A century ago, Russian scientist Igor Pavlov had gone to the dogs–his dogs–to gauge what cues would make them drool. For starters, Pavlov gave them food and watched them salivate. The next step in the experiment was to ring a bell when feeding the dogs, and again their mouths watered. Ultimately, with the bell tolling and without food, Pavlov’s dogs salivated in anticipation. These pioneering studies were labeled “conditioned response.”
Something similar is intended with scent-based soft plastics and scent applications–ringing a dinner bell for walleyes. Give fish a positive experience with something tasty, aromatic, and soft, the thinking goes, and the fish are apt to eat it.
In tank tests at the Fish Research Lab at Pure Fishing in Spirit Lake, Iowa, scientists have dropped in everything from pebbles to cotton soaked with insect repellent to soft plastics treated with scent to gauge the fishes’ reactions. “If it’s something distasteful, you can’t even use a stopwatch to measure how fast they spit it out,” says researcher John Prochnow, a developer of Berkley Power Bait. “If it’s something they like, they swallow it right down.”
Positive and negative scents have long been a matter of trial, error, intuition, and superstition among anglers. Spray a bait with WD-40, rub it with Preparation H, spit on it with tobacco juice–it’s hard to say whether the contributions are anything more than voodoo fish-onomics. Increasingly, with science on their side, manufacturers such as Berkley have performed tens of thousands of flavor tests on bass, walleyes, trout, and panfish to find what the different species like best.
At the same time, designers have developed shapes and textures specifically for walleyes, with a softer makeup for more fluid movement. Examples are Berkley’s supple Power Jigworm and Power Minnow. As such, scented plastics as well as scent applications have evolved beyond anise coverups and stiff, motionless worms and grubs to a level of high science. Still, as with any live or artificial offering, the ways in which scent-infused lures and baits are fished–jigging motions, rigging particulars, and trolling tricks–are the all-important complement to their effectiveness.
Wiggle of the Worm
Walleyes are not salmon, a species that detects scent cues in concentrations as low as parts per billion, although the walleye’s taste receptors are indeed acute. Witness the legendary preoccupation with livebait, and consider that walleyes have taste buds on their lips and face. “They don’t even have to put an item in their mouths to taste it,” Prochnow says. “They can almost taste without touching.”
If any delivery of scented soft plastics makes the most sense, it’s probably with a jig. The reason, notes In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail pro Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wisconsin, is that whether you’re tipping with a minnow or plastic, you’re giving it motion. “Soft plastics work when you put action into the bait,” Kavajecz says. “Typically that means jigging. Even with a live minnow, you give it all the action. The new extra-soft plastics present a flipping action that’s like a half-crawler gyrating and flipping.”
My own conversion to jigging plastics came via the tutelage and friendship of Cal Stier, whose pet method is snap-jigging 4-inch Bass Pro Shops Squirmin’ Worms on a jighead with superline. The worm is flavored with Yum, an enzyme-based scent.
The way I look at it, soft plastics are the notes with which you make the music. With a premium on generous speed and snap, rip the jig from 9 o’clock to 11 o’clock and let it fall on a tight line. When it hits bottom, repeat. You’ll either feel the walleye tweak the jig on the drop or set the hook on the upstroke. Curiously, if you watch the jig in shallow water, you’ll see it zig one way when you rip it and zag the other way the next time, a bit like a Zara Spook.
Even with bait, a piece of soft plastic on a jig is a valuable asset. Jig virtuoso and PWT pro Daryl Christensen seldom fishes a jig and bait without an inch of scented plastic (such as a Mann’s Walleye Worm) on the hook shank to soften the feel. The same goes for PWT pro Eric Naig, Cylinder, Iowa, who adds a touch of Power Bait. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a trail of scent that a fish follows like a bird dog,” Naig says. “But when they put it in their mouths, I’m convinced they’re going to hang onto it longer.”
Crinkle In A Crawler
If a jig with plastic is one thing, a spinner with an ersatz crawler is another. What a rod tip does to a jig is altogether different from the motion imparted by a planer board or bottom bouncer.
“I still think there’s work to be done on a trollable crawler,” Kavajecz says. “The biggest problem with plastics on spinners right now is that they’re essentially straight baits, or they spin one way and twist up the spinners.”
A step in the right direction–with increased scent and softness as well as biodegradability–debuts this month from Berkley. The new Gulp! line of soft baits, comprised of nine shapes designed mostly for bass, includes a 6-inch crawler that’s both flexible and durable. And, in response to the banning of soft plastics in parts of Europe and Japan, Gulp! will biodegrade in water in about a year through bacterial attack. But they won’t melt away in their packaging or on a hook.
To give a plastic crawler increased action when trolled behind a blade in open water, Kavajecz suggests giving the worm a little wrinkle on a large single hook. Instead of threading the worm on perfectly straight, give it a little bend where the hook exits the plastic. With twin-hooked harnesses for boards or bouncers, Kavajecz hooks the plastic crawler barely through the tip of the nose and then brings the second hook farther down than its natural entry point. Doing so gives the worm a slight bend that makes the tail flap one way and then the other without overdoing it with undue spinning motion.
In essence, odoriferous plastics are further enhanced by what is done with them or to them. So when you ring the dinner bell, don’t just play the notes. Think motion and action. Make music. Pavlov’s walleyes will eat it up.