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Scent Sense

By Russ Bassdozer

Background. I  remember reading somewhere that 80% of all sales of fish attractants end up in the tackle boxes of anglers who fish for warmwater species, mainly bass. Whether that is the correct figure or not, there is no doubt that black bass fishermen buy this stuff by the bucketful. In other fisheries, salmon anglers also depend heavily on scents, but scents are not big among trouters or fly fishermen. In saltwater, fish attractants are not widely used at all, not even for gamefish like striped bass or snook, which are caught on many of the same kinds of lures as freshwater bass. I surf fish about 200 nights a year and catch hundreds of striped bass weekly on jigs and soft plastics, along with countless bluefish and weakfish in season. The idea never enters my mind to use scents to increase the number of strikes. Sure did try 'em - various potent essences of eel, shedder crab, menhaden, herring, squid, anchovy, grass shrimp - under all different kinds of water and angling conditions, and on many different lure types. Never did find any evidence that inshore saltwater gamefish have a sweet tooth for scented lures any more than they strike unscented ones. I'm not alone on this; no one else uses them either. But when it comes to freshwater bass fishing, we pour this stuff on like it was holy water. It even becomes a confidence thing with some guys, where they just get to feeling that the scent is nearly as important as their own fishing skills or presentation abilities. This article cautions against putting so much of your confidence into scents. Yes, use them wisely and well for warmwater bass, but understand that scents are not a magic elixer to cure all your bass fishing ailments, no crutch to compensate for fishing skills - just another tool in the angler's arsenal.

It's Controversial. Do they work? Which one is the best? Why do bass bite on garlic or anise (licorice) scents? The only honest answer is that no one truly knows for sure what a bass thinks when it tastes a garlic or scent-drenched worm. But then again, no one really knows what a bass thinks when it sees a spinnerbait either. Heck, I am not even sure I know what a spinnerbait is supposed to imitate. Nevertheless, most bass anglers will say they believe that scents are positive attractants that can be smelled by bass during the closing phases of a strike sequence, and tasted and savored once the lure is held in the mouth of a bass.

Basic Anatomy. Rather than talking in terms of scents, smells, or tastes, another way to understand fish attractants is in terms of the molecules they contain and what response those molecules are supposed to trigger in a bass nose, mouth and therefore the bass brain. So let's start by looking up the nose of a bass. Bass have left and right nostrils just above their mouths. There are two openings in each nostril - a separate entrance and exit hole for water-borne scents to flow right through. Some studies have also suggested that bass have scent and taste receptors inside and even outside their mouths. Regardless of where they are located, each receptor cell resembles a tiny pit or cavity, each with its own little pathway leading to the brain. Receptor cells come in all different sizes and types. Some are triggered only by scents, others in and around the mouth are triggered only by tastes. Some receptor cells are only triggered by molecules of odorless, tasteless chemicals such as sex hormones during mating, or fear or shock pheromones given off by frightened or injured creatures. A spawning male's milt cells even have such receptors on it, and use them to detect and swim towards chemicals emitted into the water by the female's eggs, thereby finding and fertilizing them. In the nose or mouth, the receptor cells only send scent messages to the brain if the correct size and type of water-borne molecule fits correctly into the receptor cell cavity. If a scent molecule is not the right size or type to fit properly into a particular receptor cell cavity, then no message gets fired to the brain. Using a pass/fail kind of approach, let's assume for this article that a bass will take either positive or negative actions based on how its brain interprets the messages that the receptor cells are firing at it about the molecules being detected on your lures.

