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. “Handdipping 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, whose websites you can access via NAFC Links), 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 gallonjugs 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 noniodized 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 gallonperhour 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, baitfish 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."