Scent For Bass: Does It Matter?
April 13, 2012
The parade of bass coming off a single boulder was insane. At least, no sane person should believe it without being there. It was automatic. Drift a Berkley PowerBait Wacky Crawler on a bobber rig past it and the rod doubled over every time. Made no sense, but our incredulity was just warming up.
Never mind how 100 bass could pack into the area around one boulder in five feet of water. Tell me why they wouldn't touch the Gulp! version of the same worm in the "same" color? Gulp! material displays pigments differently, which could provide a partial answer. But, when we put the PowerBait version back on, the bobber disappeared. Put Gulp! on, nothing. Back to PowerBait and hook up. Back to Gulp!—nothing.
I was ready to write Gulp! off for bass. But, 24 hours later, In-Fisherman Editor Steve Quinn and I were back in that area filming a TV piece with the same tactic. He decided to try Gulp! despite my testimony and popped one smallie after another. I pulled out the same pack of Gulp! that failed miserably the day before and hooked up immediately.
"I can remember fishing Gulp! when it first came out," says bass pro Joe Balog. "I was practicing for a tournament and had one bag of Gulp! Throughout the day, I fished a bunch of baits on a drop-shot rig but couldn't get bit on anything but Gulp! I had maybe 12 baits, and they caught a dozen smallmouths over 4 pounds.
"I was down to the last bait in the bag. I pulled up on a rockpile, dropped it, and bam—a 5-pounder. It swam up and jumped, shook its head, and the bait flew into oblivion. Still marking fish. I got a peck or two, but no takes after that. I started wrapping up the day thinking Gulp! is the deal. Then I noticed a Gulp! Wacky Crawler stuck in the splashwell where a fish must have thrown it. It was dried out but I put it on. The boat had drifted so I made a long cast and pow—a 5-pounder bit on the fall."
The question isn't, "Does it matter?" It's "When?" Or "How much?" Even when slow presentations with softbaits are productive, everybody knows bass can be triggered by things other than scent or flavor. On the opposite end of the speed spectrum, conventional wisdom insists scent for bass makes no difference on fast-moving, aggressive baits. Why bother? Well, conventional wisdom apparently failed to review the research.
Old Fashioned Olfaction
I apply scent products to everything, probably because of my experiences with steelhead. They detect substances in smaller concentrations than bloodhounds. Give trout the faintest whiff of a negative cue and they can and will use it against you. We wonder why sight feeders have such an extraordinarily well-developed olfactory sense, but the fact is, they do.
Bass neither smell as well nor use the capability as much to find food, yet they have the ability to smell things other animals can't. In his book, Knowing Bass, Dr. Keith Jones, chief fishery scientist at Pure Fishing, reinforces our understanding of bass as sight feeders. "Even fast-dispersing attractants," he writes, "do not generate odor trails uniform enough for bass to follow." But later he insists, "Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying scents are useless for bass fishing. Quite the contrary." Scent, he writes, can trigger a response that inspires bass to hunt for the source. "Scents are known to significantly enhance bass catch rates when applied properly."
Kevin VanDam won the Bassmaster Classic four times and is the most recent champion. His genius for catching bass has been described as unparalleled in angling history. He claims scent is critical and uses Strike King coffee-impregnated plastics and FishSticks—real fish scents and natural attractants in Chapstick-like applicators. "I use them a lot, but it depends on the technique," he says. "Smoking a crank? They don't have time to smell it."
Every respondent to an informal survey of pros, guides, biologists, and doctors of fishery science agreed: Scent is not important on aggressive, fast-moving baits. But one of the many studies Dr. Jones performed in the Berkley laboratory found the opposite to be true. He watched five largemouth bass strike a quickly-moving, unscented Rapala Shad Rap 24 times per trial (each trial lasting 5 minutes). When scent was applied to the same lure and presented to the same fish, the average response almost doubled to 47 strikes per trial.
The laboratory is not nature and some say the book by Dr. Jones, which came out in 2002, is an example of science pointed toward specific conclusions for commercial interests. I don't agree. Then again, I'm prejudiced. My cranks have been sticking to the sides of the Go Box for 30 years, due to scent products applied.
Prejudiced or "vindicated?" It's a perspective thing. Scent is one among hundreds of tiny details that might separate good anglers from great ones—not that you could tell by me. But I can aspire to the latter group, just like you. So I apply scent even to livebait rigging, in the off-hand chance that my hands or tackle boxes inadvertently apply negative cues.
It's lonely being a heretic. I've been laughed at, scorned, and jeered. Usually in the morning. By 4 p.m. or so, most hecklers are gently removing feathers from the tar and cooing civilized requests for the infamous Black Bottle, so named because you can no longer read the label. It happened, as I write this, two days ago, when a representative from a major rod manufacturer broke down at the end of the day and admitted, "That Dr. Juice is making a difference." Of course, it doesn't always make a difference. My old tournament partner, Tim Dawidiuk, was stubborn about adding scent. Never did it. Many times he caught more fish, using the same presentation sans scent. And, when it does seem to make a difference, it just seems to make a difference.
However, when we established the single-day record weight at the Sturgeon Bay Open, he caught one bass. "Two," I can hear him yell. Ok, two. (We didn't weigh either one.) Was it because of scent? Probably not, but nobody will ever know. Dawidiuk says it was because his masterful boat control positioned me for the perfect cast, time after time. And that may be the case. That kind of uncertainty tells some people not to bother with scent. But when you can't be certain, shouldn't you err on the side of caution?
