How to Keep Bait Fish Alive

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When fishing from Florida’s shores some of the most popular and most effective baits are bait fish.  Ranging from Pinfish to Finger Mullet to Scaled Sardines these bait fish have been responsible for some of the best fishing trips, but they can be difficult to keep alive in captivity.  Here are a few tips to help keep them lively and attracting game fish.

Container Size

The container that the bait fish are kept in should be large enough to keep the amount of fish you plan on using in a day alive.  Most bait fish require about 1/2 gallon of water per fish to keep them alive long term.  A 5 gallon bucket can keep 10-15 finger mullet or 10-12 pinfish alive for a full day (if all other conditions are met).

Overcrowding in a container can lead to the rapid death of bait fish.  While in the small container they will continue to evacuate waste.  This waste will cause the water to foul (usually ammonia from fish urine) and become toxic to the bait fish.  Having fewer fish per gallon of water will help reduce this risk.


Another killer of bait fish is the lack of oxygen dissolved in the water they are being kept in.  In a closed system (like a bucket) bait fish can use all the dissolved oxygen rather rapidly if it is not replaced.  A bubble or spray bar will help counter this problem.  No matter what solution is chosen, make sure that the surface of the water the bait fish are kept in is kept disturbed at all times (the disturbed surface will absorb more oxygen than any other method).  Blubbers tend to do a VERY good job at disturbing the surface at an economical price.

Water Temperature

The higher the water temperature the faster the fish kept in it will die.  Keeping the water temperature a few degrees bellow ambient temperature will help ensure a longer life for the bait fish.  A good aerator (bubble or spray bar) will not only help with oxygenation, but it will help keep the temperature down a little bit as well by encouraging evaporation.

Another tip to help keep the water temperatures down is to keep the container out of direct sun.  If this is not possible, cover it with a while towel, this will help prevent the sun from raising the temperature to rapidly.

A small bottle of frozen water can be added to larger containers to help keep temperatures down if no other techniques are working, just make sure the amount of frozen water added does not DRASTICALLY change the temperature as this may be shocking and deadly to the bait fish.

Water Changes

On long trips changing 25-50% of the water volume with water from the ocean, or area you are fishing, every 4 hours will help keel the toxicity low and keep the fish healthier and more lively for an extended period of time.  Changing more than 50% of the water volume can be shocking to the bait fish as the rapid change in water quality can be to much for the bait fish to take.