Live Well With Livewells-- Part 1
By David Heinke

Apalachicola, FL.--My earliest memories of fishing were with my grandfather (Gramps) on farm ponds in south central Ohio. We would begin our outings by stopping by the bait shop and picking up some minnows. I would stare at the thousands of minnows in the shop's tanks and eagerly await the shop owner to scoop out Gramp's purchase. Into the oval shaped metal bait bucket the minnows would go, and I would sneak peaks at them during the drive to make sure they were still alive. When the tablet that fizzed air bubbles into the water eventually dissolved, it was my job to drop another into the tank to keep the prized minnows alive.

Of course not all the bait would make it to the ponds and my grandpa would always grumble about the quality of the bait. Little did either of us know then that it wasn't so much the quality of the bait but the system we used to transport the minnows to the ponds. Fish need cool, clean, well oxygenated water to survive and if removed from that environment, the chances of survival diminish by the minute.

I think we all suffered from inadequate bait storage until the catch and release bass tournaments really became popular. In the effort to conserve a resource, improvements were made in transporting fish from the catch site to the weigh-in location. As a result, systems to keep fish alive became affordable and necessary for the competitions. Eventually the ideas took hold and anglers wanting to catch a fish for reasons other than weighing them used the new "Keep Alive Wells" to keep their bait in better condition.

Over time, the name of these new contraptions was shortened to "livewells" and the idea has really caught on. It is difficult to find a new boat that doesn't boast at least one livewell, and many products are available to construct your own system if your boat doesn't have one. Also, the blunt fact of the matter is that most of the livewells built into new boats today are too small. They don't pump enough water to keep fish alive for much longer than Gramp's tin can and fizzy tablets.

I have been lucky because, working on boats most of my life, I have seen literally thousands of different bait tanks and livewells on boats. I can attest that I believe no two are alike, and that each boat, fisherman, and bait has a different set of criteria for the ultimate design. Once overwhelmed by the possibilities, through trial and error and by observing many systems in operation first hand, I have been able to determine some truths about livewells. We will take a look this week at the overall concept of livewell systems and view the components and their functions.

Livewells can be as simple or extravagant as you wish. As with any plumbing system, simplicity tends to reduce the amount of problems that can develop over time. The key to any successful system is to try to provide three main factors and one species critical factor when needed. Supply cool, clean, well oxygenated water (CCOW) and you will be able to keep a variety of fish alive for fairly long periods of time.

All fish have a comfort range of temperature. Though there are some extremes, most fish can exist for periods of time outside of the their comfort zones, but will do much better within the "zone". Extreme temperatures in either direction will kill fish but with livewells we are mostly concerned with keeping the water from getting too hot. Thermometers are nice and convenient but use a basic rule of thumb that if the water in the tank feels noticeably warmer than the water outside the boat, then the water needs to be cooled. The easiest way to achieve this is to add fresh water to the tank--more on this later. The water also needs to be clean. Many times when fish are caught and placed in a tank, they will excrete waste. This waste if left in the tank will produce a build-up of ammonia and the fish kill begins. The solution is to keep the tank clean and the waste removed. Remember to keep livewells working at optimum efficiency, you need to add fresh water and remove the old water along with the waste.

Like humans, fish need oxygen. If you put a plastic bag over your head, eventually you will use up the available oxygen and keel over. Same thing happens in a fish tank and once the fish use up the oxygen in the water, they also keel over and then float belly up. There are several good solutions to add oxygen to the water but once again the simplest solution is to keep adding fresh, clean, cool oxygenated water. I do know of some anglers who will use three different approaches in their tanks, but more on that later.

The last factor is species specific, but if added to your system will not affect adversely other fish. The factor is light. Some fish like anchovies need to have a lit tank. I'm not sure of the technical reasons, but I think they freak out and die of stress. Give them a night-light and your bait will thank you. The sun is an excellent light source. If you can integrate that into your design, to allow your tank to receive either direct or ambient sunlight it will definitely help. However, sometimes too much sunlight can raise the water temperature altering the overall equation, so some folks will use a waterproof light fixture in their tanks for the sensitive species of fish.

Lets look at the components of some livewell systems and see exactly what their function is and whether it should be a criteria for your system. Let's start off with the tank itself. Many tanks built into boats are molded into the fiberglass hull. As I stated earlier, I believe most of these tanks are not large enough to handle the bait needed for a typical day of fishing. Use the following rule of thumb to determine the size of your tank. One inch of fish needs one gallon of water to survive. If you are using three-inch pinfish and you only have a twelve-gallon tank, you can expect to keep maybe four pinfish alive. Of course you can cram twenty pinfish into a twelve-gallon tank, but unless the bite is heavy and you're using bait quick, don't expect all of those fish to be too lively in the afternoon.

