Keeping trolling baits fresh and durable is essential; bait trays make it a cinch.
You’ve picked out premium ballyhoo at the tackle shop: clear eyes, color in the tail and dorsal fins, firm belly, undivided bill, green “poo.” If frozen, you thawed them in an empty bucket or cold brine. Some you’ve rigged, some you want to keep at the ready.
A cooler full of ice is a good place to start, but direct contact with fresh water softens the baits, making them quick to tear and wash out. Keep those baits off the ice water and keep them salted!
Bait trays are available in a variety of materials, as well as shapes and sizes specific to different cooler brands and dimensions.
From what I’ve seen working on the charter and private docks for some years now, most fisherman don’t spend big bucks on custom-machined bait trays. Of course, spending the extra money does get you something you can use over and over again, and may last many years to come. However, what I have noticed is the use of more “disposable,” one- or two-time use trays–cost effective, and when you’re done you simply throw it away.
The Turkey Tray: For years weekend warriors and mates alike have been using a simple store-bought aluminum turkey tray as a way to keep baits cool and off the ice. Coming in a few different sizes, there are turkey trays that fit a variety of coolers. The aluminum tray transfers the cold of the ice easily to the baits while keeping them dry. Also the turkey tray has depth, which allows for the stacking of many types of bait, including larger varieties such as mackerel, squid, mullet, sardines, assorted cut baits, and of course ballyhoo. This also makes salting your baits easy as well.
The Beer Flat: A little more low-tech than the turkey tray, the beer flat is about as simple and cheap as bait trays come. I have seen many variations of the beer flat tray, most involving no more than taking a beer flat or two and tossing them onto the ice and laying your baits on top. While this works, the beer flat has no sides, and can become wet and let freshwater soak onto your baits if the cooler does not drain properly or hold ice well. To avoid this, many wrap their cardboard beer flats in aluminum foil. The beer flat is a stand-by for anglers when a turkey tray or machined tray is not available, and for some, like myself, that’s all we ever use.
Wax Paper: Didn’t learn about this little trick here until recently having a chat with Carl Hoenes Jr. at Mitchell’s Bait and Tackle in Stuart, Florida. Carl let me in on a long time method of keeping baits fresh and off the ice in the cooler: wax paper. Wax paper doesn’t let the condensation of the ice through to the baits yet it transfers the cold quite well. Carl says he and many other anglers in the area have been using wax paper for as long as he can remember to keep baits preserved until it was time for “lines in.”
Aluminum and Stainless Steel Trays
Looking for a tray that’ll last for several trips? Consider not only the dimensions of your cooler, but also bait tray cost, resistance to corrosion, durability, weight and how well the device conducts cold.
One option is an aluminum bait tray; aluminum is light, durable and corrosion resistant. Aluminum also is also one of the best conductors of cold and also allows for a variety of finishes such as paint or powder coating. A handful of companies make high-end quality aluminum bait trays, especially along the east coast of the United States. Aluminum trays have quickly become the most popular option for bait trays because of their cost effectiveness and superior ability to conduct and transfer cold.
Stainless trays may be harder to come by because of the higher cost of the metal, but stainless is more rigid and (generally speaking) more corrosion resistant than aluminum. One thing to note is the quality of stainless you are purchasing; there are different grades of metals, cheaper metals will not hold up as well. If deciding on a stainless tray, make sure it is only made from the best quality metals to ensure years of worry-free use.
Both aluminum and stainless trays feature holes on the bottom that allow water to drain into the bottom of the cooler and make the transfer of the cool temperatures of the ice to the baits ideal. Many custom tray makers allow for specialized designs on the bottom of the tray as well, such as various fish patterns. Because of the cost and large size selection of these custom made trays, however, it may be difficult to find these trays readily available in tackle stores and marine outlets. Usually trays can be specially ordered, either online or at your local tackle store. Most tray makers provide size ranges for all major cooler companies, such as Igloo, Yeti, Icy-Tec and Engel.
Many cooler manufacturers make “drop-in” plastic trays that can be used for many things, but most importantly can be used as a bait tray. Igloo even makes “The Bait Box,” a cooler that comes with a plastic drop-in tray with holes in the bottom; on the cooler lid is even a fillet board for cutting and prepping baits.
Plastic, of course, is corrosion-proof and is very light, but it’s bendable and breakable. Plastic may crack or become brittle over time in the harsh saltwater environment. Plastic also does not do as well of a job of transferring cold as the various metals do. A plastic tray is a good option when on a budget, or when concerned mainly with rust and corrosion, which should not be a problem if you purchase a quality stainless or aluminum tray.
A few companies make bait trays designed for stacking, usually starting from the deepest tray at the bottom of the cooler and working up the cooler with shallower trays. Of course, you can arrange the trays however you prefer. Coming in many different materials, stackable trays organize your bait cooler. You might find deep trays for items as large as 5-pound boxes of squid and sardines, and medium depth trays for packs of bait, and the normal shallow trays for rigged baits and cut baits.
Stackable trays are more commonly built with plastic, but the Max Bait Tray System has made a great powder-coated aluminum stacking tray system that makes your cooler look good and keeps it organized. The Max’s Bait Tray System can be stacked in any order, and has a small cutting board that inserts on the top of any tray you choose. FS
Bait Tray Manufacturers
Ballyhoo Bait Trays
Ballyhoo Bait Trays, anodized aluminum
Max Bait Tray Systems
Stackable, powder-coated aluminum
The Bait Box, plastic
First Published Florida Sportsman November 2011