How to Use Tuna Tubes

Ensure your big game bonito baits stay lively and heathy.

Tuna tube keeping bait fresh
Tuna tubes keep big-game baits properly oxygenated and restrained for immediate access, rigging and deployment.Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Anglers are always looking for any advantage to produce more bites. Targeting big game such as marlin and -tuna often requires catching -bonito, skipjacks or small blackfin -tuna for bait. Returning the liveys to the water immediately after bridle-rigging them is ideal, but the fishing spots and the place where you make bait -aren’t -always in the same vicinity. Or sometimes the bite is slow to develop. So necessity led to the -invention of tuna tubes.

Fast movers such as -bonito and tuna need a steady supply of oxygenated water flowing over their gills to survive. They don’t last long in confined bait tanks. Thanks to a regulated seawater source at the bottom and an overflow at the top, tuna tubes keep said baits lively. They -also keep baits confined for easy access; there’s no need to chase them around in a large livewell.

The interior of these round or oval-shaped cylinders is usually black or dark blue for a calming effect. The baits are placed headfirst into the tubes so the oxygen-rich water pulses over and through the gills. Too much or too little isn’t good, so valves help regulate the flow.

There are three basic types of tuna--tube setups: external transom mount, stand-alone units, and -integrated. Kodiak Marine (kodiakmarine​.com) makes quick-disconnect transom--mount tubes, while Deep Blue Marine (deepbluemarine.com) builds fiberglass, self-contained versions with separate plumbing and rod holders. Some boatbuilders, especially those catering to Southern California and Gulf of Mexico clients, where live-baiting is popular, incorporate tuna tubes into some of their transoms.

This past spring, William Barnes of Mobile, Alabama, took delivery of his new Invincible 40 catamaran, which was rigged with six tuna tubes by the dealer, Grander Marine: 8-inch-long tubes, all individually plumbed and equipped with 1,500 gph pumps, and Hooker sea chests and pickups.

“If you fish tournaments and want to compete with the big sport-fishers, you have to live-bait,” Williams explains. He and his buddies typically fish up to six events per season, and they have -already caught two marlin on live bait using the tubes.

“We try to fill all six tubes and put two other baits out,” Williams adds. “We prefer blackfin tuna up to 10 pounds, but we loaded the tubes with 10-pound dolphin on our last trip, and they lasted six hours.” He says he cleans the tubes with lots of fresh water afterward to wash away any scales and slime.

Bait Socks keeping bait alive
The Bait Socks (right) ­directs water flow through the bait’s mouth toward the gills, ensuring proper oxygenation.Steve Sanford

Avid big-gamer Rusty Coan has been fishing the Gulf rigs for the last -decade, and his previous boats had tuna tubes installed. When he bought a pre-owned 52 Hatteras a year ago, it wasn’t equipped with them, so Coan -decided to make his own. His design, called Bait Socks, uses a flexible plastic -funnel with a pump and nozzle attached to the narrow end. The enclosed bait -channels water flow over the gills, using water from an existing livewell system (biglivebait.com).

“Traditional tuna tubes use -thousands of gallons of water flowing through,” Coan says. “But you don’t need a huge water flow. My -design moves the right amount of water with fewer resources, allowing a guy on a center-console to compete with a multi-million-dollar sport-fisher and not be at a complete disadvantage.”

Bait Socks tubes are available with several 12- or 24-volt pump options so they can be powered by -downrigger or electric-reel outlets. Installation takes about 30 minutes, Coan says, and free-standing livewell tanks with the Bait Socks inside are a popular setup.

“The three factors to consider are water flow, water temperature, and regulating gases,” Coan explains. “You don’t want the water blasting like a pressure washer or the baits won’t get the necessary oxygen. You also need a good overflow to vent the carbon -dioxide produced by the bait.”

Baits caught deep are also at risk. Their body temperature rises during the struggle, and dropping them in a tube with water several degrees -warmer than where they were caught compounds the problem. When using Bait Socks in a larger well, frozen water bottles or jugs help cool the water and keep baits frisky. The capped jugs don’t contaminate the seawater, and they can be refrozen and used -multiple times.

If live-baiting is your game, -consider adding tuna tubes to your arsenal. Leveling the playing field is always a good thing, whether you compete in tournaments, or are content with -simply testing your mettle against big tuna or marlin.