A Guide For Keeping Fresh Bait


Wicked Fishah Blog Contributor – Mark McKay

This is the first of what I hope to be many contributions to our new contributing blogger, Mark McKay.  Mark is a fellow fisherman and an aquarium enthusiast.  He published this article for his fellow Ice-Fishermen, though, the concept of trapping and keeping your own baits is one that could lend itself to any season!  Enjoy, and as always, get involved with the Wicked Fishah Community!  Comments are always welcome.  Tight Lines & Tread Lightly!  ~Dave


For many ice fishermen, trapping your own bait is an effective and cost saving method of having a fresh supply for the entire season. Keeping bait can be achieved in a few easy steps that will ensure a healthy and plentiful batch to get you through to ice out.

My name is Mark and for the last 20 or so years, I’ve kept a variety of fresh and salt water aquariums. Along the way, I’ve picked up vital information about keeping fish alive that I’m going to share with you.

There are a few important items you will need in order to keep bait alive and healthy through the ice fishing season. These are….

1) A tank to keep your bait
2) Filtration
3) Water conditioning chemicals
4) Aeration

Below, I’ll break down each of the items separately. Please bookmark this handy guide to reference in the future should you need help.

1) A tank to keep your bait

When setting up a bait tank for the winter, you must think about your goals for the season. If you’re a pike fisherman, which requires large bait, you’ll want to have a tank large enough to keep the bait alive. If you keep shiners for bass, perch, etc, a smaller tank will do. For reference, I’ll use my bait storage system as an example. I keep shiners in a Rubbermaid 100 gallon “Stock tank” for the season….

These can be purchased from any tractor supply or feed store in your areas. Large glass aquariums from you local pet store will work as well.

One important thing to keep in mind is that you do not want to “Over stock” your tank. A 10 gallon aquarium will not hold 200 shiners for the season without significant die off. An average rule of thumb in the aquarium hobby is 1”-2” of fish per gallon of water. With proper filtration, you can easily keep more than that in a tank. Which brings me to my next topic.

2) Filtration

Proper water filtration is a very important key to keeping your bait alive. A simple air stone and a prayer will just not do it. I’ve seen many “home made” filters which, while ingenious, in my opinion are not recommended. In my tank, I use a Marineland Magnum 350 canister filter. This provides mechanical (solid wastes) and biological (bacteria) filtration in one sealed unit. The filter is easy to take apart and changing the cartridges is a one step process.

In my filter, I use a poly fiber pad in addition to granulated carbon in a container on the inside. These are purchased at my local pet store and are very inexpensive. The poly pad collects waste while the carbon removes odors and colors from the water. Changing the pad and carbon should be done monthly as they can only hold so much. I recommend that in an overstocked tank, these be changed more frequently.

Understanding what happens in your filter will give you a better idea of how to keep your bait alive. In all aquariums, you must have a biological bacteria colony which consumes waste. There are several types of bacteria which grow in your aquarium and filter that live on the waste from your fish. When a new tank is set up, a “cycling process” begins. This is the process where the bacteria begin to grow in your aquarium. Once your tank is set up and you add your first fish, the process begins. The urine from your fish will begin an ammonia cycle. The bacteria that grow and consume ammonia, give off nitrite as waste. Then a bacteria grows to consume that and those give off nitrate which is the non toxic “end product” and is safe for your fish. This process can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks. You can shorten this period by using as much water as possible for the area you’re trapping in. The idea is that the water you’re taking from the pond/lake where you trap is already “cycled” and has that bacteria alive and thriving.

3) Water conditioning chemicals

In order to make water safe for you and I to drink, it is loaded with products that are toxic to fish. Chlorine, chloramines, fluorides, and other chemicals that make water safe for us will actually burn fish if they are not removed. Removal of these chemicals can be done in a couple of ways. The least expensive method is to “cure” water in a barrel before you use it. This is the process where you leave water uncovered in a container for at least 48 hours. The surface contact with the air will naturally de-chlorinate the water and make it safe for use. If you’re as impatient as I am, there are products you can buy that will do the same thing in far less time. I use a product called “Start Right” from Jungle Laboratories. This is available at your local pet store. There are also several other products available that do the same thing. Adding these products to your tap water will make it safe for use in your tank within minutes. I recommend treating your water before you put it in your tank, especially if it already has fish in it.

4) Aeration

All fish breathe dissolved oxygen through their gills in the water column. Aerating you water properly will provide the necessary oxygen that is depleted as the fish breathe. This is easily accomplished using a couple of methods. An air pump attached to a diffusing air stone is one such method. Another method is the use of a “spray bar” which is attached to the output end of your filter. Any surface agitation in your tank will aid in oxygenation. In my tank, I run both an air pump and have a spray nozzle at the end of my filter. The spray nozzle forces the water into the tank at a high speed, thus agitating it to allow an air exchange as it hits the surface. If there’s not enough oxygenation at the water’s surface, the fish will suffocate.

That’s about as basic as I can make it. Feel free to ask any questions you may have if you’d like me to go into more detail on a topic. Hopefully you end up with enough bait to keep yourself fishing for the season.

Tight lines everyone!!!

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