Mask the Negatives. Some studies have suggested that bass are turned off if they detect sun block lotions, bug repellents, tobacco, household detergents, motor oils, fuels, and other unnatural chemicals that may be on your hands, and get transferred onto your line and lure when you touch them. Now, I will occasionally do the dishes for my wife, help with the baby's laundry, change the oil in the car, slather on the sunscreen, the bug juice, and enjoy a cigarette out on the water. So before you even start to fish, just soap it up. Just keep a bar of Ivory soap on the boat. It is 99.44% pure, no added perfumes, and it floats if you drop it. Just don't bend over if you can't trust your fishing partner. Even still, sometimes when fishing is slow, I can't help but think about all these bad smells piled up against me, and my hands start to sweat. This only make matters worse because some studies have also suggested that some fish species are repelled by L-Serine, a tasteless, odorless chemical found in the skin oils of humans and mammals. If these studies are true, then fish attractants can help us by masking the negatives. That is, some of the oily molecules in fish attractants will occlude (cover up) or adhere to the negative molecules you left on your lure. The whole molecular mozilla may be too big to fit into a scent receptor cavity in the fish's nostril. No molecule in the receptor cell? No message to the brain? Voila! The fish smells nothing. No sunscreen, no bug spray, no sweaty palms. So this is the first reason suggested for using fish attractants - because they may neutralize some unwanted, potentially negative scents.

Tie It On and Apply Dry. I like to apply attractants to dry lures right after tying them to the line. First, I just handled the lure pretty good, so the natural oils in the attracant may mask any negative scents transferered onto the lure from my hands. Second, I think a dry lure soaks up and gets coated with attractants better than a lure that has already soaked up water. If the lure has feathers, hair, a fiberguard, a skirt, a screwed-in treble hook holder plate - anything else that is porous, fibrous, or has little crevices - then that's where I apply the attractant, not to a smooth plastic or metal surface on the lure. I really don't reapply the attractant all that often.

Do they Smell It or Taste It? Many anglers believe that motion, shape, noise, and water displacement are the primary stimuli that cause a bass to strike a lure. To me, motion is the key. Fish eyes and lateral lines become fixated on the sight and feel of living motion - or the illusion thereof in lures. The value of fish attractant formulas is not so much that bass detect them from afar, and come running to find the source of such a delicious mystery aroma. Sure, maybe that happens some times, but the majority of times a bass is initially alerted to a motion, a shape, a noise or water displacement, and then sight usually becomes the dominant sense used to close the distance to its quarry and to commit itself to striking. Upon striking, which an angler often does not feel, the scent and taste of the attractant will cause the fish to hold the lure in its mouth longer, rather than taste an unadulterated DEET, PVC plastic and L-Serine cocktail and spit it out. So this is the second reason suggested for using fish attractants - because they may provide an angler with more time - a few seconds more to realize a fish is holding the lure in it's mouth and to set the hook.

What's in 'em? The active ingregients in most fish attractants are oils extracted from shad, crayfish, baitfish, worms and/or other water-oriented creatures. Active ingredients is some attractants may also partially or completely include extracts of garlic, anise, other plants, fruits, or seeds. Some are also laced with odorless, tasteless compounds of enzymes, hormones and pheromones that the manufacturer suggests may trigger a feeding response or other type of biological response in bass. Often, the materials used to manufacture fish attractants are the by-products or left-overs of some other product manufacturing process, like making fish meal or cat food for instance. These by-products are often pressed or otherwise further processed to extract the oils and compounds to be used in the fish attractants. The extracted oils contain natural protein and amino acid particles. These active ingredients are often mixed with a heavier, thicker inert base oil or gel that provides for better, longer-lasting underwater adhesion to plastic or metal lure surfaces. The fish oils, protein and amino acid particles are lighter and will separate out of the inert base and disperse into the water, mostly within a few minutes of application. Being lighter than water, the released oils will head straight for the surface of the water. Think of the oil molecules as if they were helium balloons. As they separate from the base oil or gel, they don't linger around, but head straight for the ozone layer.

