Livewell BasicsLivewell Basics
For Anglers Dedicated to True Catch and Release
By Ed Telders
The Livewell, a combination of artificial lake environment, a traveling aquarium, a fish motel, the emergency room, and source of bragging rights.
Before the advent of catch and release for Bass Anglers we did not have live wells in the average fisherman's boat. Many simply used a stringer over the side of the boat. In fact the most that a well equipped angler had was a large cooler with lots of ice. After all most fish went to the freezer anyway.
As tournament fishing gained in popularity and the fishing pressures increased the concept of catch and release quickly gained a solid support first from tournament anglers and later weekend anglers. The spirit of catch and release included penalties for dead fish. This prompted improvements in live well equipment and configuration as well as water conditioners and additives to increase the chance that the fish arrived at the weigh in healthy and "kickin".
So you ask yourself, how does my live well stack up? Or you may be in the market for that next boat. What should you look for in a high quality livewell? What features should be there? If you already have a live well, do I have to live with built in problems or can I make it better?
First start with water volume. Do you know how many gallons it holds? Simply put, the more water the better. Increasing the volume increases the dispersion of waste products produced by the fish, increases the potentially available oxygen by increasing the amount of water to contain it (increased carrying capacity), and provides more space for fish to occupy without overcrowding which can decrease physiological stress and mutually inflicted injuries. Pay attention to whether the live well has sufficient depth for the fish (especially larger ones) to comfortably remain in an upright position, instead of lying on their sides which is not a natural position for them. Shallow live wells simply don't do as good a job, especially as you bounce around on the waves (which bounces the fish too).
Next look for a least a dual pumping system. Again more is better. You should have both a filling pump for fresh water and a recirculating or aeration pump. Both should have automating and manual operating modes. Get the bigger or higher volume pumps to move more water. Aerating pumps that pump air into the stream of water are better than those that only pump water, simply because they increase the amount of air/water surface interface which is where the oxygen molecules mix into the water. If you can, have extra pumps installed. There is always the possibility of a breakdown and a spare pump could make the difference between dead fish and live ones.
Make sure that the pipes and plumbing for the live well are adequate. If the tubing is too small then foreign objects (like those regurgitated stomach contents) could clog the flow and hamper their proper function. Check them during the day to make sure that water is flowing as you expect it to. Carry a hose or hand pump to backflush drain tubes if they get clogged. A small fish net (like they have in aquarium stores) can be used to extract floating debris (or regurgitated stuff, yuck!!) from the livewell.
Check the live well for sharp objects or poor construction that leaves burrs and splinters which can harm fish. Check the circulation holes in your livewell partition (if you have one) to be sure that the edges are not sharp. Use an Emory cloth to smooth out exposed edges in plastic. Buff down any exposed fiberglass that feels rough. Check all screws, rivets, and seams in metal fittings and fixtures. File down anything that is rough. Any rough edge that cannot be filed down should be protected with a coating of Silicon Caulking. Be sure you use the kind sold in the aquarium stores to prevent using a toxic compound (don't just buy it at the hardware store because its cheaper, you might be substituting one problem for another). Feel with your hands up under the lids and any areas you cannot visually inspect. I once put my hand in such a back corner behind the lid and up under the deck, when I pulled my hand back as the result of experiencing a sharp pain I was bleeding in four places!! There was raw fiberglass back there!! To top it off this was in a brand new, beautiful, high end Hydro Blaster!! Not a good idea if you want to keep those fish healthy. Check, check, and when you're done, check again. Lids should be padded on the inside. When you're done with your live well retrofit (or purchasing inspection) you should have satisfied yourself that you could put your baby sister in that livewell (Now I meant when she was a baby, come on guys!!!!) without any chance for injury.
Taking Care Of Your Livewell
What do you do with your livewell when it's not in use? Do you store the boat in the carport or the garage, or does it stay outdoors. When a livewell is "put away" it can begin to grow into a problem. Many anglers pressured by time and their many chores are in a hurry to put up the boat and get back to their other priorities. This frequently means that the livewell is closed while still wet inside. Water in the fill tubes and bottom of the livewell become growth tanks for bacteria and fungus. Fish slime and regurgitated stomach contents coat the surfaces and become growth media for the bacteria and other nasty critters. Closed livewell temperatures rise and increase the growth. The next time the angler uses the boat the livewell is frequently not opened up until the first bass is caught!! You start filling the well and plop in the fish not realizing that you've put the fish into a toxic and dangerous environment. The result, more stress to the fish, more fish which die before the weigh-in, and even more importantly, more delayed mortality. The fish are released alive but they've been infected with bacteria and fungal agents which contribute to a slow and merciless death later on the bottom of the lake.
So what can you do about this? Start with making sure that the Livewell is always dry before storage of the boat. If there are obvious stomach contents, fish slime, or residues on the sides of the livewell make sure you rinse the insides thoroughly and get those contaminants out. Wash your livewell with an anti-bacterial soap periodically to sterilize the interior. Remember to do a good job of rinsing out the cleaning agents before you dry out the interior. If you blast it with the hose, and any bubbles form you need to rinse again. Prop your livewell doors open to help air circulate in the interior to keep it dry.
Once you launch the boat and are motoring in clean water open the valves and fill the livewell with clean cool lake water. Don't wait until you have a fish to fill it up. This additional rinsing also cleanses the interior to help the fish survive. Lastly always use a commercially prepared livewell treatment. These products (there are several on the market) typically do several different things for you and the fish. They stimulate slime production, anesthetize the fish to control their stress levels and prevent them from injuring themselves in the livewell. They also contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, stabilize the pH and buffer the water. They can even help to heal hook wounds and treat pre-existing injuries and skin infections.
Your livewell is not just a bucket of water to hold fish destined for the fry pan. Take your livewell to the next level. The knowledgeable angler wants to make sure that catch and release really works. Take care of your livewell and it will take care of both your fish and you!!
Keep your lines tight and your spirits light!
Washington Warmwater Specialist Field Staff
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