By Ken DeBarth
I was in Tradewinds Tackle the other day and overheard Alan sharing his opinions on insect repellent and sun block with a shopper. He finds it interesting that deer hunters will go to great lengths to hide their human scent and fishermen will buy scented baits but will handle their baits and lures with sun block and bug spray on their hands.
It was not the first time I heard Alan expound on this topic. I decided to do a little on-line research.
While some fish are primarily visual feeders, many of the near shore species targeted by surf and sound fishermen use scent to find their food. This includes red drum (and other members of the drum family such as croakers), sea mullets and sharks. The scent feeders have developed extraordinary sensitivity to scents in the water. Although the red drum has sharp eyesight, it relies most heavily on its sense of smell when foraging for food.
Fish have nostrils with an organ called an “olfactory rosette”. The larger the olfactory rosette, the more sensitive the fish is to the odors in the water. Additionally, fish have taste buds in their mouths, on their tongues, and in some cases outside their mouths in the form of barbells. This combination of smell and taste organs allow fish to find food as well as avoid danger.
Some fish (such as sharks, rays, eels, and salmon) can detect chemical levels as low as 1 part per billion. That means they can detect 1/200th of a drop of a substance in 100 gallons of water.
A fish’s ability to detect the wrong or unnatural taste and smell can affect your ability to catch fish. If your bait has traces of human scent, gasoline, oil, sun block, insect repellent, rust, mold, or even your after shave and cigarettes on it, a fish might avoid it. In the same way that you would not eat something which smelled or tasted wrong, a fish will not eat a bait that has the wrong smell or taste.
You can decease your offending odors by simply washing your hands before handling your bait and lures. Avoid deodorant soaps since they have perfume in them. Ivory Soap is a commonly recommended soap. Lemon Joy and Lemon Sunlight dish detergents are also mentioned. There are “fisherman soaps” on the market as well. Some sources recommend rubbing your hands with a combination of salt and baking power. It is more important that you wash your hands after contacting a potentially fish offending scent than which product you use.
Some writers recommend periodically cleaning your rod and reels. Foam or cork rod handles can accumulate oils and other foreign chemicals. Last week’s fish slime transferred from your hands to the rod handle can spoil and become a source of bacteria and odors. Scrub rod handles and reel seats with dish soap and rinse well. The addition of bleach will kill bacteria that can create odors.
Reels need to be lubricated, but over time oils and sticky goo can accumulate. Pay special attention to reel handles where your hands will (hopefully) be spending a lot of time.
Once you have done all you can to eliminate the odors that could drive fish away, you need to look for ways to attract fish to your baits and encourage them to bite. Change cut and dead baits often. The blood and oils from a chunk of cut mullet will diminish over time and loose attractiveness. Change chunk baits every 20 minutes.
Consider using one of the new scented artificial products like Berkley Gulp Salt Water Series or Fishbites Saltwater Extreme. Both come in a variety colors and patterns. Both products claim to release 400 times more scent into the water than live bait.
Soft scented baits provide a taste and texture (feel) that may prompt a fish to hold the bait in its mouth longer which will mean more hook-ups.
There are also many oils and sprays that one can apply to baits or lures to cover human odors and attract fish.
Keep the negative and positive effects of scent in mind the next time you go fishing. Wash your hands often, use scented baits, and you might have more success in your fishing.
Oh yeah, the next time you are in Tradewinds, ask Alan if he agrees with me about the sun screen and bug spray.
Ken DeBarth lives and fishes on Ocracoke. He washes his hands a lot