Building A Livewell

By Rob Brewer

Photo of a cooler livewell

Supplies Needed:

  • 1 insulated cooler with hinged lid ............. $80-$120
  • 1 90º PVC elbow with threads on one end ..... $0.46
  • 1 18" section of 1/2" PVC pipe ......................$1.64 (for 8')
  • 1 1/2" PVC cap ............................................$0.21
  • 1 36" length of 3/4" plastic hose .....................$5.67
  • 1 500 -750 GPH bilge pump ........................ $24.99
  • 1 stainless hose clamp ................................ $1.79
  • 10' 12 ga wire  (5' of 12/2 Duplex wire).......... $12.75
  • 2 stainless sheet metal screws (3/4" long) ......$0.25
  • 1 toggle switch .......................................... $10.00
  • 1 live well timer switch (optional)
Total cost: ......................................$137.76–$177.76

I've been asked a lot of live well questions lately. Seems to me maybe more of you are considering building one, or perhaps it’s the only thing keeping you from tournament fishing. I built my own from scratch for next to nothing. I'll talk you through the process step by step, hitting on some highlights I think are worth mentioning. There's no need to build one that's going to kill your fish.

Tools Needed:

  • Screwdriver
  • Hacksaw
  • Drill with 1/8" and 3/8" bits

Before you run out and buy all the supplies listed, let me talk about them a little. First is the cooler. Don't skimp on size. If you are planning on keeping a five fish limit alive all day get at least a 90 quart cooler and don't hesitate to buy a 130 quart job (we used a 50 quart cooler for illustration purposes only, it will be used for live bait).

Figure your going to fill the live well only half full, if you want it to aerate properly after all the water is displaced from that 30 pound limit inside it. 90/2 = 45 quarts = 11.25 gallons. That's only 2.25 gallons per fish. More is better.

Next is the pump. This is the "heart" of your system. Set out to buy a 750 GPH pump. Settle for no less than a 500 gph. You want a considerable volume of water moving through the spray bar in order to achieve sufficient aeration. More is better.

Now comes the spray bar. You can make a better one than you can buy. For almost $2 you can get a piece of 1/2" PVC schedule 40 pipe 10' long. Cut an 18" section from the pipe. Scribe or mark a straight line along its length. Rotate the pipe 45º and scribe another line.

Along one of the lines, drill two 1/8" holes. These will be "pilot" holes for the screws when you mount the bar inside the cooler. Along the other line, you'll drill "aeration holes". Drill 8 to 12 1/8" holes along this other line. The small 1/8 holes will ensure there is sufficient pressure in the streams flowing to "inject" tons of tiny bubbles into your live well. More is better.

Once you drilled and deburred these holes. You’re ready to install the end cap and the 90º elbow. Do not PVC cement these in place! Friction alone should be sufficient to hold them without leaking. The reason for not cementing is you may have some scales or other regurgitated debris clog the spray bar. Simply remove the end cap and water pressure will wash it out. You can prevent 99% of this debris from ever entering the spray bar by placing a piece of your wife's discarded nylons over the pump. Just cut a 6" section of the leg out. Tie a knot in one end, slip over the pump and tie another knot.

You ready to start putting this thing together? Choose a location inside the cooler, close to the very top and on the side opposite the hinges, to mount your spraybar. Mount it in the center, so you can easily remove the end cap or the 90º elbow if needed. Now before you start screwing it in place, make sure the aeration holes are pointing towards the bottom of the cooler and not the lid. Also make sure the elbow and the end cap are already on when you crew on the spray bar. Screw the spray bar in place with the two stainless screws. Don't screw it down super tight. You want it tight, but too much. Again the tightness of the screws affects the ease at which the fittings may be removed.

Now that your spray bar is in place and you are happy with it, attach the hose to the elbow. Mine is threaded. I just twisted it into the hose. You may need an additional hose clamp. Now attach the pump to the hose, using the hose clamp. Leave the pump "freestanding". Don't fasten it in the cooler. This so you can hang it overboard to fill your live well.

Now everything is done except for the wiring of the pump. I really can't go into details on this, because it is done differently depending if you use a timer or toggle switch. Just follow the directions (it's really not hard to do). Once you have completed your wiring, you have made a live well that will keep your fish alive on the longest, hottest day.

Another great feature about this design is it's removable. You can leave the cooler at home if not fishing in a tourney. The only thing that's "stuck" in the boat is the pump.

Tips & Tricks

  • Buy a white cooler, it stays "cooler" in the summer. Buy one with a hinged lid, you don't want to remove the lid and risk a fish jumping overboard.
  • Cool your live well by adding pop bottles full of frozen water.
  • Don't fill your live well before blast off. It's dead weight. When you get to your first hole, put a couple inches in it. That way you can toss a fish in right away. Once you catch one, add more water though.
  • You can neatly fill your weigh in bag (while draining the live well, making it easier to grab fish) by removing the 90º elbow and holding it in your bag with the pump running.
  • Periodically exchange live well water by holding the elbow over the side pumping some off, then reattach it and hang the pump back overboard to refill what you pumped off.
  • Enhance the survivability of your catch by adding 8 ounces (per 10 gallons) of rock salt (not iodized) to your livewell. Make another "sack" from the discarded nylons your wife gave you and the put the salt in it.
  • If you leave the live well in your boat while you travel, place it in the boat with the hinge side facing forward so the lid doesn't blow open. Also consider bungee strapping it in place.
  • Same for the live well itself, bungee strap that sucker too. You don't want it shifting around in the boat possibly breaking a rod or something.
  • If you wire to a timer be sure to carry spare fuses of the same ampere rating.
  • Buy an aquarium thermometer and keep it in your live well. Periodically check it and adjust water temp as needed and try to match the temperature of the water in the lake.