I have fished with professional guides who claim to be able to smell fish, and use the sense to locate productive places for their clients to wet a line. Some say it smells like you would expect: sort of “fishy” or like fish oil. Others claim the aroma is akin to anise, or peat moss. The latter guys used their olfactory abilities primarily in the spring when seeking spawning sunfish. They say they can smell the fish on their beds, especially when a bunch of sunfish are concentrated and spawning in a particular area. Drifting with a light breeze or using an electric motor, they allow the boat to pass over shallow areas and use their nose to know when the boat is over the beds and that it’s time to anchor and start fishing.
I think I have picked up that fish-spawning scent a time or two over my angling career, and I also believe I can smell shad when the fish are schooling near the surface and the wind is right. Then again, when that’s happening I can usually see them too.
As to whether fish can smell me, I have my doubts. Especially when it comes to detecting my scent on baits and lures I have handled. At least, I doubt that my scent would factor in to whether or not a fish decided to eat a particular offering. I mean, there are veteran anglers out there who actually spray WD-40 on their worms and minnows and lures, claiming the scent of the water-displacing penetrant makes their baits more attractive to the gamefish they hope to fool. They swear by the stuff.
I go out of my way not to handle baits after I’ve sprayed down a reel or a pair of pliers with the WD-40, the scent of which I even find offensive. Same with hand sanitizer, insect repellant or gasoline: I wash it off—or at least give my hands a thorough rinse overboard and wipe dry with a (usually stinky) fish towel before baiting-up.
Studies have demonstrated that the sent offered by sunscreen, DEET, nicotine, soap and other un-natural substances can give fish lockjaw. Even amino acids given off by humans have been shown to turn fish off, setting off alarms in what scientists call “chemoreception,” a sense that combines smell and taste that is particularly acute in bass and most of other fish to help them detect prey and decide whether to eat it or not.
That’s why dips and sprays and scented soft plastics designed to enhance the attractiveness of baits and lures are so popular. Their makers argue that adding a scent that is a known attractant will make your offering more appealing to the fish you attempt to fool. Some dip baits offered to catfish anglers rely on scent alone to draw strikes—the ‘baits’ themselves serve only to absorb and deliver the scent and hide the hook.
Carp anglers are known to be scent fanatics, who develop dough concoctions often including everything from strawberry to anise to fool a bugle-mouth into finding and eating the hook-laden pastry they offer. I know fly anglers who keep carp flies in a Zip-lock bag containing anise oil for the same reason.
Like some deer hunters I know, other anglers are fanatic about leaving any scent on their baits, for fear of alerting their finned or furred quarry. I can relate to that, for I launder my deer camouflage (and myself) in scent-free soap and carry my neutral-smelling outerwear in special bags to and from the hunting grounds to keep it from getting contaminated by foreign scents that deer might detect. Even then, I squirt myself down with scent-eliminating spray, which is said to keep any odors at bay.
In fact, the latest product in angling’s current scent craze claims to do just that: eliminate all scent from baits to which it is applied. No Trace is a cleansing agent that contains no soap or oil-based solutions, and uses enzymes to remove odor molecules. Its developer says No Trace is “earth’s most powerful antimicrobial” and that the liquid, which comes as a spray, also serves as a natural antiseptic and disinfectant.
The folks who offer the No Trace spray, Pennsylvania-based Rippin’ Lips, should know a thing or two about odors and their removal; their primary product is the popular catfish stink bait known as “Leakin’ Liver.”