Livewells and Fishboxes: What Makes them Great

What Do You Need to Consider When Choosing a Fishing Boat with a Livewell or Fishing Box?

Read through our round-up of The Best Offshore Fishing Boats of 2020, and you’ll notice that two features come up time and time again: livewells and fishboxes. While it may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you’re dreaming of a brand-new fishing boat, these features are in constant use for avid anglers and will have a huge impact on how happy you are with any boat.

Why Do You Need a Livewell or Fishbox in Your Boat?

Any fishing aficionado will know that the consequences of a poorly-designed fishbox or livewell can be disastrous for fish, whether bait or catches. From dead bait, spoiled catches, nasty smells and leakage, or running out of storage space just as you’ve reeled in a prize catch, not investing in fishboxes and livewells can turn an idyllic fishing trip into a disaster. So we thought we’d do a deep-dive into these two crucial features.

For Both Livewells and Fishboxes, Size Matters

Whether you have a fishing box or a livewell, capacity is a crucial factor to consider for both. And as one might guess, bigger is almost always better. But there’s a whole lot more than capacity to consider when you’re assessing the livewells and fishboxes in a fishing boat.

Livewells: Key Things to Consider

Water Flow: The Heart of Your Livewell

Like any circulatory system, It’s essential to consider waterflow when assessing your livewell. Livewells equipped with small pumps obviously won’t provide very much flow. You should also beware of rigs where the same pump feeds the livewell and raw-water washdown, as the plumbing can have excessive bends which reduce flow even more. As a general rule of thumb, more water flow is better – although we should note that an overly strong water flow can beat up very delicate bait!

How To Choose a Livewell Pump

So just how big a pump do you need? Most expert anglers recommend that to keep sensitive livies in good shape, you’ll need your livewell to turn the water over at least every 10 minutes. But before you start doing the maths, it’s worth remembering that pumps lose a lot of their potency in the real world. Most are rated at 13.6 volts, but this power level will rarely be delivered unless your engine is always on the go, and your juice isn’t being sapped by other accessories.

On top of this, pumps are rated at the volume they can move water horizontally. If your pump is below decks in the bilge, and the livewell is in the transom, you could lose as much as 30% of the rated capacity (the figure generally used for three feet of vertical lift). To be completely safe, when you do your calculations, you should choose a livewell which has double the rated capacity, to ensure that water moves every 10 minutes.

However, volume isn’t the only factor to consider when choosing a livewell pump. Ideally, your livewell pump should keep the water aerated. Some livewells have a single inlet and a single outlet, which can cause the water to merely swirl rather than properly turning over, forming ‘dead zones’ of low-oxygen water in the well. The best models have multiple or even full-column inlets that evenly distribute the water.

Also, consider how your livewell drains water from the well. If it has a standpipe drain, you will continuously bang it with your net as you scoop up fresh bait, especially when the well is nearly empty. And if your standpipe isn’t secured correctly, it can pop free, allowing the livewell to drain unexpectedly.

Finally, make sure the drain has a grate or strainer on it. Otherwise, bait can get sucked down the drain and then stuck in the pipe, resulting in a rather ripe smell the next time you go fishing.

The Ideal Livewell Shape

The shape of your livewell is a slightly more straightforward decision: always choose a round livewell. Unfortunately, square wells will cause many baitfish species to swim into a corner and get stuck there, beating themselves silly as they try to swim through the fiberglass. A round livewell is a much kinder option for your baitfish, and a much less frustrating option for you.

Another shape-related issue to consider is the depth of the well. Some fishing boat builders boost livewell capacity by designing very deep wells with smaller diameters. However, the bottom of the well may be so far down you will have to plunge your arms in elbow-deep to reach the bait hiding at the bottom. This may not be a big deal if you’re fishing in Miami in August, but an angler fishing Maine would certainly find this uncomfortable in December. If you enjoy fishing in the cold weather, opting for a shallower well will allow you to avoid frostbite.

Does Livewell Color Matter?

Surprisingly, yes it does! Studies have shown that light blues and greens calm baitfish. In a blindingly white livewell, they’re more likely to panic and damage themselves by swimming into the walls. Choosing soothing colours will avoid a well full of squashed baitfish, and a more zen fishing trip all around.

Does Your Livewell Need to Be Insulated?

