When to use scented baits

by Gord Ellis | February 28, 2024

The use of scents when fishing is not new. In fact, scents are a major part of the industry. When people ask me if I use them, however, there’s always a bit of a pause. I do use them, but not all the time and in every situation.

It’s complicated

My introduction to using scent happened decades ago. The product was called “Dr. Juice,” which exploded onto the scene in the late 1970s. The product was developed by Dr. Gregory Bambenek, a psychiatrist from Minnesota. At the time, my main passion was chasing steelhead and the primary presentation was drifting yarn or cut sponge in the current.

It became popular to douse everything in Dr. Juice. The smell was undeniably fishy, like a cross between fish eggs and cod liver oil. It also seemed to work, especially in colder water. It did not, however, out-fish spawn bags — rainbow trout eggs wrapped in mesh. Yet, for those of us who did not like tying spawn bags, the addition of “the juice” was a nice option. The one downside of using Dr. Juice was the inevitable leakage that occurred. In those days, every steelhead angler wore a Columbia vest, and the bottles would leak into the pockets, which then got very funky.

More game changers

Another game changer arrived in the 1980s courtesy of Charlie White. He became famous for an underwater film called the “Salmon Spectacular” filmed in coastal British Columbia. Using waterproof cameras attached to downriggers, he filmed the reaction of salmon to a variety of presentations, lures, and baits.

The experiments I found most fascinating involved the use of scent. White had side-by-side underwater footage of two identical lures. One was scent free, while the other had various things added, including human scent, cigar smoke, and was famously dipped into the boat’s bilge water. White named the lures in that final experiment “Mr. Clean” and “Bilgewater.” The salmon showed a definite preference for the bilge-water-tainted spoon. Even when the lures and fishing areas changed, the oily, smelly spoon caught the most salmon. My eyes were not the only ones opened by how salmon reacted to the oily lure. The “Salmon Spectacular” was groundbreaking and began the craze of spraying WD40 onto salmon lures, a tradi- tion that continues to this day.

It was the arrival of scent-impregnated plastic lures, however, that really kicked the door open. Up until that point, adding scent to a lure required applying it to the outside of a presentation. In time, that scent would dilute and wash off. Yet, when Berkley Powerbait appeared in the mid-1980s, it featured scent built right into the plastic. This allowed fish-attracting smells to be released over a long period of time.

The early scent impregnated lures ran the gamut, from cherry flavoured to things that verged on “hockey bag.” I recall in the early 1990s, leaving an envelope full of scented “Power Slugs” for the fish-crazy editor of the local newspaper. The editor was on vacation and, somehow, the envelope was misplaced and left close to a radiator. Reporters in the newsroom began noticing an odour from a certain area and tracked it down to the envelope. From what I understand the envelope was trashed and the editor never got my gift.

Today’s offerings

In 2023, there is a huge array of scented plastics. Popular bass lures are salt infused, while others are water soluble and biodegradable. Such baits have proven to be popular with anglers and catch fish. The add-on scent market also continues to thrive. Some scents come as a paste, but most are in liquid or gel form. Some are fishy smelling, while a few others could be easily mistaken for a food additive.

I recently guided someone who had a garlic fish scent that was both pungent and long lasting. A couple errant drops made it into the carpet of my boat and lived there for some time. It’s worth pointing out that he did catch some fish with it on his spoon, so perhaps it was worth the smell.

Scents can work in many fishing situations. But my feeling is adding artificial scent to live bait works against the natural aroma of the minnow, worm, or leech being used. It’s like putting ketchup on a t-bone steak. You are wrecking the natural goodness of the item. I also do not use scents when fly fishing. That may have more to do with my own values around fly fishing, but I just can’t see oozing scent onto a streamer or nymph. It might work, but I won’t ever know. To each their own.

Applying scents to lures can improve your chance of catching fish. If you haven’t tried them, give it a go this season.

Originally published in Ontario OUT of DOORS’ 2023 Fishing Annual 

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