What scents work, what sents don't

Smells and Scents Proven Repulsive or Attractive to Fish

By: Capt. David Bacon

I’ve run a charterboat for decades so I’ve had plenty of chances to observe what works and what doesn’t work in the olfactory (smell) senses of the fishes we seek. While no statement stands true for all fish in all habitats at all times, generalities do apply, and I’ve got some words of experience that I’m confident will help you catch more fish. 


Capt. David Bacon and big white seabass


What works:

Scents make fish bite better and some make fish wrinkle their noses and swim for cover. After all, there are good scents and bad scents for fish as well as people. 

Great work has been done to find fish-attracting scents and market them. For example, Berkley’s R&D to develop their ultra-successful Gulp! Baits is a prime example using a full-on laboratory and putting in the time, effort and money to research, develop and test. Berkeley came out with a basic material, molded it into many critter-bait patterns and packaged it according to what their marketing professionals felt would sell best. 

After all, they must first be able to sell it to tackle stores, and then to fisherfolk before the fish can ever get a chance to react to it. Fish love obviously love the stuff and many professional anglers (including myself and my crew) use Gulp! regularly and liberally. 

Other favored products are Hot Sauce and ProCure which comes in a variety of scents including the ever-popular “Butt Juice” which was a case of magic marketing in naming the product. Those are just some of the store-bought options available, but many home-brewed options exist, and in some cases, work well. 

Some practices work exceptionally well and I highly recommend thinking inside the bag. For example, I’ve had good luck putting a little well-proven attractive scent material --like ProCure, Hot Sauce, Gulp!, anchovy oil, oil of anise and even meaty smells like fatty chicken skins --in a baggie, warming the baggie between hands or in direct sunlight and then putting swimbaits, unscented plastic offerings such as grubs and hoochies in the baggie. After a couple of hours or more of soaking in the bags, those baits will generally catch fish much better. This also works for older frozen baits that have suffered some freezer burn.

In the case of the chicken skins, I have a fish-proven habit of putting them directly on the hook. This trick is based upon many experiments aboard my 6-pack charterboat WaveWalker at times when we were having to work hard for our fish and we were in experimenting mode to try to ratchet up our catch. I’d see a passenger pull a piece of chicken out of their lunch cooler, pull the skin off and put it in a trash bag. Capt. Tiffany would say, “Wait! Let’s pull that chicken skin out of the trash, cut it into strips and put it on the hook.” Dang if it didn’t work and at times work really well. That oily protein scent trail the chicken skin left seemed to smell mighty good to the finicky fish down there. Then when we got back to dock and someone asked how we caught all of those fish we’d just smile and say, got ‘em on chicken. 


Capt. Tiffany Vague with a copper and a red rockfish


What doesn’t work: 

Sadly, we know relatively little about what smells make fish lose their appetite. Other than shark repellent, we have a dearth of available research on the repulsive side of our smelly equation. The best we have are observations and opinions of charter captains, fishing guides and professional anglers. 

An observant angler or crew member can find plenty of ongoing research aboard fishing boats. I’m happy to share some of my thoughts, and those of my crew member, Capt. Tiffany Vague, (maker of custom Vague Rods), based upon her experiences. She said, “I cover up and hide from the sun rather than smear on sun screen. Sun screen wearers catch plenty fish and I can’t argue with that, plus certainly all sun screen products are not created equal. On the other hand, I have watched good bites suddenly shut off for people after they slathered on copious quantities of sun screen, picked up their lure or grabbed a piece of bait and sent it down to tickle the nose of an unsuspecting fish who evidently went cross-eyed and scurried away.” 

Let’s make sense (scents?) of this… can someone handle a salad drenched in vinaigrette or a sandwich made with spicy spreads, then handle their bait or tackle and expect a fish to not notice? Is it reasonable to hope a fish fails to notice that an angler grabbed and devoured four big handfuls of fiery habanero chips before handling a bait or lure? What else? Well, fuel and oil don’t exactly put fish into a feeding frenzy. I’m even wondering if hand sanitizer is yucky to fish. 

Trying to fix an exiting scent problem:

I’ve been known to come down off the bridge, rinse my hands in the bait tank (among the live baits), wiggle my fingers in a bag of Gulp! baits and then finally start fishing. Naturally I do all of this with great aplomb, since I’m busily proving a point. Interestingly, these actions usually result in quick hookups because I have both removed repulsive smells and added attracting scents. 

Try all of this… it works! Oh, but after wiggling your fingers in a bag of Gulp!, I recommend a thorough washing  before picking up a sandwich or that bag of habanero chips because while Gulp! Makes fish want to eat, it tastes pretty yucky to us. 


Randall Graham with a calico bass