Having some insulation on the bottom and sides of your livewell can be a bonus, as it can prevent the water from heating up on hot summer days. To be honest, this isn’t usually a huge deal if there is sufficient water being replaced. The big exception to this is if you have a fishing boat with an inboard engine and transom, or if you have an in-deck livewell, which will be exposed to excessive heat from below. Even if you don’t have these particular types of fishing boats, an insulated livewell is a nice perk, as it can double as a drinks cooler on days when you’re not live-baiting!

Choosing a Reliable Livewell

Most people never worry about reliability until the day their livewell pump dies, and all of their baits go belly-up. Serious live bait fishing boats will have multiple pumps feeding multiple wells, providing back-up with the flip of a valve. Even more, reliability is provided by a sea chest system with multiple pumps.

What do all of these details mean? The ability to keep more baits alive longer, and in better shape. And as every angler knows, healthy, frisky baits catch more fish.

Fishboxes: Key Things to Consider

Although an integrated fishbox may appear to be a simple storage compartment at first glance, a closer examination will show you that some are extremely useful, while some can just cause problems. Here are some key factors for consideration:

Insulation: Keeping Your Fish Fresh

More than one angler has cruised back to the fishing grounds after a successful day’s fishing, opened their fishbox to reveal tonight’s much-anticipated dinner, only to discover that all of their ice has melted. The thickness of a fishbox’s insulation is key here, and while some builders will call walls constructed of foam-cored fiberglass ‘insulated’, structural foam coring alone is insufficient for holding ice on a hot summer day. The insulating foam should cover the underside and sides of the box. The best fishboxes have hatches that are noticeably thicker than usual, due to extra insulation that has been laminated in. As with livewells, insulation is particularly imperative for inboard boats with in-deck or transom fishboxes, which can be subject to heat from the engine below.

Also, it’s worth noting that well guttered and gasketed hatches will positively impact insulation. A poorly-fitted hatch will allow air and water to get in, causing your ice to melt even faster. The best hatches will close with a ‘woosh’ noise, rather than a ‘slam’, as the air is compressed. A bonus, you won’t have to worry about spooking fish with a loud slamming hatch.

Fishbox Drainage: A Critical Factor

As important as insulation is, how a fishbox drains can also be a critical factor. Some fishboxes can’t ever be fully drained, which leads to funky smells and mildew. Others drain via a macerator or bilge pump, which can become clogged with fish bones and scales. Others drain directly into the bilge, which can be incredibly dangerous, as bones and scales can block the very pumps which keep your boat afloat.

The best fishbox designs drain directly overboard via gravity. However, this design of fishbox also eats up a lot of deck space, so on smaller boats, it just isn’t practical to design them in. When this is the case, diaphragm, or ‘gulper’ pumps, are the best compromise. They can pump wet sand without failing and can efficiently deal with fishbones and scales.

Where Should You Keep The Fishbox On Your Fishing Boat?

Few people think much about fishbox location, but spend some time running a boat with a poorly-located fishbox, and eventually, you’ll realize that this factor is surprisingly important. If you always land fish in the cockpit, but your fishboxes in the bow, you’ll end up dragging bloody fish up your deck. That means you’ll have to sluice down your deck frequently. Transom boxes can be very problematic when depositing feisty fish because they can flip free as you’re trying to store them – and if you aren’t careful, you can end up watching your dinner flip-flopping off the boat. And while fishboxes located in the deck or under a seat are convenient and space-efficient, you may end up having to ask your company to vacate their seats, to drop a fish in. Each placement has its pros and cons, so it’s essential to consider how you like to fish.

The Ideal Fishbox Shape

The shape may be a less important factor, but it does still have an impact, particularly on smaller fishboxes. Stating the obvious: fish aren’t square, so if a fishbox is, it should be at least as long as the fish you plan to catch. Otherwise, you’ll have to bend the fish to fit, which will mean extra cleaning at the end of the day. Remember that very large, square boxes may hold an awful lot of fish, but they also require a lot more ice. As a general rule, more narrow, rectangular boxes tend to require a much more reasonable amount of ice and can hold a wider variety of fish species and sizes.

A side note about fishbox sizes: if you’re opting for a huge one, make sure gas-assisted struts support the hatches. Otherwise, you may be struggling to open and close them every time you box a fish – depending on arm strength!

As we said earlier, livewells and fishboxes are deceptively important, and there’s a lot more to consider than you might think. So be sure to consider the humble livewell and fishbox the next time you’re checking out an exciting new rig.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld,, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.