January 06, 2012
Get a head start with pre-caught bait.
A live bait pen floats next to the dock, ready for tomorrow's action.
Given the choice between spending the first hour of the day fishing for early feeders versus searching for bait, most anglers would choose the former. Pre-caught bait gives the green light at morning launch.
Blue runners, goggle-eyes and mullet are hardy baits which do well in bait pens. Menhaden, herring and pilchards can live in captivity, but these delicate baitfish typically end up bruised, scraped and relieved of their slime coats after bumping against the sides of a pen.
Many tackle retailers offer bait pens of various sizes. Most are easily assembled and collapse for storage and transportation. Online retailer baitpen.com sells small, medium and large pens priced at $59.99 to $139.99. Also, baitbaskets.com sells a 24-inch x 24-inch pen with a 47-gallon interior for $75, but also offers instructions for making your own.
Body material may be nylon, hard plastic mesh or a PVC-coated, galvanized mesh. Floats keep the top at the surface for easy access, while a weighted bottom ring holds the lower end down. Tether lines keep pens from drifting away. Some pens close via drawstrings, while better models include spring-loaded latches, which prevent herons, egrets and the like from shoplifting your baits.
Pens whose tops open completely offer optimal access without the hassle of chasing baits around with limited reach. Conversely, total topside access allows baits to jump out during deposit or withdrawal. Whatever style you choose, make sure you can lift and/or hold it securely when reaching over the gunwale or transporting the pen. The Cabela's Floating Bait Cage comes in four sizes, each with extra-strong top handles (www.cabelas.com).
Do-it-yourselfers may fashion homemade pens from flexible conduit, hard mesh rolls, pool noodles and tie wraps. Cylindrical shapes are better than cornered designs, as baits are less likely to bump their noses on the enclosures when swimming in circles.
Also important here is mesh size—you want it small enough to keep baits in and predators out. Mangrove snapper, barracuda and cormorants can reach through wide mesh and harass your baits. And, although mesh pens are most common, residents occasionally fall victim to marauding otters. For a mammal-proof bait fortress, try 55-gallon plastic pickle barrels drilled with ventilation holes.
Savvy tournament anglers and charter captains running consecutive days often use two bait containers to leverage the strategy of separation. When prefishing yields abundant bait, anglers can divide their catch into groups for different days. This avoids stressing out all the baits by dipping into a single group to retrieve only a portion.
Large opening makes it easy to transfer baits with a 5-gallon bucket.
Most consider it wise not to disturb penned baits any more than necessary. By separating the bait, you only reach the dipnet into the barrel designated for a particular day.
When baits spend a day or so in the bait pen or barrel, add a little extra chow to supplement what they can find in the natural water flow. Bits of shrimp, cut ribbonfish or dry oatmeal will keep them nourished and ready for action. Keep your pens far from fuel docks, stormwater drains and any other point of potential contamination. Good water flow promotes bait health, but avoid holding offshore baits caught from deeper, cooler spots in shallow, warmer canals or marinas. And if you wonder why some teams choose to tie their bait pens from the bow, it's a theft diversion effort. Hanging a pen fully forward makes it tougher for dishonest types to help themselves to the fruits of your labor.
For best results, rinse bait pens periodically. Between uses, store out of the water. Otherwise, algae and other growth will create an unhealthy environment for your baits.