My recommendation is use the largest tank possible, but also be aware of the tank's placement in the boat. Water is heavy and will affect a boat's performance drastically if not balanced within the hull properly. Twenty gallons of water weighs 240 pounds! Unless you run the Queen Mary, I can tell you 240 pounds of weight in the wrong place will really affect how the boat operates. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage. If your boat is stern heavy, put the tank in the front of the boat. If you run alone and your helm on the starboard side of the boat, maybe putting a livewell on the port side will help correct that list to starboard. Why diet, add a livewell!

My favorite material for a livewell tank is polyethylene. This plastic holds water well, is easy to keep clean and can be roto-molded into a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of the plastic tanks available come with most of the plumbing in place, but others have no plumbing and those are ideal for custom installations and systems. The best part about polyethylene is that it is the same material used in cutting boards, so many times you can just use the top of the tank to cut bait if you wish.

The next components to the system are a way to fill and to drain the tank. The basic approach would be to use a smaller bucket to perform both tasks. Time consuming and laborious, but cheap, there are better approaches. By placing the tank above the waterline, any water added to the tank can be drained through a fitting in the bottom of the tank. Open and close this drain with a plug or a valve, either approach should work well. In addition to a tank drain, you will also need an overflow drain. An overflow drain allows water to be pulled off at a desired level to prevent the water from overflowing out the top and into the cockpit.

The tank drain can be transformed into an overflow drain with the addition of an overflow tube. Insert the tube into the drain and the water will fill to the top of the tube and then drain out. Once the day is complete, simply pull the tube from the drain and all the water in the tank will then drain overboard. An overflow tube is a clever way around not having to plumb a separate overflow drain on the side of the tank.

Filling the tank is actually easier and quicker by bucket, but not as convenient as using a pump. The pump draws water in from a fitting in the transom or the hull. This fitting is called a thru-hull and is often accompanied by a seacock. Both are necessary to safely bring water from outside the boat and into the livewell. The gallon-per-hour (GPH) rating of the pump will tell you the volume of water the pump can hope to pass through your system. The bigger the GPH, the faster your tank will fill and the more water you can move through your tank, keeping your fish happy.

Most new boats come with a 360 GPH pump. The GPH rating at best is optimal and when you factor in lifting the water to the tank along with passing the water through many constricting fittings, many times you can only expect about 150 gallons per hour. That might sound like a lot of water, but if you have a twenty-gallon tank, that means you are replacing the tank's water about seven times every hour. That is fine for the northern climates, but in Florida with warmer water and air temperatures, you really need to change that water about twice as often. As a result, the 360 GPH pump isn't adequate and should be increased in size to a 700 or gallons per hour.

When plumbing your system, it is best to stay away from the ridged style flexible bilge hose. Instead, use a smooth walled hose and you will pass water more freely though the system. The ridges in bilge hose add resistance to the water flow and will decrease the volume of water that you are able to move through the system. One more thought about the supply side of the plumbing It is very important to make sure the water entering the tank does not exceed the rate in which the water can drain from the tank. Use a hose twice the size in diameter of the supply hose for your drain.

Normally by circulating fresh water through your tank, your fish will have sufficient oxygen. However, there are occasions when you will need to improve the oxygen content. First if the water you are drawing from outside the boat is low in oxygen, obviously adding more will help the fish stay lively. Also there are occasions when fishing an area where fresh water mixes with salt. I live in such an area and if you pick up bait in salt water and then move to another location, but pass through a fresh water area to get there, you can easily kill your bait if you fill the tank with fresh water. At times like this, it is important to stop the pump and make due with the water in the tank until you reach another area with water more conducive to your bait.

Along the way, you can add oxygen by means of an air pump and stone. These products are very affordable and battery operated. These little devices are great to add oxygen to any water and can really save the day. You can also add a aerator head to your bait pump inlet. This device draws air into the water using a venturi action and then shoots the aerated water into the tank. I add these to all livewells and also try to keep an air pump and stone on board as a back up and for the above mentioned special situation.

If you use bait and find that they just don't seem to last as long as you wished, don't complain to the bait shop. Instead, take a look at your bait storage situation. Remember the key to lively bait is clean, cool, oxygenated water and if you don't have that then you can't expect too much from your bait. If you are in doubt about your boat's system or how to go about designing a system for your boat, then look around at other boats. Talk with other folks and ask them about what works for them and more importantly what hasn't worked. Contact the manufactures of bait tanks and livewell systems, they can offer an immense amount of information and help.

Next time we will look at different livewell configurations and ideas on plumbing your system.

Until next time,

Keep your bait fresh!

