Building the Right Bait Well

By: Capt. Charlie Walker

There are so many different brands of manufactured bait wells on the market today that it seems to be quite an exercise in frustration to want to build your own.Keep Alive Bait Wells Unless, of course;(1) you just can't afford a ready-made well right now, (2) you can't find one that will fit the space on your boat, (3) you haven't seen one that is the right color, (4) you don't subscribe to any fishing magazines with advertisements for bait well manufacturers, (5) you live so far out in the boondocks that you have never heard of any mega-stores that carry such things as bait wells, (6) fill in your own reason. Whatever the reason that you still want to build your own well, I will try to give you some hints on keeping your bait alive that I have learned in thirty years of live bait fishing. Many of the tricks and techniques in keeping bait alive are best learned through experience, and will vary depending upon where you live and the type of bait with which you most often fish. Save yourself some headaches, though, by answering these questions before dashing off to the hardware store for parts.

1: How big a well can I carry (or, do I need…or, will fit safely in my boat)?
2: How will I supply water to it? (Don't forget, any water you put in has to
go somewhere - other than into your boat)
3: What kinds of baits do I intend to use? If you’re unsure, check our baitfish profiles.
4: What materials should I use to build it?
5: What will it cost to build it?
6: What will it cost to buy a factory-built one?
7: Does the difference in cost justify the potential aggravation of building my own?

All right, you’ve done the math and decided that it’s the home-built route for you. If you’re going to do it, here’s how to do it right.

The first and probably most important thing to keep in mind about your bait is that in order to survive long enough for a big fish to eat it, it needs to have a very good flow of clean, fresh salt water through the well. This means that if you are going to use a pump to supply the water to your well, don't skimp on the size of the pump. If you are going to build a small well of six gallons or so, then you are not going to carry many baits or you are just going to use shrimp or crabs. The volume of water needed for this arrangement can be poured into the well by hand every few minutes. However, if you are going to make a well of fifteen gallons or more, then you will need to supply fresh water to that well in some seemingly large quantities. A quick caution note: Water weighs over 8 pounds per gallon. Carrying a well of this size is like adding another person to your boat Please keep in mind your vessel’s rated capacity and don’t overload it. Your boat will also handle differently when the bait tank is full.

I feel that you should plan to change 100% of the water in your well at least 20 times per hour. That means that if your well is twenty gallons, then you will need at least a 400 gallon per hour pump. Sound big? Believe me, it’s not. You are going to cram as many baitfish into your well as you think you will need for your day of fishing. Sometimes that means several hundred little fish that you have to keep alive and kicking. They are going to be losing scales, eliminating bodily solids and fluids(polluting their water), swimming around like crazy, and in general going into a state of shock. They are going to need a lot of fresh, highly oxygenated water to continue breathing! Whitebait and Spanish sardines, the so-called "magic bullets" favored by flats guides, are notorious for going belly-up in a hurry without a lot of turnover in the well. Remember that 400 gallon per hour pump? I'll bet that by now you’ve decided a 600 gallon per hour pump would be even better. Not a bad idea. Even if you have to save for another week or two to make up the difference in price, you will find that it is well worth it. A transom-mount pump will suit most applications. Kodiak and Rule make good ones, complete with mounting bracket. Follow package directions - they’re not tough to install yourself. Another great option, probably the best in my opinion, is a unit sold by us called a "Keep Alive" system. This product allows your system to be "closed" when necessary, with no water turnover needed. Also, the "Keep Alive" system produces an extremely soft stream of water from the pump so that your bait is not beat to death by too hard a stream of water in the well. More about this later.

Now that you have reached a decision about the size of the well, what shape should it be? When it comes to bait well shape, please remember that there should be no square corners anywhere in the well. So much for using that old cooler as your bait well - sorry about that. Most bait species will swim around in a circle when placed in your bait tank. If you have a rectangular box for a well, then those bait fish that swim constantly will end up with bloody noses and missing scales from running into the corners all the time. Some species will even die (quickly) from the stress of piling into the corners of the well. Whitebait and threadfins are good examples. A battered, bloody bait is not what you want to present to your quarry species. Many game fish will not eat a bait that looks sick - such as with a red nose, missing scales or bloody eyes. This means the best shape for your well is oval or round. What has this shape? Look at "Rubbermaid Brute" garbage cans or check out the price of a fiberglass brine tank at your local water softener company. Both of these make a good well, as will the poly-tanks sold in many mail order fishing catalogs. If you don't want to buy any of these and think that you can build it cheaper out of plywood, then have at it, but don't forget - NO SQUARE CORNERS. No, you don't have to bend the plywood in a circle, but you will have to fill in the corners with something to cut the corner angle from 90 degrees to 45 degrees - enough to let the bait swim in a circle. Don't just try to use a piece of corner molding, rather fill the corners in to a depth of at least three inches. Better yet - spring for a trash can or brine tank.

OK, now you have the dimensions of your well drawn out on paper. You are drawing a plan, aren't you? Now you need to figure out where your plumbing will run to and from the well, and also how it will run through your boat. Take your time with this, especially if you’re going to be drilling holes in your boat for plumbing. I have seen small wells that have a pipe run above the water line with holes drilled in it to aerate the water as it adds it to the well. This arrangement is all right in small wells with low water volumes but it is inadequate for larger wells or in areas where the water temperature gets very warm, like Florida. You can use this aeration pipe to supplement the well’s oxygen content but you still need a primary water supply into the well. The supply should come from near the bottom of the well so that all the water is mixed and turned over the twenty times per hour that I mentioned before. A good pre-manufactured well has its water inlet molded into the side of the tank with slits cut the entire height of the tank to create a soft, circular flow of water throughout the entire well. This is the best arrangement that I’ve seen.

