Livewells and Healthy Fish

by Ron Presley

Brooke and David constructed their own livewell, to their own specifications, on David’s Pathfinder. They wanted it to be big enough and they wanted it to have oxygen.

Brooke and David constructed their own livewell, to their own specifications, on David’s Pathfinder. They wanted it to be big enough and they wanted it to have oxygen.

As the sport of catfishing grows the importance of adequate livewells grows with it. When catfish are heading for the dinner table it’s no big deal to put them on a stringer or throw them in a cooler. However, the growing movement of selective harvest and Catch-Photo-Release (CPR) anglers have a good tool at their disposal to practice catfish conservation.

As Americans, we have grown up with a tradition of catching and eating fish, but doing it wisely will contribute to future populations of fish. The notion of selective harvest means─take only what you need for dinner and let the rest go back to the water.

CPR is a growing trend among catfish anglers with an interest in saving trophy catfish.

The unwritten rule of thumb is to return any fish above 10 to 15 pounds to the water. Catfish anglers believe that this is one thing they can do as individuals to be sure that our kids and grandkids have the opportunity to catch wild trophy cats.

Brooke and David won the World Championship of Catfishing in 2015. They are big proponents of proper fish handling and care.

Brooke and David won the World Championship of Catfishing in 2015. They are big proponents of proper fish handling and care.

Everyday anglers seek trophy cats for the recreational enjoyment. More and more, these days, they return them to the water. Tournament anglers are catching trophy cats in the spirit of competition. Those cats too, are normally returned to the water, but they are held alive to be presented at the weigh-in. For these anglers, an adequate livewell is of the utmost importance.

Brooke Wilbanks is a tournament angler that has always promoted adequate livewells when holding big catfish. Brooke tournament fishes with David Shipman. As tournament partners, they have tallied many tournament victories and have always understood the importance of keeping fish alive.

Fish use their gills to take oxygen from water just as we use our lungs to take oxygen from the air. It is dissolved oxygen, in the case of fish, that moves into the blood and travels to the fish’s cells to keep them healthy.

Fish like this blue catfish, caught from the Mississippi River near Memphis, is why Brooke puts such emphasis on adequate livewells. They need to accommodate the size of the fish you target.

Fish like this blue catfish, caught from the Mississippi River near Memphis, is why Brooke puts such emphasis on adequate livewells. They need to accommodate the size of the fish you target.

“I strongly promote the importance of having a good livewell,” reported Wilbanks. “Nothing fancy, it just needs to be equipped with the right stuff. The main components are an aerator for circulation, oxygen for the blood stream, and clean water for the gills.”

Size definitely matters when it comes to livewells. Big fish need more room than small fish so livewells should relate to the size of the fish that anglers target. Channel cat anglers can get by with less that blue and flathead anglers can.

“To have a good livewell, it needs to be big enough,” advises Wilbanks. “A 45-pound plus fish shouldn’t be stuffed into a small livewell. It needs to be able to lay straight and not curl its tail. It will only stress the fish more if it is crowded. The livewell also needs to hold enough water to cover the fish.”

“A livewell needs good circulation going at all times, so a pump and aerator system is needed,” added Wilbanks. “Again, it does not have to be fancy, it just needs to get the job done.”

“To me, the main ingredient is oxygen,” declared Wilbanks. “It is a simple fact that fish need oxygen to stay alive. Once they get put in a livewell they aren’t getting the oxygen they need from the river. I prefer a Keep Alive system, but there are others that will work. The finer the stone and the smaller the bubbles it produces, the better it is.”

Wilbanks suggests being stingy with the oxygen. “Run the oxygen as low as you can get by with. The key to getting it just right is to observe it when it is coming out of the stone. When it looks like smoke instead of bubbles you know you’ve got it going good.”

Ninety percent of the time, after keeping fish in a livewell with oxygen and circulating water, the fish go back into the water healthier than they came out. That is always a good thing and should be the goal. Having a good livewell can also help achieve successful live releases for any fish that is intended for CPR. If you have a good livewell you can place fish that are weary from the fight into the livewell to resuscitate before releasing.

The final point Wilbanks made related to clean water. “Some places where we fish the water is nasty. It’s a good idea to pump out the old water and dump in fresh every couple hours or so.”

A 45-pound plus fish shouldn’t be stuffed into a small livewell.”

 

The key to having a great livewell, according to Wilbanks, is to have a system that will aerate the water, keep it circulating, add oxygen, and keep the water fresh. Wilbanks and Shipman accomplished this with a pump system to take out the old water and replace it with fresh.

An alternative method to keep the livewell water fresh is to use a relatively new product called, the Survivor Live Well Water Intake System. The product is simple to install on any boat and it picks up fresh water and delivers it to the livewell, while moving the boat through the water. This product eliminates the need to pump water out and replace it.

“It’s important to keep the fish healthy,” concluded Wilbanks. “Healthy fish are not only for our generation, but those that follow us. Our kids and grandkids should get a chance to see and catch these fish. It takes years for big catfish to get as big as they do. It would be a shame to let them die in a livewell.”

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