How to Keep Leeches Alive For Fishing

Leeches are a favorite live bait of many freshwater anglers.  With rising costs and scarcity of live bait these days it is more important than ever to be able to preserve your bait as long as possible. 

There are three factors that play a major role in preserving your leeches for longer…

  • Water Temperature
  • Water Quality
  • Feeding Schedule

So let’s dive deeper into how you can keep your leeches alive for longer, both at home and on the boat. 

Lifespan Of Leeches In Your Fridge

The most common type of leech for fishing is the ribbon leech.  Under the right conditions, these little suckers have been known to live for years. 

The ribbon leech can live up to 2 years without food, and upwards of a decade if it has a steady food source.

They don’t last nearly as long once they have been harvested and sold to your local bait shop but lucky for you there are some simple practices that you can employ to increase the lifespan of your leeches.  

How To Increase Lifespan At Home

How to Keep Leeches Alive For Fishing

Storing leeches at home isn’t as difficult as on the boat because maintaining temperature, water quality, and food are easier to regulate in a controlled environment.


Make sure to keep your leeches in a cold environment.  Heat and direct sunlight are a death sentence for these aquatic parasites.   

Refrigerators are a great option for storing your leeches because they are dark and cool.  Ideally, you want to keep the temperature as close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit as possible.  

Just be sure that the temperature never exceeds 50 degrees.  Prolonged exposure to higher water temperatures will shave time off the lifespan of your leeches.

Water Quality

Though it may be tempting, do not use tap water to store your leeches.  Water from the tap can contain anything from chlorine to an excessive amount of minerals, both of which will lead your leeches to an early grave.

Distilled water or lake water is the way to go.  If you must use tap water, make sure to treat it with a dechlorinator first.

Lake water is the easiest route to go if you are located close to a body of water because you don’t need to add anything to it, just pop it in the fridge and it will be ready to go.

Distilled water will need to be treated with Hirudo salts to maintain healthy leeches.  This is because distilled water has been deionized, so you need to add some of those ions back in to keep the leeches happy.

Whichever type of water you choose to use, make sure you are changing it periodically.  Changing it every couple of days or whenever the water gets cloudy and dirty looking is a good rule of thumb.

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Resist the urge to feed your leeches! You should be using lake water to store them in, which may have plenty of dead organisms available for them to feed on. 

If you try to introduce an exogenous food source you will most likely end up skewing the pH of the water.

Leeches don’t thrive in acidic water, and introducing new food sources that are likely to die will drop the pH of your water quickly, making it uninhabitable.

Since leeches can go very long periods without a food source, it’s not unrealistic to have a leech survive a year or more without food. 

That being said, you can’t possibly know how long it has been since the leech last ate when buying them from a bait shop.

This means you should feed them very sparingly, if at all.  If you do, make sure to choose some dead local insects like crickets, mealworms, or other small food sources that won’t affect the pH of the water too much.


The type of vessel doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the lifespan of your leeches, but using certain containers can make it much easier to maintain a healthy environment since you will have to change the water frequently.

Milk jugs are a favorite of young and old anglers alike.  They are easy to procure, handle, and they have screw-on top that will prevent the bait from jailbreaking and ending up in the french onion dip next to them.

The only downside to the milk jug is that you can’t get your hand in one.  They are great for home storage, but not so much in the field.  Mason jars or any vessel that is wide enough to fit your hand into will do just fine.

Be sure to cut small holes in the top of the container, just big enough to allow airflow but not so big that they can escape.

Keeping Leeches Alive On The Boat

How to Keep Leeches Alive For Fishing

Keeping your leeches alive at home is one thing, but it can be a whole other ordeal once they are on the boat.  They will be more exposed to the elements, namely heat, and sunlight, which leeches wholeheartedly hate.

It should be noted that while leeches last longer in colder water, they are much less mobile when they are cold.  They will likely face a temperature increase once they are on the boat or once they are hooked and in the lake.

This is a good thing as far as bait presentation, a live bait that is very mobile is more likely to catch the eye of the fish you are after

Just make sure you are keeping them cold for as long as possible since the lake should have no problem in getting those leeches squirming.


This may seem obvious but utilize a cooler that has ice or cold water in it.  The cooler combats the elements by keeping sunlight out and maintaining a cold temperature.  

Tupperware is a simple container that is small enough to transport and fit in most coolers.  Placing a Tupperware full of water and leeches in a cooler full of ice is a handy practice.  This allows you to add ice cubes to the leeches’ water to keep them cool.

Keeping the temperature around the 40-degree sweetspot can be tough for long periods of time on a boat, especially in the summer.  The longer your leeches are exposed to higher temperatures, the quicker they will kick the bucket.


Leeches are a popular live bait, especially for walleye fishermen.  Keeping them alive for longer requires a little extra knowledge about water quality that you normally wouldn’t have to worry about with other live bait like nightcrawlers.

Maintaining a cold and dark environment for as long as possible will extend the longevity of your leeches considerably, as will using the right type of water and changing it on a regular basis.  

Take some of these tips to heart in order to save yourself time and money from constantly replacing your dead leeches.

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