Live bait. It’s that simple. If you want to succeed as an offshore kayak angler in South Florida, you need live bait—especially if you want to succeed as an offshore kayak tournament angler. I’ve tried fishing strictly artificials offshore and I do fairly well, but not well enough to be competitive in tournaments like the Extreme Kayak Fishing events. Live bait really is part of the formula needed for tournament success.
Extreme Kayak Fishing has adjusted its rules regarding live bait for the 2016 tournament series—and following the bait-related chaos of the 2015 Summer Slam II, there’s no doubt why. Next year, live bait will be delivered to kayakers in the water prior to the start only. In the past bait suppliers like Hillsboro Inlet Live Bait would also deliver bait directly to anglers throughout the tournament. While this was convenient given the difficulty kayak anglers face in trying to carry anything more than a small amount of live bait, Summer Slam II also proved that it is no longer possible to efficiently deliver bait to the entire fleet of anglers in a timely manner. Radio chatter throughout the day of Summer Slam II repeatedly echoed the frustration of “where’s the bait boat?” and post-tournament conversation expressed concerns about whether anglers were getting their baits delivered equitably throughout the day.
Given both the importance of live bait and the changes to the rules regarding live bait delivery during the Extreme, bait maintenance has become an even more important concern for offshore kayak anglers. Unfortunately, there are very few live bait wells designed specifically for kayaks available through manufacturers, leaving kayak anglers to rely on DIY approaches—as we tend to do for many things, anyway. Ultimately, three primary factors drive how we should think about live wells for yaks: drag, space, and accessibility, all of which are addressed here.
Recently, Ego S2 Slider Nets asked me to test and review their new Bait-Mark Containment system, a collapsible net-based live well specifically designed for maintaining live bait. After using the Bait-Mark successfully in several offshore and inshore scenarios from different power boats, I decided to use the Bait-Mark in the 2015 Summer Slam. I paddle an older-model Tarpon 160, a sleek, narrow-hulled boat that is fast in open water. When the starting gun sounded at Summer Slam, I leaned into my paddle cadence with the Bait-Mark loaded with a dozen goggle eyes tethered behind me. Normally, I’m quick, one of the first boats headed out, ahead of most broader-beamed boats, but within two minutes I realized I was the absolute last boat in the peloton and losing distance to everyone else. The drag from the Bait-Mark prevented virtually any forward movement. It was like fighting a sea anchor. I’ve had similar experiences with Flo-Trolls and other drag-behind systems. I ended up folding and stowing the Bait-Mark, sacrificing my chance of using live bait, and, thus, any chance I might have in placing in the Extreme Kayak Fishing tournament.
This past year, A Jacksonville-based company called Torpedo Bait Bucket began advertising a hydrodynamic-shaped, towable bait bucket that might begin to solve the draft weight issue. The Torpedo Bait Bucket is shaped, as the name suggests, like a torpedo, designed to flow effortlessly through the water with minimal resistance. The Torpedo is made of durable, blue UV stabilized polypropylene. It is 21 inches long and 4.5 inches wide. Now, I need to be clear that I have not yet used the Torpedo, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness. I admit that given its size, I am curious about its ability to handle a dozen or more goggle eyes or a couple of dozen pilchards. It seems easily capable of handling a few dozen shrimp or some pinfish for inshore anglers; the question will be its ability to handle larger offshore baits.
Nonetheless, if the Torpedo Bait Bucket can solve the drag issue for kayak anglers and prove to function as a towable live well system that does not hamper speed and is able to sustain sufficient numbers of offshore bait, then offshore kayak anglers may embrace the Torpedo Bait Bucket as a live well solution.
Space is valuable to the kayak angler in the Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournaments. Anglers sacrifice substantial amounts of accessible space when we opt to head out on our floating billets, requiring that we become masters of buoyant ergonomics. Fortunately, as kayak angling continues to grow in popularity, kayak manufacturers have taken into account the demands we make in how to maximize our limited space. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, kayak manufacturers have not yet provided stuffiest options for manufactured live wells.
Perhaps best-known is Hobie’s Kayak Live Well. The Hobie Live Well is an 8-gallon capacity well designed to fit five different Hobie kayak models: Mirage Outback, Sport, Adventure, Revolution, and Quest. The Live well comes fitted with three rod holders, and you can add two more if desired. The Hobie well uses an Atwood high-flow pump and a 6-volt sealed battery. The Hobie well runs about $300.
