Outdoor tales

April 18, 2002

Making sense of scents

Bass fishermen have gone gaga when it comes to scent. Here's my two cents on the subject. Hopefully it'll make sense.

Scan the ads in any fishing magazine for soft plastic bait and "scent" is the key word that pops up the most.

Scented baits, the ads proclaim, will attract the bass and draw him to the bait. In reality though, scents mainly just attract fishermen and aren't that important when catching bass.


Largemouth bass are predators and ambush their prey from a hiding spot, charging out to attack when their dinner swims into range. With a critter that relies on ambushing his prey, scent is the least important thing he is interested in until the prey is inside his mouth. Only then will the bass taste what he just caught and make a decision whether to shallow it or eject it from its mouth.

In our environment where we breathe air, both water- and oil- based scent molecules disperse through the air rapidly without the need for wind or air currents. But underwater it's a much different story.

For scents to move through the water they must be water-soluble and be carried by the water current to reach the olfactory organs of mister bass.

I'm sure you've all seen the rainbow-colored oil slicks on top of the water as oil-based scents float off your bait and rapidly rise to the surface and disperse in an ever-widening ring. You might even get a whiff of the aroma, so mistakenly think the scent is working underneath the water as well. But oil and water don't mix.

As a matter of fact they repel each other vigorously. That's why you see the rainbow oil slick on top of the water.

Since most scents used in bass fishing products are oil-based, their only purpose is to catch the fisherman. I can hear you people now — whoa, stop, time out, wait, that can't be.

The old cogs are starting to rotate rapidly and you're thinking Power-bait works for me or maybe you're thinking, when I slather Smelly Jelly on my lures I get more bites.

Well, maybe you are but it's not because the scent is attracting the bass.

All bass fishermen, even the novice ones, know if you get oil or gasoline on your hands you need to wash it off because it repels fish.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret about soft plastic lures. Almost all soft plastic baits contain up to 30 percent light oil similar to diesel or kerosene in the plastic formulation. It's the ingredient that gives soft plastic baits a greasy feel.

According to Berkeley Powerbait ads, bass hold onto a long list of other manufacturers' soft plastic baits for a period ranging from one-third of a second to 3.7 second, but hold onto Powerbait for 17 seconds.

A bar graph shows this information in the ad but only one Berkeley ad was ever printed, 15 years ago. It showed that bass hold onto a Kalin soft plastic bait for 11 seconds.

It messed up Berkeley's bar graph and the point they were trying to make, so they removed our name and test results from the ad.

We formulate our plastic with odorless, crystal-clear oil that will not repel fish. All the other guys use diesel so they require some sort of scent on their baits to hide the offensive diesel odor to keep the bass from spitting out the bait as soon as it strikes.

To a bass, humans don't smell too good and some of us, particularly blue-eyed, blond-haired fishermen, smell even worse. As we tie knots and rig our baits we are leaving our scent all over the bait, which is offensive to bass.

That's where commercial scents play their biggest role in bass fishing. They don't attract bass; instead scents mask the odor of our bodies as well as the offensive diesel odor of soft plastic baits once the bass has actually taken the bait in its mouth and can taste it.

The lack of offensive odor and softness of the bait seem to determine how long the fish will hold onto it.

Salt is another ingredient that many fisherman believe attracts bass. Hogwash. The only thing salt does is rust hooks in your tackle box, make the bait heavier, reduce the cost of the plastic formulation and to a certain extent, allow the plastic bait to break down much more rapidly once the lure absorbs water and the salt dissolves, leaving the plastic to look like Swiss cheese.

We sell a line of hand-poured baits for bass that use water-soluble scents. I'm pretty sure they work because fishermen are calling us to report catching catfish, carp and trout with them. These are the type of fish that depend on scent to feed.

So since this week's column is about making sense of scents, remember that oil-based scents don't attract bass, they only make the bait less offensive.

I believe scents do act as a confidence builder for bass fishermen and that may be more important than all other factors combined.

>> Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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