Alabama tailrace guide Jerry Crook has been putting his clients on huge stripers, hybrids, smallmouths, largemouths and catfish for years, but for as much as an expert as he is on these species, he probably knows at least as much about keeping baitfish in top shape.
“You’re only as good as your minnow,” he says. “Some people think fish can’t see that a shad has a red nose, but they can. If fact, they’re good at it.”
The first step to better bait begins the moment you catch them. “Hand-dipping is best, because they’re in a lot better shape right when they go into your tank,” he says. “If you use a cast net, the ones on the bottom get pushed into the netting, and by the time you get them out, they’ve had it.”
Crook immediately culls out dead or injured baitfish. “A shad with a black back is just a dead shad that hasn’t figured out he’s dead yet.”
With bait in the tank (Crook recommends round or oval tanks like those offered by Grayline and Clearwater), he begins a meticulous water change/salting vigil. “When you catch shad, they’re full of food, and you need to purge all that out of them to keep ammonia from building up”
Salt is Crook’s weapon of choice. He packs gallon-jugs full of cattle feed salt and goes through them like crazy. “A good rule of thumb is to throw in a cup of salt per 50 gallons,” he says. “It has to be non-iodized salt, without trace elements.” Crook does roughly four water changes in the first hour and a half; he pumps water out with a 1,500 gallon-per-hour Rule bilge pump, then pumps fresh water back in, salting it immediately.
“When you start seeing suds on the surface, it’s already too late. That’s ammonia,” he says. “You have to keep changing the water to prevent that.”
As they acclimate to the fresh water, transform—their backs changing from brown to fluorescent green in color. They also become stronger and healthier.
“If you keep them in fresh, salted water overnight, they’ll turn to a brassy color,” Crook says. “By then they’re in such good shape that you can hardly hold them long enough to get a hook in them!”
Pay At The Pump
Crook’s baitfish stay healthy thanks to a circulation/aeration system he builds himself. He connects a Rule 360 bilge pump to the wall of his tank with a suction cup mount, and then slides a short length of vinyl tubing over the pump outflow. To the opposite end, he attaches a 45-degree CPVC pipe fitting that he slides into another short length of 21⁄2-inch CPVC.
The assembled arm angles the outflow away from the tank wall. When engaged, the pump creates a clockwise current that keeps the shad from bumping against the walls of the tank. The aerator portion is nothing more than a 4- or 5-inch piece of 1⁄2-inch CPVC pipe with one end cut at a 45-degree angle. He then drills a 1⁄2-inch hole into one side of the 21⁄2-inch CPVC and inserts the angled end of the 1⁄2-inch pipe until it touches the opposite inner wall.
He positions the angled end of the smaller pipe so the hole faces outward, away from the pump, and then glues it in place with PVC adhesive. This also creates an airtight seal. To the protruding stub, he hose clamps vinyl tubing that’s long enough to extend out the top of the tank.
With the pump engaged, water flowing out the CPVC pipe is forced to flow around the angled pipe stub, creating a vacuum that pulls air through the vinyl tubing and into the circulating water.