Live Bait Logistics

by Ann White

Ann White is shown here demonstrating that fresh bait results in good fish.

Ann White is shown here demonstrating that fresh bait results in good fish.

Fresh bait is worth the effort.


Keeping a couple dozen minnows alive for a day long fishing trip isn’t very difficult–a 5-gallon bucket, a battery-operated aerator and an occasional water change is sufficient for most. But for many tournament fishermen, bait requirements go far beyond the basic set up. Having the ability to keep numerous baitfish alive for extended amounts of time can be a lot more complicated.

As bait shop owners, we have learned many things about the care of large quantities of minnows. That knowledge can be translated from commercial use to consumer use. While there are many options available for the angler who isn’t afraid to spend some money to keep his bait in good shape, there are other options for the do-it-yourselfer (DIY) who wants to save some money.

The most important piece of equipment is a live bait storage tank. The question is, how can you keep your bait alive at home and on the road for less money?

Clint Crawford’s homemade bait tank addresses the basic needs of bait fish. They include oxygen, clean water, and stable water temperature.

Clint Crawford’s homemade bait tank addresses the basic needs of bait fish. They include oxygen, clean water, and stable water temperature.

DIY Bait Tank Basics

The basic needs of baitfish are the same no matter the species. They include oxygen, clean water, and stable water temperature.

When storing bait at home, we have found that stock tanks are a good buy for the money. The rounded sides prevent self-inflicted wounds. The tanks are inexpensive, durable, and can often be found used online. A 100-gallon tank will keep 200-300 dozen minnows alive for many months, depending on the size of course.

“…basic needs of baitfish are the same no matter the species…”


The average fisherman should be just fine with a 35- to 50-gallon tank. Stock tanks can be left as is or coated with a dark finish (spray on bed liner is a popular product for this). Many people believe that a darker tank will keep the fish calmer than a light-colored tank will. We do not notice a significant difference, except that a light tank makes it easier to see how many fish you have and how healthy they are.

Anglers should keep in mind that many species of minnows are jumpers and your tank will need some type of cover to contain the fish. We use a sheet of 1/2-inch foam insulation cut to fit the tank. It is heavy enough to stay in place, but light enough to handle easily. The material is water proof and inexpensive. One sheet will cover a 6-foot tank and costs about $10 at Lowes or Home Depot.

A bilge pump attached to a ice chest provides Clint Crawford a suitable bait tank for when he is filming his Crawdaddy Catfishing YouTube adventures.

A bilge pump attached to a ice chest provides Clint Crawford a suitable bait tank for when he is filming his Crawdaddy Catfishing YouTube adventures.

Agitators, Bubblers, and Pumps

Boat Cycle sells commercial agitators which are very effective to add oxygen to the water. They consist of a motor driven rotating paddle enclosed in a cage to prevent damage to fish. They are suspended above the tank at a level that will allow the paddle to agitate the water, but deep enough not to cause splash over. These types of aerators can be expensive, averaging $200-$500 each. A less expensive option is a fish tank bubbler.

Bubblers will cost $15-$60 depending on the power level but can be found at most major retailers and pet supply stores. Needed accessories include tubing, aerator stones, and replacement filters.

A popular alternative is a spray bar powered by a pond pump. This setup works by constantly recycling water through a pump. The water is picked up from the tank and  sprayed back into the tank through small holes in the tube or pipe. The process adds needed oxygen to the water.

A spray bar system can be constructed with a little human ingenuity, plastic tubing, PVC pipes and simple tools. Most big box stores carry the pond pumps capable of powering the spray bar. An important consider with this type of set up is the added heat a pump will add to the tank. Either monitoring the tank temperature or setting the system up so that the pump is outside the actual tank will eliminate this potential hazard.


A DIY Holding Tank

Clint Crawford is the creator of Crawdaddy Catfishing on YouTube and an ardent DIY’er. He is also a member of Team Rollin’ Flatties, prostaff for Mudbums Supply Shack, and HookSetter USA. He built his holding tank from a cutdown water tank. (See photo)

A good filtration system can reduce the amount of ammonia in the water but can be expensive. A simple way to reduce the ammonia is to change out the water. In Crawford’s creation a pond pump takes the water out of the tank to be filtered through a PVC pipe containing lava rocks and cloth. The water is filtered as it falls through the pipe before reentering the tank as spray through the small holes in the cap of the PVC pipe.

