A fish's ability to smell is said to be approximately 1,000 times better than a dog, and is believed to improve with age. But how does that work for these aquatic animals? As the water holding the scent molecules flows across the olfactory nerves, a message is sent to the brain, where the scent is classified as a positive or negative scent. At least that’s what researchers tell us. There probably weren’t many fish available for comment:/
It seems like many of us have a buddy that swears by some concoction because one time he whacked them using it while everyone else didn’t. While this may not be accurate all the time, it does point to the fact that scents are worth a try, especially on slow fishing days. They also may be worth trying if you’re seeing a lot of short strikes or losing too many fish.
Studies show that fish are primarily attracted to a few general scents - garlic, salt and anise. They are drawn by either action or noise in the water, then the addition of a positive scent can seal the deal for getting them to commit. The goal is to fool them long enough to get a hookset.
For instance, when a bass hears or feels the presence of bait, he comes over to investigate the movement or sound. As the bass moves closer to the bait, he is expecting the final stimulus, smell, to be coming from the bait. Smell is all important to a bass in deciding whether or not to ambush. If there is a hint of something wrong, he’s not taking the bait. So it goes.
In response to a positive smell, bass generally will hold onto a worm emanating a positive scent for a longer time, and may hit it harder. This gives you an advantage of being able to get a good hookset and catch the fish.
This brings us to a crucial point: anglers catch fish all over with and without scents. It is a secondary factor to catching fish, and takes a back seat to location, structure, and presentation. One should avoid thinking it is the primary driver of fishing success.
One thing that is clear is that these attractants must be water-soluble in order for fish to interpret them. However smelly something may be to us, if it doesn’t leave a ‘trail’ in the water it is likely a waste of your time. Ever feel like the fish are down there laughing at you? There’s a chance they really are if your line and lures are giving off a foreign scent.
If you were to ask Amazon what the best-selling scented baits are, you’d find Berkley Powerbait and Gulp! all over that list. There are other players like Liquid Mayhem, Mega Strike, Yum, Z-Man, Strike King and countless other smaller players. The fact is while anglers may have been gumming up baits with all sorts of things for centuries, scented baits really didn’t take off until the late 80’s. It was started by a number of smaller companies, but Berkley was looking over their shoulders and soon ran with it all the way to the bank.
But how much of it is marketing and how much has actually improved fishing? The answer will vary from angler to angler, but the fact is it’s domination, especially in soft plastic baits, points to better fishing pretty much across the board. It’s certainly worth having them in your tackle box, whether you’re an occasional angler or a die-hard ‘fishing fool’. They are well worth a try.
If these baits were merely ‘flash in the pan’, they would have disappeared decades ago outside of some fringe companies. Their continued rise points to a major trend that has obviously taken the industry by storm, and is worth adding to your fishing arsenal.
Many of these pre-scented plastics come sealed and ready to entice the fish to bite. These are particularly effective and have an important advantage - they are as effective as live bait but far more durable. This means you won’t be re-baiting hooks with worms or minnows over and over when the panfish bite is on. That alone is worth the investment.
As mentioned, long before Powerbait hit the shelves, some anglers found a few non-traditional approaches that have also proven to work:
WD-40 - It’s not just for rusted parts as most handymen will tell you. Many anglers have found that squirting it on a variety of lures helps draw fish to bite in both fresh and saltwater. FUN FACT: It will also clean the lenses of your electronics. Just keep some in your boat!
Preparation H - No, seriously. Some have found it works as an attractant for crappies. Now just why they first tried this we won’t get into…
Garlic or Onion Salt - pour it over plastic worms to give them a strong scent and flavor that big fish can’t resist. It’s got to be worth a try especially if you’re out of Powerbait.
Corn Meal - this is actually more of a chum, but sprinkling some down your ice fishing hole can attract small fish, who then presumably attract bigger fish. (You may want to check local regulations to make sure it is legal where you fish).
Cat Food - Wait, what? Again it’s more of a chum, but if you’re jugging (not jigging) for catfish, fill the jug with cat food and punch holes in the top to chum around your bait.
Stink Baits - exactly what they sound like - these are primarily for catfish, and are dominated by chicken livers, stinky cheese and fish guts. A strong blood odor is key, as well as a doughy substance to hold them together. Channel cats are particularly fond of anything rotten, but most species seem to be fans of smelly bait. Go figure.
So regardless of your fishing acumen, using scented baits is generally worth a try. Whether you’re filling a cart at the bait store or rummaging through your cupboards, you’re sure to find something that will improve your chances of landing fish.
Just bear in mind that it is simply one more tool to use in your pursuit of fish, and should never be considered the MAIN factor in your success. After all, we’re all out there because we love making memories, having fun and enjoying the water. Fish on! -WR