After a lifetime in the bass fishing industry, I’ve interacted with a lot of anglers anxious to learn more. One topic that’s always high on the list is keeping bass alive in a livewell.
Interest in the subject expanded years ago when many anglers visited the Great Lakes for the first time and quickly learned how tough it is to keep a big load of smallmouth healthy. A recognizable figurehead in that area, I was solicited to share my thoughts. And while the big smallmouth tournaments helped hone my skills in keeping bass alive, the real learning came from schooling, when I earned a fisheries degree from Michigan State University. More info came from friends who wrote a book on the subject.
Anyway, my purpose here is to revisit the process, not my college years (I wish). Summer is the most difficult season for keeping fish healthy in a livewell, so let’s dig in.
First, it’s important to understand the science behind the problem. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. In addition, bass being held in warm water require far more oxygen than those in cooler temps, due to metabolic rate. Factor in that stress – for instance, holding a wild animal in a box of water – also increases oxygen demand, and we can more easily see the problem. So, with summer comes a need for more oxygen. That is unequivocally the top source of problems and the best way to fix it is to lower livewell water temperature, period.
By lowering the temp, we help alleviate all three of our problems by increasing the amount of oxygen the water holds, as well as decreasing the oxygen demands and stress on the bass.
Your greatest ally here is ice, and probably to a greater extent than you think. The goal is to reduce water temperature 10 to 15 degrees, regardless of your starting point. In the case of a standard-size bass boat livewell, that will probably take about 10 pounds of ice. Leave the ice in the bag and put the whole bag in the well; trust me, it works better. Although freezing treated water removes most chlorine, add a little dechlorinator if you’re unsure. All livewell additives contain dechorinator, or you can buy it cheaply in bulk at a pet or pool supply store.
So, to sum up:
> Step One: Begin your day with a constant source of fresh water coming into your wells – not recirculated water. After a few hours and with some fish in the box, ice down the well and switch to the recirculated cycle. Add fish care product if you’d like.
A note here – I’ve always promoted the use of the first livewell additive developed by Jungle Laboratories decades ago. Originally called Catch-and-Release, the same product is now labeled Please Release Me and offered by Sure Life. This compound contains sedatives to reduce stress on fish, as well as a slime coat regenerator and antibiotic compounds. It’s worked for me for 25 years.
Moving on, we’ve set up a good environment for the fish. Cool water while recirculating pumps run continuously, not on a timer. If the discharge nozzles in your livewell can be directed to spray water across the top of the well, do so. You want to create as much bubbling as possible from the spray hitting the water, thus introducing oxygen.
> Step Two: Keep fish in the cooled water, with as much recirculating spray as possible on a constant cycle for a maximum of two hours. Handle the fish as little as possible.
Once the two hour time window has elapsed, it’s time to change out a portion of the water to prevent waste build-up. Here’s where a lot of anglers go wrong – they forget to consider the fact that fish, especially those in a stressed environment (again, the wild animal thing) produce waste products high in ammonia. In fact, some fish species do so at such a high rate that they will suffocate themselves in a matter of minutes when held in a tank. In any case, we need to prevent this problem.
> Step Three: After two hours has passed, drain half the water in the livewell. If possible, do so from the bottom of the tank (in most cases, simply opening the livewell valves accomplishes this).
> Step Four: Switch the livewell water source back to fresh water, and again completely fill the well. Add half as much ice as used in Step One and additive, if desired. Switch the well cycle back to recirculate and leave the fish alone.
By following these steps throughout the day, you will be impressed by the overall health of your fish. All it takes is a little extra time to ensure your catch is healthy, avoid penalties and further protect our resource.
A few additional notes:
First, I routinely get asked about the aspect of big smallmouths, often caught in deep water, floating near the top of a livewell. To fizz, or not to fizz? I say no. While I’ve personally fizzed dozens of fish, I leave this to the experts at weigh-in, with a much better work area than the seat of my boat. As for the weighted fin clips marketed to upright fish in a well, I’ve used them with mixed results (in fact, I tested these for an individual hoping to bring them to the market in the '90s, who never did).
Simply stated, the reason so many bass come back to weigh-in looking poor is the fault of the boat driver. Remember, you’ve got precious cargo back there – act like it. Also, give your livewell a good once-over to ensure there’s no sharp fiberglass or screws in the top of the well that could rough up your bass.
Next, let’s talk a little more about oxygen. Yes, myself and a few others ran pure oxygen tanks in our boats for a time. I assume a few anglers still do. Again, we were the first to do this, and learned the hard way some of the dangers and difficulties. This procedure is not recommended, as carrying a compressed cylinder in a boat must be done so in accordance with many legalities, and is not a good idea. Instead, I highly recommend using a bubble pump that diffuses air into the well. The Frabill pumps do a spectacular job and are cheap. No, it’s not pure oxygen going in, but additional air helps tremendously. I still use one every day for keeping shiners alive; a fish much more temperamental than a bass.
Finally, a couple more bullet points. Don’t believe the hype about adding soda or hydrogen peroxide to your water to increase “bubbling” or oxygen. This is absolutely false, and will do more harm than good. And regarding smallmouth, brown bass require about 25 percent more oxygen than largemouth to stay healthy, thus the issues associated. Just things to keep in mind.
So take the time to create a positive living space for the bass in your boat. In the long run, they’ll pay you back.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)