If you want to attempt to duplicate this you will need to install a water feed pipe from the bottom of the well to the top with holes or slits to allow water flow. You should then cover the pipe with fiberglass to keep the inside of the tank smooth and obstruction free. Why? Remember about the horrible things that happen to baitfish when they bash into the corner? The same things happen when they bash into plumbing fittings that are sticking into the tank. Another way to avoid exposed plumbing is to use a through-hull inlet scoop mounted through the side of your tank at the bottom. This will serve well as the water inlet. Depending on the size of your well and pump, you may need more than one scoop. Be sure the scoop has a weed guard attached so the bait cannot swim into it and block your water flow. Whichever method you use, keep the interior of the tank as free of protruding hardware as possible.
KeepAlive installation
Consider installing a PVC ball valve between the pump and the tank inlet. Besides allowing you to adjust water flow, it makes removing the well any easy task, which comes in handy when you’re just out for a ride with the family and friends and need the space. Remember this also: when you’re moving, the transom mount pump is designed to pick up water - even when it’s turned off. If you remove the well and don’t have a ball valve between boat and pump - you and your guests may end up soggy. Same rule applies when Helpful Uncle Fred tries to turn on the radio and switches on the bait well pump by mistake. Simply close the valve - and remove the clamp on the bait well side of the inlet hose. Use stainless clamps on all the hose fittings.

There is one other reason, an even more important fact for the life of your bait, to have a shut off valve on the water inlet. In salt water, we get what is called red tide in the late summer and fall. We also run into some sweetwater (fresh water) in the rivers in my area. Muddy water is common in the shallow bay areas and radical water temperature changes occur when running from deep water to shallow flats areas as well. All of these things can over-stress your bait and even kill it very quickly. Here's where a good recirculating system is worth its weight in gold. If you fill your bait well with water from the area where you catch it, then close the water inlet so the "Keep Alive" pump is recirculating and aerating the water, your bait will stay healthy and happy for several hours before you need to change the water by re-opening the inlet valve.This is great for those times when you're running through water you'd rather not expose your bait to - like patches of red tide. You can fill your well from pillar to post with sardines and this system will keep your bait alive and happy - with no need to constantly pump in water.

Now that you’re pumping water into the tank, the next step is to remove the water that you’re putting in. You should mount your drain hoses at the top of the well to skim off the surface water, which is usually the warmest and dirtiest water. If you have a one inch hose coming in to your well, then you will need at least two inches of outlet hose to remove the water. Why the size difference? You’re pumping the water in under pressure, remember? The drain is only moving water by gravity, with no pressure behind it, so you need considerably more diameter to move the water out. Swimming pool vacuum hose on the outlet side will generally fit the bill nicely for 5/8 - 3/4 inch hose on the inlet side. The drain line must go "downhill." Sounds pretty obvious, but I once had someone ask me to look at his well because it kept overflowing. The drain hose ran over the top of the transom and the top of the well was eight inches below the transom. Oops. Make sure that you cover the outlet holes with a screen or grate so the bait can't block them and cause overflows. Kodiak makes an outstanding plastic grate that can be mounted with screws to a through-hull fitting with a barb connector for the drain line. Better yet, consider buying a complete bait well plumbing kit - Keep Alive and Kodiak make excellent ones. This includes a drain screen, inlet fitting, outlet fitting and drain valve. Keep Alive also packages a pump with their kit, giving you virtually everything you need for the simplest installation. This is a highly recommended purchase, since it can be the dickens to hunt down the individual parts - and "Keep Alive" comes with a great set of instructions for "building your own." Install the through-hull fitting for the drain line at the height you want the water level to be in the tank. Leave ample room for sloshing to occur without splashing water out of the tank. This will vary according to the design of your tank, but 2/3 - 3/4 the total tank height is probably in the ballpark.

Another handy item is a tank drain valve, which is a small drain plug very near the bottom of the well. At the end of the day’s fishing, you don’t want to have to tip the tank over to empty it - nor do you want to leave the water in the bait well. A couple well-chosen PVC fittings (1/2 double male; 1/2 male-slip ell) with a PVC cap on the outside of the tank should work fine - remember to keep interior plumbing as low-profile as possible. Above all, take your time, drill the right size holes with the right bit and seal all connections well with something like 5200 marine sealant, made by 3M corporation. A leaking bait well is not a pleasant fishing companion. Close attention to detail now will pay great dividends when you’re bouncing around in four foot seas.

The last item is a good, tight fitting lid. You don't want it to blow off when you are running. Also you should secure your well to the deck of the boat to keep it from sliding around. It could really ruin your day to be rocking around in heavy seas and have several hundred pounds of water come crashing into you. Remember what we said earlier - the larger your well, the more it will weigh when it’s full of water. That can really affect your fuel mileage and the way your boat handles and performs.

By now, you should have a few variables to consider when planning your new bait well. I unfortunately had to stay pretty general with my recommendations due to space considerations. If I can help with any specific problems or questions, feel free to drop me an E-mail. It is sometimes easier to buy a pre-manufactured well, but if you think you’ve got the talent and the tools, by all means give it a try. Good luck and good fishing.

live bait fish
Wishing everyone tight lines and frisky live bait,

Capt. Charlie

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