If you’ve ever had to pour half a bucket of live sand eels into the sea after a fishing session, or if you have planned to reuse a parcel of ragworm only to find half of them dead after a few days then, like me, you may have toyed with the idea of setting up your own live bait tank.
Or if, like me, you love a good project and have both a shed fascination and way too much time on your hands, again, you may have thought about making a live bait tank.
Either way, if you’re both a regular, keen sea fisherman and you’re serious about keeping your bait in as good a condition for the longest time possible, then building and running your own live bait tank may be the way to go.
Now, there are two ways to go about it: a quick, short term way and the more involved, long term live bait tank.
If you just need to preserve some ragworms for a few extra days or keep some of your sand eels alive until the next day then you can do the quick fix.
Put a deep container filled with some previously collected seawater in the fridge and clip a small air pump to the side (with a tube going into the water with an air stone on the end). Put your live bait in this and, to be on the safe side, look at changing at least 50% or the water every other day. The reason we need to do this frequently is simply because there is no filtration system in place – which means the water quickly pollutes and become death in a tub for its residents. The larger and more frequent the changes are (up to a point) the healthier the environment will be for your live bait.
The more permanent and much more effective (read: much more involved) method, however, is to jump both feet first into the wonderful world of aquarism. Yup, in effect you’ll be building a salt water aquarium. It may sound incredibly involved and quite a daunting task, but that’s probably because it is! So then, is it worth it? Well, if you do a lot of sea fishing are looking to keep your bait in A1 condition for an indefinite time then the simple answer is “yes”.
Although its more difficult to get going than the quick fix, once its up and running its much, much lower maintenance than it’s ‘ice cream tub in the fridge’ counterpart.
So, how do we go about it?
EQUIPMENT NEEDED FOR YOUR LIVE BAIT TANK
Most of these items you can pick up in the classified section of your local rag or on eBay for a fraction of the normal retail price:-
Large water container – you can use a very large bucket or similar container, but I would recommend a proper glass tank as it’ll make things much easier when it comes to inspecting (and removing) bait in the tank. Also, as you become used to seeing healthy marine life in it, you’ll be able to see at a glance if something is wrong – you can also spot any dead stuff a lot easier and a lot sooner. If you have a glass tank, make sure you sit it on a couple of polystyrene ceiling tiles to take out irregularities where it sits.
Water pump/filter – These are the all-in-one units that circulate the water and maintain the healthy environment. Once the tank matures and completes its cycle (more about that in a bit) these bio-filters turn harmful waste into a harmless by-product and ensure your bait stays healthy right up until the moment you put a size 2/0 Aberdeen through its head.
Marine Salt (aquarium salt) – Turns tap water into sea water. Hallelujah! The reason to make seawater as opposed to collecting the ‘free stuff’ is 1. The effort involved in lugging (and transporting) gallons of sea water around, and 2. Normal sea water already has many bio-organisms and what-have-you in it which invariably die after the sea water is taken from the main body of the sea, more often than not this will cause the ‘dead’ sea water to bloom and go a bit stinky. You’re best off making it yourself and keeping it under tight control.
Hydrometer – Use this to check the specific gravity of the water when mixing in the aquarium salt to ensure the correct salinity. There is a benchmark figure for this, but double check with ‘real’ sea water in your area.
Bucket – For making your salt water and for your water changes.
2 optional extras:
Water Treatment Drops – Depending on the type, just a few drops of this into each gallon of tap water makes it safe for aquarium fish. For proper fish keeping (as in keeping long, long term pets) its standard practice, but for bait? Well, I don’t think it matters so much for the time periods we’re talking about. As cold as it may sound, the sand eels aren’t going to be dying of old age.
Chiller Unit – in the warmer months you may find that the tank temperature rises beyond that needed to keep your bait alive and kicking, in which case a chiller unit could be called for to maintain a lower temperature. For example, during my first summer I caught prawns and kept them in the tank ‘sans chiller’ – within a day they were still alive (just) but they’d turned a rather pinky-opaque colour. Although the water felt cold to the touch, I believe they must’ve actually started to cook. Man, did I feel bad. Keeping the tank in a cool, dark place will help considerably, but in a heat wave it may still need a chiller.
Ok, once we’ve got the gear we can move on to the second stage:
SETTING UP YOUR LIVE BAIT TANK
Clean the tank thoroughly and place it on a sturdy, flat, level surface in the coolest place possible (to avoid ‘The Prawn Scenario’ and the need for a chiller in all but the hottest times.) Also, ensure it’s not ridiculously close to electrical outlets – no matter how careful you are, water always manages to get splashed everywhere.
Mix up your sea water (check regularly with hydrometer) and fill your tank up half way. There’s no need to fill it right up at this point, you can do that later once you are happy with everything.
Set your pump/filter up and get it pumping the water around the tank.
PREPARING YOUR LIVE BAIT TANK FOR USE
Although the tank looks like its ready to go there is still one crucial thing that has to happen before you can fill it with live bait: the tank has to ‘mature’. It can take up to 3 weeks in total to complete its Nitrogen Cycle. If you put bait in before the tank is matured you will just get an almighty ammonia spike that will probably just kill everything in the tank.
To mature the tank, simply run it as if you were keeping live bait in it. Have it full of water and have the pump running at all times. To kick start the nitrogen cycle (and begin establishing bacterial colonies that will turn harmful ammonia generated by waste into nitrites and then into harmless nitrates) drop a strip of old mackerel or tea spoon of cat food etc in there and let nature take its course.
Marine aquarium test kits can be bought pretty cheaply to check its progress if you are keen to see how it’s getting on.
Then, after the tank has cycled and the ammonia and nitrites have tailed off, all that’s left to do is to stock it with live bait!
MAINTAINING A HEALTHY LIVE BAIT TANK
Once your tank is stocked with live bait, check on it from time to time to ensure all is well in your new underwater world and be sure to remove anything that does die for whatever reason since this will only put more load on the filtration system. Also, its advisable to do a 20% water change (salt water mix) twice a month to keep the tank – and your live bait – in top condition (as opposed to a water change every two days with real seawater in the quick fix example.)
And that’s it: all you need to know about building and maintaining a live bait tank. Although it may appear quite labour intensive to set up, a well maintained live bait tank is unquestionably the best way to keep ragworm or any other live marine bait indefinitely.