Live Well With Livewells-- Part 2
By David Heinke

Apalachicola, FL--Last week we took a look at the basics of livewell systems. This week we are going to take a closer look at the components and some plumbing and installation ideas. To recap last week, the key to keeping fish alive and healthy is Clean, Cool, Oxygenated Water (CCOW). The best solution to achieve CCOW has been addressed with the use of current livewell technology. By circulating a fresh supply of water, the water in the tank will stay clean, cool and well oxygenated.

Start the process by determining exactly how you want to use your livewell. Do you want to transport bass for tournament fishing or keep shrimp alive for a day or two over the weekend? The amount of fish or bait you want to keep alive for a duration of time will dictate the size of your tank and also the size pump you will need to provide enough water flow. Use the one-inch of fish per gallon of water rule liberally. The more you exceed this rule, the greater the chance of losing baits. However, if you keep within the parameters of the rule, you will be amazed at how long you can keep fish alive out of their natural environment.

Look at household aquariums and a number of owners will tell you that certain fish are X years old. That is because the fish were provided with CCOW! The difference between a home aquarium and a livewell is that instead of filtering a certain volume of water that is recirculated, a livewell just keeps replacing water that becomes contaminated with fish waste. In both situations, oxygen must be added to the water and similar methods are used. Some aquarium folks can successfully grow plants in their tanks to provide oxygen, but that is not practical for a livewell. However, the use of aerator heads and air stones are very effective. One last thought, despite the fact most home aquariums have square corners, if at all possible, it is best to keep the interior of a livewell tank smooth with rounded walls.

The most basic set-up for a livewell requires the most manual labor. Just use any container you desire along with a bucket and you can add or bail water from your livewell as you please. This is the basic system of any panga fisherman in Baja, except their livewell tank is the space in between two thwart seats. They also rig a clever overflow drain by drilling a hole in the side of the boat just above the water line.

System A:
To increase the ease of use, install a drain at the bottom of the tank so you don't have to bail the tank dry at the end of the day. At the same time add an overflow drain and you can just keep adding water when the fish need it and the tank will automatically stay at the correct level.
System B:


Overflow Drain

Next, you will probably get tired of dipping the bucket into the briny on a regular basis, and you'll eventually get the urge to add a pump to the system. If you do, then you will need to either add a DC electrical system to your boat or integrate your livewell into your boat's existing system...
Thru-hulls (3) Hose Tee (1) Water Hose
System C:
You can add another pump to recirculate the water in the tank while you are running, or if you move through undesired water. Also by adding a light to the tank you will greatly increase the chances of survival for many fish species and make it easier to find the buggers when you want to catch them. Add an aerator on the inlet side and possibly an air pump and stone to increase the oxygen content.
Thru-hulls (3) Hose Tee (1) Water Hose
Pump 12 Volt Battery On/Off Switch
Of course this will provide basic life support, however, you can always improve upon your livewell system. You can add another pump to recirculate the water in the tank while you are running, or if you move through undesired water. Also, by adding a light to the tank you will greatly increase the chances of survival for many fish species and make it easier to find the buggers when you want to catch them. Add an aerator on the inlet side and possibly an air pump and stone to increase the oxygen content.
There are some folks who don't even bother with a tank and have devised a system of pumping water up into PVC pipes. The baits are placed headfirst into the vertical pipes and the fish will keep swimming down into the current until they are retrieved. These devices are not meant to keep the baits alive for long periods of time, but are best used to hold a rigged live bait until it is needed. To find a system that works best for your needs, get out to all the marinas, boatyards, shows, dealerships, launch ramps you can find and look at boats and their livewell systems. Talk with fishermen who use the systems on a regular basis and ask for their comments.

A major point to consider on your system is the placement of the tank. Always try to keep the addition of any major weight to a boat over the keel line amidships. That is not always possible, but the further you move this point, the more the boat's orientation in the water will be compromised. This can play to your advantage by using the weight of your livewell tank to offset and existing off keel weight. My first salmon boat I made the mistake of placing my batteries on the same side of the boat as the helm. When it came time to add a livewell, I knew that by placing it on the port side of the boat, the tank would balance out the battery and my weights and put me back on even keel.

There are many advantages to a livewell but the best part is that by keeping your bait alive, fresh and active, you will greatly increase your chances of catching fish. So many folk' days are ruined when all their shrimp are dead before noon. If you find yourself wondering why so many of the baits you paid so much money for are floating belly up, don't rush to blame the bait shop for the quality. Take a long look at how you store those baits and ask yourself if those fish are getting plenty of clean, cool, oxygenated water. If they are, then curse away, but if not, then take the time to plan out your new livewell system and build it before the season gets here!

Until next time,

Keep your bait fresh!