Keeping Fish Alive During Summer Using Livewells

By Capt. Steve Chaconas

What you can do to improve livewells.

Photo of inside of livewell

When tournaments come to town and the water temperature is in the mid 80s, fish care becomes as important as fish catching to FLW pro anglers. Several advancements have occurred over the sport's history. Livewells with aeration systems and recirculation pumps have improved fish survival. Anglers, like FLW Ranger/Mercury pro Troy Morrow, have taken fish care to a higher level.

Coming up through amateur fishing ranks, Morrow took note of fish handling. As he progressed from the club level to BFL events, "You start noticing a lot of really poor fish coming to the scales and floaters after events. This is hard on the fishery and wasn't good for image of fishing." Penalties are assessed in every tournament for dead fish, which he considered another reason to find a better way to care for fish as it could cost fish lives, points and paychecks! After a bit of research and asking a lot of questions, he concluded water temperature and oxygen content go hand in hand for fish survival in boat livewells.

The first level of fish care starts with additives. Additives were being introduced to the sport and supported by major trails. Salt and even hydrogen peroxide were considered fish savers, but he was unable to find solid data on the effectiveness and the dosage. Both of these products claimed to support fish slime coat. Skeptical, he questioned his peers and did his own research and found a commercially available product, Rejuvenade, provided benefits to livewell fish. The company says their product revitalizes, replenishes and re-energizes bass, preparing them for release. Rejuvenade was a documented additive alternative and came with dosage directions and the use was suggested by FLW and other organizations.

Summer heat can kill livewell bass. Catching fish from deeper cooler water can stun and kill fish when placed into hot livewells. In addition, cooler water can contain more oxygen. Morrow said it came together when he used an underwater camera. After lowering the unit, he noticed the camera was cold. Using a Marcum camera with temperature readout, the Georgia pro took note. He used a bilge pump with a flexible tube weighted to reach depth of the fish he was catching. He pumped that water into his livewell. "We were catching our fish that deep in the summertime. It made sense to keep the livewell at that temperature." Using a swimming pool temperature gauge, he monitored the level. Ice came into play to maintain that temperature or he would pump out some of the water and replenish the livewell with the deeper cooler water.

Again, Morrow wanted more precise and reliable data on using ice to control livewell temperatures. Without research he relied on trial and error. "I cautioned on lighter side. One extra bag for an 8-hour tourney and sparingly put some in throughout the day."

Photo of Lowrance with temperature display

New LOWRANCE electronics allowed for an additional temp sensor to be added to the livewell to display on his screen next to his surface temperature reading. This enabled him to eliminate the pool thermometer from his system and to be able to instantly monitor the condition of his livewells. His co-anglers can see the graph with the temp gauge to notify him when to add ice. In practice, he lowers the camera to check temperature at the depth he is fishing. This becomes the base for his livewells. Morrow adds that shallow fisheries don't have much of a difference, but he will chill his livewells no more than 10 degrees cooler than the surface temperature. Again, this was an anecdotal observation of his livewell fish. Lethargic fish or foam on the surface of the livewell water indicates a need to make adjustments.

Photo of an oxygen stone

The biggest advancement in over and above fish care is an oxygen system. Hearing about such a system from a buddy, Morrow took a closer look. Hammond's Fishing Center in Georgia carries a tank and ceramic oxygen diffuser; The Keep Alive O2 System creates micro bubbles to form an oxygen cloud in the water. The diffuser can be glued into place with silicone or secured with suction cups for easy removal. The oxygen tank is stored in an adjacent storage box on his Ranger boat with a hose through the box to the diffuser in his livewells. Oxygen was now readly available for fish to consume. Instructions and a dial regulator could be set according to how much weight needed to be supported. Morrow uses this system when he has a big fish, an injured or stressed fish or when he begins to add his 4th and 5th fish into his livewell. He also relies on it when it is very hot! Cautioning, Morrow only uses suggested settings, as too much oxygen isn't good either.

As with any livewell plan, recirculating fresh water is best. Periodically during the day, Morrow pumps out about half of his livewell water and replenishes with fresh cool water, again monitoring the temperature. While he is running to his next spot, he cracks livewell lids to allow stale ammonia gasses to escape.

Photo of Glory bags

With fish having a difficult time regaining their balance, Morrow uses weighted Glory Bags. These rubber mesh bags not only protect fish from handling and livewell collisions, the weights keep fish upright until they fully recover. In addition, Morrow attaches a color-coded poker chip with a number to assisting in culling. They also eliminate the need for piercing fish with culling hooks.

Photo of holding a poker chip

Admitting it is mostly hearsay, Morrow has successfully field-tested the Mountain Dew cure for bleeding fish. Theory claims citrus shrinks capillaries. "When you do it a few times and see it work, you'll be a believer. Just pour it over the wound." He also makes a paste with Mountain Dew and Rejuvenade to apply to the bleeding source.

As he has tweaked his system, he has discovered another that intrigues him. KoolWell is a radiator system allowing water to run through the iced radiator in bottom of a storage box. A thermostat cools to a desired temperature, keeping livewells constant through the day. No risk of chemicals from the ice harming fish. "My system works great but it is manual. I hardly ever lose a fish. Only time I lose a fish is when the fish is bleeding from a nicked gill or a deep hook. I judge my fish by everyone else's at weigh in. Mine are not slow or lethargic, or a funny color. When I bring a bag to the bump tank my fish are full of life."

When fish die, they lose weight too! A dead or stressed fish releases ammonia that can affect the rest of the fish in the livewell. Fish care is advancing as manufacturers have developed improved devices and anglers like Morrow implement their own add-on devices and systems. But, whether it's a penalty or poor perception, it's still the angler's responsibility to keep five alive and Morrow's tips are easily implemented!