"Certainly, it never hurts to add scent," VanDam says. "In finesse applications, especially in cold water, it makes a huge difference. You can watch varying responses when sight-fishing with softbaits. Flavor-impregnated baits, especially, seem to provoke more aggressive responses, get fewer rejections, and bass hold them longer. When prefishing, when you want them to let go, they often hook themselves."
Even with aggressive baits, VanDam admits scent can't be dismissed. "Throwing a spinnerbait for spotted bass in a tournament, I had fish come up and hammer it without getting hooked. I slathered it with shad scent. After that, some fish whacked it four times before they got hooked. I doused the spinnerbait every 10 minutes, and, in my mind, it made a huge difference."
The Scent Sensation, if you can call it that, seemed to peak almost a decade ago, but millions of dollars continue to be spent on research, development, and the distribution of new products like BioEdge, developed and owned by former marine biologist Pete Corwin. "Ours is a cold-extraction process," Corwin notes. "We don't cook the essential oils out. We offer 31 scents, all made with natural extracts from fresh bait." BioEdge is available in a Chapstick-style applicator (Wand) or in a bottle (Potion).
Atlas-Mike's took on two techno controversies at once with Mike's UV Super Scents. Scientific analysis of bass eye structure suggests they shouldn't be able to see in the ultraviolet spectrum, but many credible anglers and pros claim bass respond aggressively to it. UV Super Scent produces a mirror-like sheen that can attract from a distance, bringing bass (and their nostrils) closer to the pungent attractant, which is available in garlic, anise, and a host of other scents bass anglers like. Appealing to both visual and olfactory senses is becoming a specialty of Atlas-Mike's, which already markets Mike's Glow Scent Oils.
Rapala's Trigger X plastics raised eyebrows as soon as they came out. Side-by-side with other impregnated baits, Trigger X often seemed to produce better action, but sometimes didn't (the inconclusive fate of all scent products). "I had a few days last year where I hammered them on Trigger X," Balog reports. "Every big fish ate the bait while it was lying perfectly still for extended periods. They plucked it off bottom like livebait. Why do we think bass don't care about scent?"
VanDam feels similarly. "Anybody that says scent isn't important to bass fishing is being foolish. If I'm adding scent to a hardbait, I generally use one of the new FishSticks for a variety of reasons. They resist melting up to 140°F, so it's not messy. They're made with concentrated shad and crawfish extracts. Like Chapstick, they leave a film you can feel and know it's still working. And it's concentrated, compared to oils that wash off immediately.
"But it's great to have flavors impregnated in the bait," he adds. "Strike King's plastics are impregnated with flavor and salt. Salt's critical, I think. It's in blood and it makes a difference. But the first time I sight-fished with coffee-scented baits, I was amazed. When sight-fishing, you readily observe fish reactions. See it enough times, and it's not coincidence anymore." Strike King added a Coffee Scent spray this year, too.
Ken Kross, chemist and owner of Scientific Bass Products, Inc., now has three versions of Kick'n Bass to offer: Original Garlic, Anise/Shad, and Crawfish. "Some say oil-based scents don't work, but mine stays on for hours and continues to disperse, because it adheres to a dry lure on the molecular level," Kross says. He's also an avid bass angler. "If you think a crankbait causes reflex strikes, think again. Bass can swim down the fastest retrieve, smell the lure, inspect it, turn on the afterburners, and depart. An 8-pounder doesn't get fat by feeding on the smell of plastic, steel, human sweat, and gasoline."
Years ago, whenever I climbed into Ron Lindner's boat, the unmistakable scent of Bang spray greeted me. Bass Assassin, which markets Bang, added impregnated plastics to the lineup last year. "We figured out how to add a liquid salt to plastics, so the salt content is as high as in any lures, but the integrity is far better," says company president, Robin Shiver. The top seller? "Bang Garlic spray," he reports, "though we sell a lot of crawfish and shad flavors."
One of the oldest players in this game, BaitMate, from Wisconsin Pharmacal, has a new concentrated formula with "improved adhesion" and "increased pheromones." But one of the great things about BaitMate has always been scale fleck—a once popular but seemingly forgotten additive. Scales do flicker down through the water column during a feeding frenzy, and certainly could inspire a hunting response.
Most scent products claim to include pheromones. Detractors point out that pheromones are scents best known to be released prior to spawning to attract mates. "Why would you want to make them respond to sex stimulants?" asks Bobby Uhrig, owner of MegaStrike. "Fish would swim right past your bait looking for something else." MegaStrike, long popular among professional anglers, recently introduced scented plastics in unique and original shapes like the Mega Bug and Mega Tube—which blurs the line between plastic craw and tube. "A tube essentially mimics a craw," Uhrig reasons, "why not give it claws?"
If you haven't experienced walleyes or bass biting Northland's new Impulse Leech better than they bite the real thing, prepare yourself. Happens more often than you might believe, but how? Just my opinion, but it seems possible bass can be conditioned to livebait when many fishermen use it daily on the same kind of rig over many years.
To stink or not to stink is the question, though it seems painfully obvious to me that anglers who resist using scent are more worried about staining their boat carpet than catching fish. Or being lazy. I'll let Balog make the final argument:
"A certain brand of flavored baits was altered by the manufacturer. The original ones were oily and smelled like garlic. The new version lacks scent, but comes in the same shapes, styles, and colors. On many occasions, I've caught fish every cast with an old bait, switched to the new one and couldn't get a bite. Switch back to the former formula and catch one right away." Got scent?
*Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman field editor, avid bass angler, and long-time contributor to In-Fisherman publications.