Selecting a Bait Tank

West Marine 22 gallon bait tank

West Marine bait tanks have reverse directional flow that the fish can swim into and receive more oxygen. 22-gallon tank is tall enough to drain over most motorwells.

By Tom Burden, Last updated: 5/9/2019

What Bait Tanks Do

Bait tanks are made from rotomolded plastic and are equipped with pumps, filters and hoses to either circulate fresh water through the tank or aerate water in the tank. Their purpose is to create a healthy environment for anchovies, sardines, mackerel, squid or smelt, because fishing with active baitfish improves your chances for making a catch.

How Bait Tanks Work

To create the right environment for healthy and active live bait, oxygenated water has to circulate through the tank. Good bait tanks come with a pump system that ensures consistent flow throughout the tank and controls flow speed to prevent the live bait from tiring.

Fill at the top vs. fill at the bottom: Our West Marine branded bait tanks fill near the top and empty at the bottom. This system ensures that fresh, clean and well-aerated water flows downward and collects debris on the way before it is being pumped out at the bottom. The result is a visibly cleaner tank and healthier environment for live bait. Filling the tank near the top also creates a reverse directional flow that fish can swim into and receive more oxygen.

Round or oval: Continuously swimming baitfish need a round tank that prevents them from bumping into the walls. Oval tanks achieve a similar effect but are easier to fit into corners or tight spaces on a boat or on the swim step.

Engel 30 quart live bait cooler

Engel's 30 quart bait cooler is easy to move and runs on two D batteries or a 12V DC cigarette lighter adapter.

Portable or fixed mounts: Fixed mount bait tanks are found on larger boats used by anglers who fish with live bait on a regular basis. Tanks can be mounted on deck, inside the cockpit or on the swim step. For small boats and vessels that only occasionally carry live bait anglers, we recommend portable buckets, bags and economical conversion kits that turn plastic coolers into bait tanks.

Circulating vs. aerator pumps: All tanks use auxiliary pumps to circulate or aerate water to create a suitable environment for live bait. Larger wells use 12V-DC circulating pumps that ensure a constant supply of cool, clean and fresh water. Circulating water also reduces the levels of ammonium and debris that builds up in bait tanks and leaves bait fish sluggish. Smaller or portable tanks are equipped with aerator pumps that recirculate water in the tank and add oxygen. Although it may look like they are just blowing bubbles, aerator pumps play a key role by breaking the surface tension between air and water, which is necessary for effective oxygenation.

Thru-hull vs. outboard pump installation: Boats that are constantly used for live bait fishing most likely have large tanks installed and use thru-hull pumps to supply fresh water. For casual live bait fishing we recommend outboard pumps that are operated from the stern or the swim step because they do not require drilling another hole in the bottom of your boat. We also like filters for cleaning the raw water during intake because they add longevity to the pump and produce even cleaner environment for the live bait.


Live bait fishing improves your success rate but only if baitfish are kept in good shape. Bait tanks with circulating or aerated water are a necessity for this type of fishing. But even the casual angler or the small boat owner can keep live bait in good shape either by using a portable bucket, a converted cooler or a bait bag that mounts on the transom. Aerator pumps for closed bait wells and conversion kits for coolers are economical alternatives if a large tank is not an option.