Hobie also produces a Live Well XL, which has an adjustable two-level capacity of 6 gallons and 11 gallons. The XL includes a partition to keep debris from clogging the pumps and preventing bait from hiding in hard-to-reach places in the tank. The Hobie XL sells for about $400.
Both of the Hobie wells have great reputations, and their capacity make them ideal for handling bigger offshore baits as well as smaller inshore baits. The problem, of course, is that we don’t all paddle Hobie, and the design of these live wells doesn’t always mesh with other yaks’ space.
Engel Coolers also offers a 13-quart live well cooler. The Engel well uses Engel’s molded polystyrene cooler with a 3-volt, 2-speed pump that runs on 2 D-cell batteries. Basically, what Engle has done is integrated the standard aerator we’ve all traditionally used in our shrimp buckets with a closed-lid cooler, allowing the cooler/well to be closed completely without crushing the aeration tube. The Engel cooler is relatively small, offering only 3.25 gallons of space. Granted, the smaller Engel is more likely to fit most yakkers’ deck space. However, the limited 3.25 gallons of water, when combined with a smaller aeration system, can prove tricky for sustaining larger, active offshore baits throughout a long day.
Thus, what most yak anglers face is the dilemma of surrendering enough space on their deck for a well tank large enough to accommodate offshore baits.
Part of the problem of limited space is also a problem of limited access. We want to be able to get to our stuff easily, without knocking other gear around—or worse, overboard—and without having to contort ourselves into tendon-ripping yoga poses. Of course, too, reaching for a live pilchard or goggle eye is not the same as reaching for a rod or pair of pliers. The wriggling of the bait adds an extra dimension of unpredictability to accessing bait. Hence, where one places a live well on a yak can make all of the difference in its usefulness to the angler. An out-of-reach or hard-to-reach well is about as useless as a football bat.
Generally speaking, then, placement of a live well should be determined primarily by the individual angler’s preference for where the well can be most efficiently reached, without disrupting access to other gear or to paddling motions. These kinds of personal rigging options will always be tempered by deck configuration and angler’s needs.
As you have probably assumed—and have likely seen in your own experiences or in watching other yak anglers—due to issues of drag, space, and accessibility, the most realistic approach to yak live wells at the moment is DIY. You see alot of them in the Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournaments.
Fortunately, live wells are fairly simple to plumb, and can be made to fit just about any angler’s preference in size, design, and placement. A quick internet search reveals many DIY instructions and videos for making yak live wells. Most designs consist of three components: a tank, a pump, and a power source.
Tanks can be made from just about any kind of container that will hold liquid without leaking or spilling. Many DIYers are fond of using the Vittle Vault pet food container due to its durability, size, and sealable, wide-mouthed opening. But, realistically, just about any large-capacity container can be used, allowing yakkers to select their tank based upon best fit for their deck and accessibility choices.
When it comes to offshore baits, the commonplace 2 D-cell aerators anglers use in their shrimp buckets is generally not sufficient for maintaining active offshore baits like pilchards or goggle eyes. A good live well pump needs to push anywhere from 500 gph to 11gph depending upon the size of your tank. Look, for example, at live well pumps manufactured by Rule, Shurflo, Atwood, or Johnson.
As to power supply, you’ll want to match your power to your pump. However, the tricky part if making sure your battery can be closed into a sealed, water-proof container. One quick splash of saltwater can short out your battery in a blink, leaving your bait without oxygen. Most DIYers use small water-proof boxes, like small dry boxes. Just make sure the box you choose can accommodate the battery you opt for, as well as any wiring you will need to include inside the battery box.
As to the batteries, themselves, there are a number of 6-volt options available, but you may want to look at 6-volt scooter batteries, which tend to be compact and sturdy. Once protected from the elements in a dry box, these batteries can reliably push your pump through a full day of fishing.
Look, the competition in the Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournaments is growing, and the top anglers recognize the importance of live bait maintenance in their strategies. With the shifts in rules regarding the delivery of bait throughout a tournament day, anglers are going to have to pay more attention to how they are storing and sustaining their baits throughout the day. It is important that anglers find ways to ensure that they have fresh, vital baits not just at the start of the tournament, but in those final minutes of the day, as well. Given that most of us will likely be carrying more baits that we used to when we could simply call for more to be delivered, live well management will necessarily become a critical part of the offshore angler’s game plan.
Sid Dobrin is Chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. He is co-owner of Inventive Fishing, an online resource for recreational saltwater sportfishing (www.inventivefishing.com). He has been kayak fishing for more than 12 years. Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournament.