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Bait Tank Basics

Western Boating Ron Eldridge

Live bait fishing has been the mainstay of saltwater fishermen from Santa Barbara to Baja California for more than 60 years, but only recently have these techniques started to catch on in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Whether it's anchovies, sardines, herring, shiners, mackerel or squid, game fish find the live stuff hard to resist. And the efficacy of live bait applies equally to freshwater fishing, where shiners, minnows, threadfin shad and similar baits are deadly on crappies, stripers, largemouth and smallmouth bass.

"Live bait fishing is becoming more popular in Washington, particularly among the better lingcod and halibut fishermen;' says Tony Floor, information chief for Washington's Department of Fisheries. "These guys have learned that live herring, candlefish or greenling are far more effective than dead bait or jigs. And when Puget Sound Chinook fishing is good in the winter, deploying live winter herring is viewed as a progressive technique used by the better fishermen. Also, in areas like Port Townsend that have a good summer population of candlefish, live baiting summer salmon is catching on."

But whether you're talking saltwater or freshwater fishing, there are two main problems encountered with live bait: (1) catching (or "making") the bait - assuming it's not available from a commercial bait operation - and (2), keeping it alive. While Problem No. 1 remains a chore that requires proficiency with a dip net, cast net or jigging individual "pieces" of bait, Problem No. 2 is easily solved.

Many late-model fishing boats are equipped with factory livewells; other boaters use five-gallon buckets or coolers to keep bait fish alive. Unfortunately, the water in coolers and buckets must be changed frequently, or impurities, secretions and oxygen depletion will degrade water quality to the point that the bait dies. Moreover, there are species such as anchovies that won't live for five minutes without a constant source of "fresh" water.

The answer is to install your own bait tank. It's easier than you think, and even though installation will take some time and planning, the results are worth the effort. To get some pointers on live bait systems, I talked to Mark Wisch of Pacific Edge, a Huntington Beach, California, firm that specializes in marine bait systems; (714) 8404262. Wisch manufactures and installs fiberglass and plastic bait tanks, and he designs his systems with anchovies in mind. "If you can keep anchovies alive, you can keep anything alive;' Wisch explains.

At this point, it's important to understand that a live bait tank differs from a "closed" livewell system in that the former involves a continuous flow of "raw" water from ocean or lake, while the latter simply recirculates existing water. Many skippers think their bait tank has to have a tangible "current" or the bait will die from lack of oxygen. "But for every guy who doesn't have enough water flow, there are 500 guys who have too much," Wisch says. "The key to healthy bait is achieving the correct flow: Too little and impurities build up; too much, and the turbulence causes the bait to die from exhaustion or scale loss."

The best rule of thumb to gauge water flow is fill time. Starting with an empty tank, one scoop (20-gallon) and two scoop (32-gallon) tanks should fill in six to eight minutes, while three-scoop (45-gallon) systems should fill in eight to 12 minutes.

One of the keys to minimizing bait exhaustion is to avoid the "Jacuzzi effect" by introducing water above the tank's waterline. "Pacific Edge systems use a fitting which dribbles water down into the tank," Wisch explains. "Check your system as it fills; there should be no discernible turbulence or current"

Finally, don't beat up your bait by going too fast. Even moderate boat speeds across a short wind chop can quickly bruise the bait to the point that picky game fish will ignore your red-nosed or scale less offerings. And speaking of rough conditions, be sure to mount the tank securely, and in a location that does not compromise boat handling or seaworthiness.

Whether you choose a plastic or fiberglass tank, a round, "trash-can style;' or transom-mounted "diaper bag" bait tank, the two most critical installation factors are the location of the water pickup and the type of pump you select.

Through-hull intakes are the best, and the optimum location is in the center of the boat about three feet forward of the transom. With I/Os, the best location is usually in the forward part of the engine bilge compartment, where access for the fitting and seacock is normally excellent.

According to Wisch, "Outboards are normally plumbed just forward of the motor well; trouble is, many boats have fuel tanks in this spot, and if you go too far forward you could have problems drawing water when the the boat is under way. In this case, you may have to use a transom-mount pickup. And with aluminum boats, transom pickups often are the only way to because of access problems or lack of an actual bilge to accommodate a through-hull."

Transom pickups should be securely fastened, and positioned so that prop and hull turbulence doesn't create problems with air locks. In fact, take care not to position any pickup behind hull irregularities or lifting strakes that may cause turbulence. "And make sure the fitting doesn't hit the bunk when the boat is on the trailer," Wisch cautions.

"A bronze, screened high-speed pickup is preferable if you can use it," he continues. "But make sure to face the grill forward or you'll create a venturi effect that actually tries to draw water out of the system. With tin boats, use a reinforced, non-corrosive fitting to avoid electrolysis problems. And, by all means, screen your pickups."

To determine the proper bait pump, consult a professional. Although if you insist on going it alone, Wisch offers a general recommendation of a 500 GPH centrifugal pump for most trailer boats, Wisch prefers Kodiak/Rule pumps by NPT Engineering of Simi Valley, California; (805) 583-0373. Although they must be mounted below the waterline, these specially modified pumps are quiet, waterproof and draw few amps. NPT has a chart available to judge the appropriate model for your tank size.

To discharge excess water, many skippers secure a hose over the side, while more sophisticated systems vent water via a second through-hull fitting. Either way,, make sure the outflow pipe is screened (at the tank fitting) to prevent blockages by baitfish or scales. The answer here is usually a PVC fitting drilled with quarter inch holes or slots.

The final consideration is electrical power. A deep-cycle battery dedicated to the bait pump is an ideal situation, while a second battery should be reserved for starting the boat. But Wisch warns that a common problem is "to run the pump all day, then figure the engine alternator is going to recharge the battery on the way in. It doesn't work that way; the typical alternator is a battery maintainer, not a battery charger." Instead, Wisch recommends "placing that battery on a charge every time you finish a day of live bait fishing."

Western Outdoors July / August 1992

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