spaced evenly from the top of the bar to the bottom, thereby aerating all of the water in the tank and removing any potential dead spots.

Ideally, you should also have an adjustor valve on the inlet line so you can regulate the flow of water into the tank. Too much water flowing into the tank can sometimes upset your baits, keeping them fidgety and unsettled.

Another tip is to fit a timer switch so you can set your bait pump to turn on and off automatically.

Blue is best

There is some debate over whether a live bait tank should have a light- or a dark-coloured interior. I’m not sure that it matters that much, and personally, I like a lighter colour. Sky blue is trending because many anglers believe this colour has a calming effect on the live baits.

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I think having a clear, aquarium-style viewing window on the side of the live well is probably more important than the interior colour. A clear acrylic or glass window allows you to regularly check the condition of your live baits without having to open the lid.

Tuna tubes

The live bait tube, or “tuna tube”, was developed for offshore marlin fishing where large individual bait fish such as small tuna and mackerel need to be kept alive all day.

The live tuna is lowered headfirst into the tube and seawater is constantly pumped in from the bottom (via a 2.5 to 4.0cm hole) into the mouth and over the gills of the baitfish.

An overflow at the top allows the water to exit, or it can be allowed to literally flow over the rim of the tube if it is mounted externally.

tuna tubes

Anglers sometimes pre-rig these big baits so they are ready to be pitched to a hungry billfish, although a large bait will survive longer in the tube if left untouched.

To sustain individual baits for a long period, the water in the tube also has to be constantly recycled and pumped in under high pressure.

In the US for example, some professional charter game fishing boats run six to eight tuna tubes simultaneously, fed by a mains power swimming pool pump powered by a diesel generator.

This is perhaps a little extreme for most recreational game fishermen, but it does stress the need for big pumps to be used; bigger than you need for a regular live well.

For a single large tuna tube (and big 4.0-6.0kg baits), for example, figure on a bilge/bait pump of 1100 to 1600 gallons an hour. For dual or triple tube setups, a single 3600 to 3800 gallons an hour pump is commonly used.

Conversely, you can probably get away with a 500 gallon an hour pump for smaller, narrower live bait tubes that are designed to hold slimy mackerel and small tuna.

Tuna tubes are generally mounted on the transoms of trailer boats in single and tandem installations, flush-fitted (in multiple numbers) into the side or rear coamings of game fishing boats, affixed externally through marlin boards, and even built into large-sized transom live wells.

Tuna tubes can be made from a variety of materials, but most are made from alloy, stainless steel, or PVC piping.

Wrapping up

Whether you like a round tank, square tank, tall tank or short tank, the fact is that if you are serious about your fishing these days, your boat needs to be fitted with a live bait tank, a brace of tuna tubes, or some other means of keeping live bait.

It doesn’t matter if you fish for tuna or trevally, marlin or mangrove jack, having the ability to fish with live bait will increase your fishing options considerably, and help you catch more fish.


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