To Pen or Not to Pen
Penning bait yes or no? It seems like an easy thing to do yeah? A bunch of factors come into play with the decision whether to keep live baits or not. To start you have to ask yourself which model live baits do you want to keep and for how long? Location and the convenience of where the pen full of baits is located is also brought into the equation.
We’ll start with hardy baits like pinfish and blue runners. These baits can live almost anywhere in regards to water quality as long as the holding pen is big enough. Just keep them fed with something as simple as table scraps like pasta or small pieces of cooked meats. Locations with minimal water change or flow are ok locations for baits to be kept in pens for short time frames. If your location is on a dead end canal, big rains or a hard wind can cause run off to sit in locations and that will be the end of your frisky baits. Open water locations are ideal as clean water flow and temperatures will be more constant. Boat cleaning products and live baits don’t play nice when mixed, even a neighbor pressure washing siding or their dock can ruin all the work you put into catching bait.
Baits like pilchards, ballyhoo, threadfin herring, speedos and goggle eyes can be a challenge to say the least. Open water locations are a must for these baits, they require your attention daily or even a couple times a day to start with. Ballyhoo and speedos are the most challenging to me. Both can be penned but require very big holding pens. Ballyhoo don’t do well in mesh cages because they stick their bill in the mesh they can’t free themselves. I’ve had good luck with keeping ballyhoo alive in a large tank with a pool pump but this is a very expensive evolution. Pilchards, threadfin herring, and goggle eyes are basically the same in regards to penning - it ain’t easy! All these baits can be caught on multi-hook rigs (sabikis) and dehooked without touching them, which will definitely go a long way towards them making it through the first three days in the pen.
A gentle transfer from the boats live well to the pen is a must as well. Net caught pilchards will normally disappoint you. I’ve lost as many as half the load in the first three days. On my daily checks/feeding I’ll remove weak or dead baits especially the dead ones due to the fact that as they decay in the bottom of the pen they release gasses that will kill the rest of the baits.
As far as feeding these baits, to get them started fish roe is the best but thawed chum pinched into little chunks will work. Once they figure out what’s going on in regards to food, a quarter of a box of thawed chum a day will be more than enough to keep them in good shape until you’re ready to use them. After about a week of being in the pen these baits become what’s called seasoned which means they are tough as nails.
Doesn’t all this seem like a pain in the rear end? Yeah I agree. So why go through all this? I’ve got two occasions that its totally worth it. First is as I leave the dock with a charter first thing in the morning. We’ll run by the pen and get a scoop of pilchards. I’ll still go look for them on the beaches but having hook baits in the well sure takes the pressure off locating more. Second is the small weather windows we get in the lower Keys this time of year. How awesome would it be to get a wind shift at noon which will knock down the seas enough to run out for an afternoon sailfish/tuna trip and already have a live well full of seasoned baits? It the best I tell you and it makes it all worth it.
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