Well Done

Follow these tips to optimize your live well performance.

September 21, 2007

KEEP THEM KICKING: Invest in a trusty live well system and never run out of frisky bait.
Photo: David A. Brown

Marcus kennedy is a bait freak. This kingfish pro depends on live bait to draw strikes during the 20 tournaments he fishes annually. It’s also why he paid particular attention to the live wells installed on his Contender 36 Open center console.

“If you’re out there in the crowd, fresh bait gives you a definite edge,” says the Mobile, Alabama-based Kennedy. “Tired, lethargic baits just don’t generate as many strikes from gamefish as the lively ones.”


Kennedy opted for twin 40-gallon oval wells in the transom of his boat and then modified both with larger overflow ports and higher capacity pumps. He went one step further by installing a custom helm seat with an integral 60-gallon oval well. This one also has a large-volume pump, dual overflows and an oxygen infuser. All three wells are kept full and pressurized to prevent water from sloshing and damaging the bait. “I don’t care how good the live well systems are from the factory,” says Kennedy, “there are always things you can do to tweak them.”

Life Support
Factory bait wells come in many shapes and sizes. Smaller square or rectangular wells work fine for shrimp or pinfish, but when the occupants are large, active fish like menhaden, round or oval-shaped tanks are crucial for keeping them swimming in natural circles.

Most live wells are located either in the transom or in the leaning post or tackle center. Custom offshore and larger bay boats may have additional pitch-bait wells in the bow.


A few center console builders, such as SeaVee, Whitewater and Conch, offer the option of installing wells in the cockpit deck. These make it easier to empty loaded castnets, plus the lower placement doesn’t jostle the bait as much during long runs.

Regardless of location, there are two types of well-plumbing configuration: recirculating and flow-through. Recirculating wells use recycled water or forced sprays to generate oxygen and should be limited to docile baits, such as shrimp, crabs and small, hardy baitfish.

Wells for big baits, especially those built with capacities of 30 gallons or more, should be flow-through systems that are constantly replenished with fresh, oxygen-rich water. This regular infusion helps keep the temperature consistent throughout the tank and flushes out any waste material generated by bait held for long periods.


Quality flow-through systems utilize dual high-volume pumps to circulate water counter-clockwise. In-line valves in the feeder hoses regulate the flow rates. With dual pumps (many builders now use centrifugal pumps instead of diaphragm), the system has a backup if one fails. Large-diameter overflow ports allow the excess water to vent. For safety reasons, these shouldn’t drain into the bilge.

Keep Tweaking
Water pickups, cutoff valves and strainers are other components to consider when setting up a live well system for your boat. Clamshell-style pickups force water into the well while underway. Once you come off plane at your destination, turn on the pumps. Through-hull intakes should always have cutoff valves for safety, and strainers will prevent outflow ports from clogging with debris or loose scales.

But keeping bait healthy and happy entails more than fresh, clean oxygenated water. “Don’t forget about salinity levels, especially with a forced water pickup,” says Ken Riley, the director of aquaculture education at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida. “Drastic change is not good. Bait caught in brackish water can be shocked by high salt, and the reverse holds true offshore. Mix the water slowly to let the fish acclimate, especially if you’re storing them overnight.”


High temperatures will also kill baitfish. “If you’re fishing in one spot for a long time, I recommend freezing plastic bottles of water and adding them to the well to lower the internal temperature,” says Riley. Do not use loose ice, because it contains chlorine that will harm bait.

Finally, don’t overcrowd your baits. Remember the one-bait-per-gallon rule. Overstocking your well only means you’ll have little backup on hand when the bite goes off.

A Pogy’s Favorite Color
White is old-school when it comes to live wells.

| |Photo: Courtesy of Pursuit Boats| White has long been the prevailing color for the inside of live wells, but some builders now offer blue and gray tanks, especially on tournament models. Does tank color make a difference to the bait? Definitely, say fishery biologists. White tanks reflect ambient light when opened, and that mirror effect increases the stress level of the baits. A light-blue interior seems to calm the fish because it resembles the undersea environment. Light-absorbing black also works, although the fish can be difficult to spot-and net-against the dark background.
– D.L.


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