Name Some Names. One of the first scents I favored was Dr. Juice, who is still around today. This stuff really had an impressive fragrance like a living fish. Healthy members of many fish species often exude a fragrant, fruity body odor. I can only compare it to the delicate, sweet scent of freshly-cut cantaloupe or honeydew melons. Anyway, Dr. Juice also had a very thin and runny composition and leaked and dripped all over way back when I used it. I also liked Fish Formula gel - not because of it's scent, but because it really lubed your lure down better than anything else I ever used for pitching and flipping deep into dry, raspy reeds and dry, leafy, bark-covered brush and limbs. Lures would slither right through on the cast. Saved me from an awful lot of de-tailings with soft plastics. They even popularized a metal flake sparkle scales gel for a little while. However, the sparkle scales would end up all over everything you touched - your hands, your face, your rod, reel, tackle box, your clothes, your lunch. You were kind of like King Midas, anything you touched turned to gold sparkle scales. Years later, I still have rods and reels with sparkle scales on 'em. Every so often, I also tried various aerosol spray cans of different manufacturers' shad, worm and crayfish flavored stuff. Only problem was that many of them seemed to hurl out semi-solid particles, chunks, gobs and thick stuff that would clog the spray nozzle but good. The stuff would also drip on the can top, collect in the rim, and eventually leak all over my tackle bag. Also tried the Berkley Strike when it first came out. This was a thick, jismy kind of stuff. It hardened and clogged the applicator nozzle between trips and on hot summer days. Around this time I remarried, and my new wife didn't like the essence of dead shad and crawdads emanating from my bass fishing clothes and my bass tackle bags. Truthfully, I had to agree with her. Besides that, she would not let me bring them into the house any more. So I got some  BANG Anise-scented spray. Has a fresh, sweet fragrance like living fish, and so do my fishing clothes, boat and tackle. Also sprays out in a fine, steady stream that never hardens or clogs the sprayer. Really doesn't leak either. Still have my wife and still have the BANG in my bag.

The New Stuff. In recent years, some new attractants have arrived on the scene. First, there is Scientific Bass Products Kickn' Bass which comes in a powerful garlic scent. It almost has a cult following among the anglers who swear by it.  Then there is Benchmark Chemicals Yum, which was concocted by renowned bass scientist, Dr. Loren Hill. Yum is a compound of several things, including masking agents, special fish oils and the enzymes given off from shad when they are injured or frightened. I have also recently been hearing about Hot Sauce, which comes from the Pacific Northwest salmon fishery, but is literally leaking into bass fishing circles out West too. Mr. Goop is a new water repellant gel type formula that comes in garlic or anise. The very latest attractant on the market comes from Mister Twister. You don't apply it to the lure, because the attractant is already inside the lure. They’ve created a new brand of soft plastic called Exude. They mold salts, scents and flavors right into the soft plastic itself. In water, the soft plastic develops a slime coat - a potent blend of proteins, minerals and amino acids found to stimulate bass to feed. This natural slime coat also sheds unwanted human and man-made odors found to repel bass. As if that wasn’t enough, the Exude plastic formula also results in a softer, more natural feeling lure! In fact, the slippery slime coat makes it feel just like a  baitfish or living water creature. Mister Twister has crafted their new Exude lures carefully, and they believe they have created a new generation of soft, scented plastics.

Among the Newest of the New. There's not another attractant quite like MegaStrike says MegaStrike company president Bob Uhrig. It's unique in that it's formulated on proteins and amino acids that bass require to stay healthy. Bass need these types of items every day. Their bodies do not store them, and instinctively crave them if they do not get them on a daily basis  When bass strike baits with MegaStrike applied to them, they do not let them go, resulting in better strike detection, says Uhrig. Comes in a gel form that does not wash off easily, and the manufacturer offers a 100% money back guarantee if you feel MegaStrike does not help you to catch more fish.

Do they work? Which one is the best? Why do bass bite on garlic or anise scents? I don't know if we have answered any of these questions here. And if you enjoyed reading this, I don't think that you will suddenly stop debating whether scents work or not. At the very least though, you might agree with most anglers who say that dousing lures with scents usually should not diminish your chances of catching bass. But you knew that already, didn't you?

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