A livewell is more than just a cooler full of bait or bass instead of beer. Livewells keep fish alive for anglers for a range of purposes: the fish are bait and preferably live bait; the fish are dinner; the fish comprise the winning bag in this week’s tournament as long as they show up at weigh-in still flippin’; or a fish needs to chill while … hang on, where’d the camera go? 

For many anglers in both saltwater and freshwater — anglers using live and sometimes delicate baitfish, tournament fishermen needing to bring live catches to the weigh-in, grocery fishermen yanking crappie from flooded brush — a livewell is a must-have feature on their ideal boat, or even any usable boat.

Livewells can be factory-installed original equipment, aftermarket installations, or temporary, even improvised containers. If you need one, there’s a way to make one work on your boat.


How They Work

The simplest livewell is the time-honored styrofoam bucket with a rope handle, which works just fine to keep a couple dozen crappie minnows or shrimp alive for the morning. For extra peace of mind, toss in one of those little oxygen tablets from the display next to the cash register at the bait shop.

The live wells we’re talking about, though, have some means of circulating water. They are, in fact, basically a cooler with some plumbing, as factory-equipped livewells are often rotomolded and usually with insulated walls to help maintain water temperatures. There’s a pump and an inlet to bring in fresh water, and a drain with an overflow stand to get rid of it. Put a hatch on it to keep phones and cameras out of it and now you have a livewell.

Livewells intended for bait often use a blue interior, on the premise that it calms baitfish and improves their longevity in the tank. Baitwells also have radiused corners to keep schooling baitfish from congregating in a corner. (The old styrofoam bait bucket has this feature perfected.) Details make the difference, and there are features that are common among livewells, and add-ons to make things work for your own style of fishing.

Raw Water Plumbing

There are a few different approaches to keep the water in a live well moving and aerated. You can pump raw water from outside the boat into the well and then drain it back overboard, you can circulate the water already in the well through a closed system, or you can pump air into the water.

Pumping raw water from outside the boat through your well is the best way to keep everybody in it happy. Raw water means fresh oxygen and removal of waste like ammonia that builds up from excretion. Additionally, a constant flow of raw water keeps the temperature in the well relatively stable at approximately the same temperature as the surrounding surface water.

A constant flow of raw water keeps the temperature in the well relatively stable.

Raw water can be collected in a few ways. The simplest is with a pump that mounts on the outside of your transom below the waterline and pumps water over the transom through a hose to your well. Some systems also use screened intake holes on the transom combined with a pump inside the boat. On plane, though, the intake or pump is out of the water.

The alternative is a so-called high-speed pickup — a through-hull fitting that mounts on your boat’s bottom or at the very bottom edge of the transom so that it can still scoop water while the boat is on plane. Keep in mind that most high-speed pickups force lots of water into your well when on plane even if your pump is switched off. They should always be fitted with a seacock or high-quality shutoff valve to stop the flow.

3 Types of Livewells

Pumps that bring in raw water draw a lot of electricity, and it’s not always desirable or even possible to draw water. You may be in warm, shallow or turbid water that you would not want to introduce to your tank. You may be running on plane between spots and, without a high-speed pickup in your boat’s livewell system, you can’t pump water in. Or you may be trying to keep bait alive in your trailered boat.


For situations when pumping raw water into your well isn’t an option, many livewells use recirculating systems as an alternative. Recirculators essentially pump water in a loop, out of the well, through a tube, and back into the well. The most basic recirculators don’t add oxygen or clear waste, but many systems incorporate aerators and filters to do so. Without fresh water coming in, though, the water in a recirculating system can get too warm in hot weather or too cool in cold weather.

The optimal levels of dissolved oxygen fish require in water varies quite a bit by species. Cutthroat trout need relatively high levels of dissolved oxygen, red drum quite a lot less. Saltwater baitfish tend to need lots of oxygen to stay happy, as well as alive. As water warms, it holds less dissolved oxygen. And note that your livewell intake is pulling surface water, not necessarily the same water your bait or target species would inhabit at that moment. 


Fish (as opposed to bait) will do better in wells with aeration, and there are several ways to add it. Aeration that provides a lot of very small bubbles is the most effective. Bubble aerators with air-stones, similar to the basic aquarium setup, can provide good livewell aeration too.

Aerators with ceramic diffusers that produce dense clouds of fine bubbles will provide top-end breathing room in your well.

Spray bars oxygenate the water by streaming jets of water back onto the surface of the well, using turbulence to oxygenate, but are not highly effective and best suited for augmenting other aeration or only for very hardy bait or fish. Aerators with ceramic diffusers that produce dense clouds of fine bubbles will provide top-end breathing room in your well.


A timer in a livewell systems allows the pump to run for fixed periods at regular intervals, which is very convenient for not leaving you without cranking power. The pump in the livewell is going to draw more juice than an aerator, and a timer lets you focus on fishing rather than battery levels. To no one’s surprise, there are timers on the market that can be programmed from your phone.

Tricked-out Fish Crib

Along with blue interior walls, some kind of light source, preferably natural, is generally believed to keep bait happier and healthier — mainly because they bump into each other and the walls of the well less. Electric lighting can also help corral bait in the dark.

For natural light, clear lids are a cool upgrade that not only help keep your bait alive longer but also let you keep an eye on what’s going on in the well or take a quick peek at the big ‘un cooling his heels in there.

Clear acrylic replacement lids for many popular fishing boat models are commercially available.

Maintaining Your Livewell

…and in all that, no one even noticed that the overflow drain on the livewell had clogged with 20 years of minnow scales but the pump was running wide open…

It’s always great to have a story to tell on dry land, yet it’s inarguably better to prevent anything weird from happening with the system that’s pumping water into your boat at 10 gallons a minute. Regular and periodic livewell maintenance should be part of your fishing and boat maintenance routines.

A place where fish are stored at room temperature is going to need cleaning on the reg, but if you clean your livewell in a fish-killing way, you’re converting it into a needlessly expensive beer cooler. Avoid bleach and other harsh cleaners. 

Cleaning Method

An effective and fish-safe cleaning method is to clean with distilled white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Scrub any bad spots first if necessary, then fill your tank three-quarters full with fresh, clean water, add a gallon of white vinegar and 32 ounces of hydrogen peroxide, and run on recirc for 30 minutes. Drain and run another 30-minute recirc with fresh water only, then drain and dry. The intake and overflow drain are usually protected by screen filters, and inspecting and cleaning those is something that should be done after each trip.

Check fittings, hose clamps, switches, plugs and electrical connectors on a regular basis. If your boat is not getting used, periodically add adequate water to run the pump on recirc to keep the impeller conditioned.

Most pumps in livewell systems are in the 600 to 800 gallon per hour range and use cartridge motors. These are easy to replace in the event of failure, so long as a replacement is on hand. It’s not a bad idea to keep a replacement aboard.

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