All livewells are not created equal, so make sure the one on a boat you’re looking at fulfills your needs.
But there are also a number of much more subtle traits which make different livewell systems good, better, and great. When you’re looking at a boat and considering whether it will or will not meet your expectations, remember to take these five important factors into account.
- Capacity – This is naturally one of the first things most people think about, and it should be. Because when it comes to livewells, well, size matters. Just how big a well do you need? Setting aside the limiting factor of boat size (which also dictates just how many anglers you have aboard, and thus how many livies you’ll need to haul) the critical variable becomes the type of baits you generally use.
For an average bay angler who might go live lining with spot for striped bass, a relatively small 20 or 30-gallon livewell may offer plenty of capacity. You can pack in dozens of baits and (assuming the other factors we’re about to address are all in order) they’ll remain alive and frisky all day. But if you bait with a fish like bunker, it’s an entirely different story. This species is very sensitive to over-crowding, and if you try to put more than one bait per gallon into the livewell you’re likely to see die-offs.
Then, consider the bait size. While that 20-gallon well is just fine for four-inch fish, it’s not nearly large enough for more than a handful of the larger baits you’d want to use for a day of sailfishing. And there’s a flip side to this equation. Dump a couple of dozen live shrimp into an 80-gallon livewell and you’ll never find them again. Note that this is an excellent argument for having multiple livewells on a boat, some large and some small.
- Physical Design – Yes, we’re talking about having an oval shape or at least rounded corners. But there’s more to this story, too. On some modern boats, you’ll see livewells that are very narrow and deep, basically cylindrical in shape. This gains capacity, but you’ll likely get wet up to the elbow trying to scoop from the bottom of the barrel.
Color counts, too. Those baby-blue interiors aren’t colored just to look nice, they keep the baits a lot calmer than white gel coat does. And this has actually been researched. Years ago Mote Marine Laboratories studied the effect of coloration in the surroundings and concluded that it had a major effect on how the fish in a baitwell acted.
- Water Flow – What immediately comes to mind regarding this factor is flow volume, and this is indeed very important. Long story short: the more the better. Weak livewell pumps result in weak (or dead) baits, while a healthy flow results in healthy baits. But yet again the obvious factor only tells part of the story.
Another important detail lays in just how that water flows, in the first place. A single inlet can swirl the water in one level of the well, while another goes more or less stagnant. In the worst cases, the inlet and the drain are both located at the top of the livewell, and the lower area of the well experiences little to no water exchange. Multiple-level inlets solve this problem, and full-column inlets (which blast raw water through the well from top to bottom) are generally considered best.
- Drainage System – As long as the water can drain out, who cares how it happens? You do. Overflows built into the top of the well are great, but standpipes are not. There are two reasons. First off, standpipes get in the way when you’re trying to net baits. Secondly, it’s all too easy to put in the standpipe, think it’s secure and mated properly with the drain, and discover otherwise only when the pipe falls out or gets knocked loose. Before you know it the water’s drained out, and your live baits are deader than a doornail. So, why do so many builders utilize standpipe systems? They’re the simplest and easiest to plumb and build.
- Reliability – It’s a simple fact of life: pumps can and do fail. The critical issue when it comes to livewell reliability is having a back-up in place. Sea chest and manifold systems that allow you to direct the flow where you need it are essentially fail-safes, and having a secondary pump will cover the bases 99-percent of the time. Beware of single-pump systems – sooner or later they will let you down – and be especially wary of pump-share arrangements that utilize a Y-valve and a single pump to serve both the livewell and the raw-water washdown.
For some anglers, the livewell system on a boat is more or less an afterthought and they may be perfectly happy with even the smallest, most basic livewell. But some others consider the livewell of paramount importance on any boat we’d consider owning – and in that case, these five critical factors count.
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