Keeping live bait alive and healthy during summer is more than a challenge. Understanding what baitfish need and how to provide it takes away much of the risk of losing bait to less-than-ideal water conditions.
Temperature. The water temperatures in your bait tank or livewell should be less than 70 degrees. This can be accomplished by filling your tank with water from your bait shop’s tanks if you buy bait, or cooling your tank with non-chlorinated ice.
Air/Oxygen. Even with cooler water, baitfish won’t survive long without oxygen. Supplying oxygen can be as simple as using an air stone on a battery-powered pump or an integrated venture system built into the tank’s circulation system. The smaller the bubbles and the deeper they are produced into the tank, the better, as large bubbles can unnecessarily jostle fish and lead to the next problem.
Nitrogen. When baitfish are handled, they become stressed. Stressed fish releases nitrogen into the water, and nitrogen contaminates the water and must be removed either by filtration or by periodically replacing old water with fresh water. Adding salt and or bait saver can help offset nitrogen contamination.
Space. Baitfish won’t survive in a crowded space. Putting too many baits in a small tank reduces oxygen and increases nitrogen. Veteran striper fishermen recommend a rounded bait tank to prevent baitfish from herding into a corner and creating overcrowding. A good rule of thumb is no more than two herring per gallon of water. Providing flow to the water will help baitfish swim in place, which requires less room than making them swim back and forth across the tank to oxygenate their gills.
Rapid temperature change. This is also a killer. Make sure your bait tank is no more than 5 degrees warmer or colder than the baitshop’s water, if you buy bait. When fishing, get your hooked baits down deep quickly. Allowing a bait to wallow in 85-degree surface water for any length of time will cause shock. Change baits frequently during the summer.