Do Scents Really Make Sense?

With over a hundred brands of formulas, gels, lotions, sprays, cremes, gravies and so-called “Fish Attractants” on the market, whether or not to scent your lures can be a very perplexing topic. The first “age old” question I usually get is…Do scents or attractants really work? The answer is…Yes, they do! Now, with that being said, let’s break this topic down a bit and discuss how and why they work so that you can better understand the mechanics. You might even discover that they work in an entirely different way than you thought they would.

You woke up this morning and the weather outside was beautiful so you decided to go fishing. You rummage around the kitchen for a while and put together a quick breakfast, eat, grab your gear and you are out the door. Did you wash your hands yet this morning? You probably sweated and scratched yourself during the night and why would you take a shower at 5am just to go fishing. The omelet you made contained cheese, eggs, ham, onions and hot sauce–all of which you handled You get into your vehicle and head to your favorite fishin’ hole. All of a sudden, you realize you forgot to get gas yesterday and might not have enough to make it back home after the fishing, so you stop and fill the tank up. As usual, the gas splatters on your hands and you get petroleum products all over your hands from the gas nozzle, but you just wipe them on your pants and go on about your business. Perhaps you light up a cigarette or take a chew on the way to your favorite destination as well.
You are now standing on the shore of the lake, trying to figure out which lure is going to haul the “hawg” in today. One pole has a 5″ watermelon colored plastic worm that usually produces a few fish. You know the worm I’m talking about–it’s the one that’s been hanging from your pole in the garage ever since your last fishing trip a few weeks ago. It’s the same one that got dragged all the way down the driveway this morning because you were trying to carry to much stuff all at once. The other pole just has line hanging on it because you had to break it off last time you went fishing. You go through the tackle box and find a nice crankbait to tie on. Of course, you rub it around in your hands for a while and it takes about 2 minutes to get it attached to the line because you missed the loop when you brought the tag end back around….twice!  Finally, you fished for 6 hours and told everyone you didn’t understand why the fishing was so slow today!

The Science behind the Scent

First things first… I will use bass as an example because that is the species I primarily fish for and have studied for years. A bass has a very small brain in comparison to the human brain; the fish isn’t dumb, but it’s not smart either by the human definition. It has three purposes in its lifecycle–eating, surviving, and reproducing. Bass simply interpret environmental stimuli, and then react to it. They are territorial by nature, but also very alert to changes in their environment. This same creature is also capable of conditioned behavioral responses. Dr. Loren Hill studied and documented conditioned behavior in bass while he was doing studies for the development of the Color-C-Lector. Bass are undoubtedly very complex creatures.

Reactions to any environmental stimuli including artificial lures can be directly related to three senses. These senses are mechanoreception (the use of their lateral line, hearing, and touch senses), photoreception (their use of vision), and chemoreception (use of their senses of smell and taste). Biologically speaking, chemoreception is further broken down into two categories: olfaction (sense of smell), and gustation (sense of taste). Can bass smell different odors? Yes, they can, as do other species of fish. Bass however, don’t depend on scent as a major factor in foraging. Sight and sound seem to be much more important. Compared to some of the super-smellers like catfish, salmon, or carp, a bass’s sense of smell is a great deal less sensitive. Nevertheless, I can’t ignore the capability they do have.

Let’s analyze the subject matter of fish olfaction (their sense of smell). Bass have two nostrils on each side of their snout. One is the anterior nostril and the other one is the posterior nostril. Water will flow into the anterior nostril, over the olfactory nerves, and back out through the posterior nostril. There is no link between these sets of nostrils and their throat. As the water flows across the olfactory nerves, a message is sent to the brain, where the scent is then interpreted as either a positive or a negative scent. As fish mature, their senses of smell and taste become even more sensitive. Fish use their sense of smell in many different ways: to locate spawning areas, feeding areas, predator awareness, and even their schoolmates in open water.

Positive Scent vs. Negative Scent

Have you ever been catching schooling fish, then have one hooked deep enough that it was bleeding when you released it? Most often in this case, the school probably stopped feeding shortly after you released the fish. Do you know why the frenzied fish stopped? The schoolmate released a chemical known as schreckstoffen. Schreckstoffen is sensed by the other fish in the school through chemoreception and interpreted as a negative scent by the brain.

The scents that we purchase to help us catch that “hawg” have ingredients that are interpreted as a positive scent. I don’t know of a single body of water in Colorado that has a growth of garlic or anise under the waters surface. Just like we, as humans, like to spice our food with salt and pepper because they are appealing to us, fish enjoy spices such as garlic, anise and salt as well as a multitude of other spices. Take a handful of unsalted peanuts and pop them into your mouth. They are not nearly as good as the salted ones and you might even spit them out. Imagine a bass swimming up to a sinking unsalted soft plastic worm, he takes a small taste and does not taste it again. Take the same type of worm and impregnate it with salt, the fish swims up to taste it, he then locks down on the worm and won’t let go. If the worm were also coated with a scent, the fish probably would have been more aggressive in taking the bait earlier.

Scents such as garlic and anise have another great purpose as well. The purpose is to mask the smell of offensive odors, kind of like the odor on your hands that you rubbed all over your lures this morning. First, let me explain the importance of “Fish Attractant”. A bass (Largemouth, Smallmouth, or Spotted) will usually spit out bait within two or three seconds if the bass doesn’t accept the taste (if it picks up the bait at all). On the other side of the coin, if a bass likes the scent or attractant, it can hold the bait up to as much as thirty seconds or more before it spits the bait out. Fish Attractant does not really “attract” fish, but your odds on setting the hook will be greater by using it rather than not.

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