Dial in Your Bait Tank

The bait tank is where the magic happens. I often tell people that my Defiance boat started out as a single bait tank on a golden pedestal and the boat was built around the tank. I’m exaggerating, but you can see how important my bait tank is to me. It ranks just under the boat itself and a close third to my Emergency Position Radio Indicating Beacon (EPIRB).

The bait tank has skyrocketed my albacore catches over the years. When I first started albacore fishing, I learned to fish for them on the troll, deploying such tactics as the Franko Method. This helped me put a fair number of fish on the boat, but when I learned the power of the bait tank, I was thunderstruck. I could blink my eyes and watch 10 albacore show up on the deck of my Defiance 250EX in a matter of a few minutes. It was unreal, and I’m still amazed at the capability of those crews fishing on boats that have a good bait tank setup and know how to fish with live bait.


Your Grandpa’s modified garbage can, while very innovative at the time, is not the bait tank of choice for today’s modern fleet. A good bit of thought goes into bait tank design and there are several key aspects that a good livewell must have to help keep your bait alive and kicking all day long. First off, a tank must have nice, gradual, rounded corners. This keeps the bait from travelling the length of your tank then ramming into a wall, then turning and ramming into another wall. With rounded corners, bait swims in a circular pattern without any undue contact with the tank.

The second feature of a quality bait tank is good water flow. The water must flow into the tank and out of the tank evenly, from the top to the bottom of the tank. This ensures that all of the bait in the tank receives adequate oxygen. Some companies produce bait tanks with a single inlet and a single outlet. This is not ideal when the focus is on survivability of the bait.

A third feature that is helpful in managing your bait is setting the flow rate accordingly. You don’t want the flow rate so low that the flow of water isn’t bringing enough oxygen into the tank, and you don’t want the flow so fast that your bait gets consumed by a self-made tornado. I aim to fill my 50-gallon bait tank in about seven to eight minutes. That’s when I know we have good flow.

There are some other bait tank features that are not absolute “must haves” but are always a welcomed addition. A light in the bottom of your bait tanks helps keep the bait calm and gives them a little guidance in the predawn hours. A drain tube that allows you to fill your tank to the brim or half full is key when you get down to the last scoop of bait. It helps compress the swimming space so you can select your very best bait for deployment. I also have a viewing port on my bait tank that helps me assess the health of the bait and determine if I can take another half scoop to top my tank off.


To get your day off to a smooth start, make sure you get your bait tank pump started before leaving the slip. You want to have a full tank of water by the time you show up at the bait receiver. You don’t want to be “that guy” taking up receiver space, waiting for his tank to fill up so he can start loading bait.

Once at the bait receiver, I load one scoop of bait and check for quality. If the quality is poor, I want to be sure that I don’t overload my tank. If it looks like I got the cream of the crop from a well-cured pen of bait, then I’ll take two more scoops. If the bait is super healthy, I may even top it off with another half scoop (making a total of 3.5 scoops for a 50-gallon tank).


There is one optimal spot for the location of your aft bait tank, and that is right in the middle of the cockpit. This provides 360 degrees of movement to give your boat the best fish-ability. Putting the bait tank on the swim platform, integrated into the transom, or under a cushion seat limits its accessibility.

During the turmoil of a hot bite, the last thing you want to do is wait for your buddy to get out of the way so you can access the bait tank. The transom is an especially bad spot because people that are hooked up often have to work their fish around the transom, right in front of the tank.

When installing your bait tank, also be sure to install a couple of tool holders for pliers, bait nets, knives, and lures. You will also want to attach a few rod holders to the bait tank to increase your efficiency. Having a bait rig ready to go is the cornerstone of my tuna operation.


I know it’s tempting to give the inside of your bait tank a good scrub down when you get back to the dock, but please read and heed — Do NOT, I repeat do NOT, put any cleaning detergents inside of your bait tank.

The leftover residues from the soap will kill the bait that you bought using your hard-earned cash. I had a good friend (who was new to tuna fishing) fill his 65-gallon tank with premium anchovies the night before a trip offshore to chase albacore. He plugged into shore power and let his tank run all night. When he woke up, he had 4 scoops of dead anchovies. Pass on cleaning the inside of your tank and make sure your crew understands this as well. A good rinse is all you need.

If your bait pump dies out, it will also leave you baitless. Always carry a spare bait cartridge so you can easily swap it out in the event that your bait pump goes out. It will happen. It’s just a matter of time.

Take advantage of the power that the bait tank beholds. It will help you improve your tuna game and increase your catch numbers.

Stay tuned for more tuna tips coming your way soon.

Capt. Tommy Donlin
Capt. Tommy Donlin, the BD Outdoors Pro Staff representative for the Pacific Northwest, has more than 20 years of experience fishing the waters from S...