He added a couple of extra aerator stones attached to fish tank pumps to add extra oxygen. Keeping as many electric pumps out of the water as possible keeps the water temperature cooler.

The jumper problem is solved on Crawford’s tank with a simple wooden frame covered with chicken wire. The heart break of losing a couple dozen bait fish to Kamikaze jumpers overnight are stopped by this simple addition.

Crawford added hot water pipe insulation around the top edge to make scooping bait more comfortable. Repurposed pool noodles work well for this as well. Clint keeps chubs, suckers, sunfish, and blue gill in his tank easily. The baitfish can stay alive and healthy for several weeks at a time. He does add a water conditioner to his tank once every couple of weeks.


Making it all Mobile

So now that you have your home tank set up, how do you take your live bait with you to fish? With the rise in invasive species, many states are increasing the regulations on live bait usage. As fishermen, it is our job to remain cognizant of the law and follow all regulations in the area being fished.

Although there are many suitable products available in sporting goods stores, we have seen no real advantage in using them instead of one you make yourself. Chances are you will save some money too.


The Ice Chest

One great alternative is an ice chest and a bubbler. Once you determine that your cooler is water tight you can build your own portable bait tank. A hole drilled in the top, with an aerator hose in place (silicone caulk works great to get a tight seal) will allow your battery operated bubbler to properly oxygenate your bait fish.

A bungee cord will keep the bubbler attached to the side of the cooler. Ice chests with extendable handles and wheels make packing in and out of your fishing destination a whole lot easier. If your source of well water is reliable, there is no need to add any sort of additive to this water, because you will not be keeping this bait long enough to worry about ammonia build up.


The Bucket

A 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid works well for transporting bait. It is however, much more susceptible to temperature changes. We have seen many fishermen pick up bait in a 5-gallon bucket, drop the bucket into the back of a pickup truck, and drive 2-3 hours in the blazing sun. Once they reach their destination they find their baitfish dead. You have to remember that baitfish are more sensitive to temperature changes than larger fish are.

If you are using a 5-gallon bucket keep it inside the vehicle for temperature control. Keep it out of direct sunlight during the day and check water temperature often. Academy sports sells a minnow bucket lid for $2.50 that fits 3- and 5-gallon buckets. This lid has a hole for the aerator hose, a clip on the side to hold the battery powered aerator, and a hinged opening that allows you to reach into the bucket for bait without removing the entire lid. More expensive versions have cushioned seats, drink holders and compartments to hold tackle.


Concluding Remarks

We love what we do as commercial bait dealers and as such we have walked into the heartbreak that is a whole tank of dead fish. Knowing that each and every fish was hard fought to collect I hope that this information will benefit you in your fishing endeavors. Healthy bait can make the difference between a good day of fishing and a tournament win. By tending to your bait at home you can save both money and time.

Ann’s Live Bait Tips

1. Ammonia is a by-product of fish waste and reduces the water’s ability to retain oxygen. A simple way to reduce ammonia is to change out the water.

2. Many minnow species are sensitive to water temperature change, so changing the water out slowly is key to preventing mass die offs.

3. If you use city water it is likely to be chlorinated. You should leave your city water exposed to air for a minimum of 24, but preferably 48 hours, before using it in the tank. The chlorine will evaporate.

4. If you are having issues with keeping your bait alive try a commercial additive. As an alternative, we have found that adding a small handful of NON-iodized salt to the tank will promote fish health. The addition of salt aids the fish in their production of protective slime coats and seems to help stop the spread of a disease.

5. Adding bags of ice to the bait tank can be detrimental to the bait through drastic temperature changes and the addition of chlorinated water when the ice melts. Instead of bagged ice use frozen jugs or reusable ice packs that will not release chlorinated water into the tank. Remember to add the frozen items slowly to prevent temperature shock and associated bait loss.

6. Quickly remove any dead or dying fish from the tank. Disease can spread quickly through contaminated fish. Place the dead fish into a plastic baggie and freeze for use later as cut bait. Nothing is wasted in the bait game.

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