I recently found myself again talking smallmouth with anglers interested in learning more about the brown bass. Despite being out of the big-water game for some time, the topic never seems to be too far from my day-to-day activities. Itís understandable, as pursuing the giant smallmouths of the Great Lakes continues to offer some of bass fishingís last frontier.
Itís the unknowing that always intrigues the inquisitive anglers. Itís certainly what initially got me. But after thousands of hours of pursuit, I was able to come up with a few solutions that seemed to repeat themselves, and I always enjoy sharing them.
One of the most popular topics involves scent. For generations (which Iíll detail), smallmouth bass fishermen have noticed that scent may, indeed, play a significant role in their success. It likely all started during the days of pork rind, when ďfly and rindĒ fishermen found that their bucktails were far more effective tipped with pork. But that could also be discounted as change in other aspects of the lure, like fall rate and profile.
There was no way to discount the effectiveness of scent, however, when Berkley introduced Gulp! soft plastics in the early 2000s. The shape, color, profile and overall look of the lures Ė all were terrible in the initial offerings. Yet Great Lakes smallmouth gobbled up Gulp! like candy.
I can vividly remember a 5-pound bass I caught dropshotting a dried-up piece of a Gulp! worm I found on the floor of my boat. Despite being an initial skeptic, after that I was sold.
A massive shift of preferred lures immediately took place in the world of smallmouth bass fishing. Everyone was using Gulp! and catching fish. It should be noted that this behavior closely mimics what is currently taking place with the newest Berkley creations offered in MaxScent.
But after a few years, the popularity of Gulp! began to wane, as any magic lure is destined. Now, Iíd always accepted that bass can grow accustomed to certain attributes of a lure. The noise of a lipless crankbait, for instance. Maybe the gaudy flash of a spinnerbait. But the scent of a plastic? I wondered.
Not long after, a few open-mined anglers discovered the appeal of another bait when fished on a dropshot, the Strike King Z-Too. One of the first ďsuper-plasticĒ baits, the Z-Too was unlike any of the small, hand-poured worms most Great Lakes fishermen were using at the time. Again, digging deep in my mind, I remember my initial skepticism for the lure, which was quickly resolved when I dropped it on the bottom. For several years, myself and a number of Lake Erie regulars attempted to keep the Z-Too a secret while racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament earnings. If I told you the list of tournaments won on that bait Ė but credited to others Ė it would blow your mind.
But then, a strange thing happened. The Z-Too ďrecipeĒ changed. Iím reminded of a legal situation of some sort, but thatís irrelevant. The important part is that the second-generation lure looked and acted nearly identical to the first, but the scent had changed.
More specifically, the scent was gone. The initial version of the lure had featured an incredibly potent garlic smell. So strong was the aroma that co-anglers on the back deck of my boat would frequently ask me what lure I was using that smelled so bad, after I whizzed out a quick cast. I rarely answered or showed them.
In any case, the scentless lures caught far fewer fish. It was absolutely apparent. Numerous times I fished each side by side, and the old, garlic-smelling baits would outfish the bland models 5 to 1. Baits of the original formula became so valuable that a handful of buddies and I bought every package we could find in several states. Color didnít matter, the lure just had to smell right. Eventually, those too ran out.
That, of course, led to me and a few others searching for a way to jazz up the new baits with an add-on scent, which I found. I wonít go into details here but, suffice to say, it was a lengthy process with a very specific product. Lures were tested thoroughly. Results matched the originals. It should also be mentioned here that the newest super-plastic shad bait, the Z-Man Jerk ShadZ, features a scent-impregnated model. Interesting.
Now through my lifetime of learning more about bass, Iím continually reminded of the theory that scents donít matter, or add-on scents donít work. Through research, Iíve learned that bass develop their olfactory scents late in life, leading many scientists to believe this sense is used primarily for breeding. Iíve also reviewed the literature that suggests anything we add to a lure must be water soluble, as oil-based products donít mix. I understand these theories to be true. Partially.
However, none of those scientists were with me when, after fruitlessly fishing the same rockpile for five minutes with a scent-less lure, I dropped a stinky garlic bait down, and it never made it to the bottom.
My point is this: There are things we donít know. A lot of things.
Iím going to give you a few examples of fish/scent behavior. I apologize that these donít include bass; it always ticks me off when oranges are compared to apples. But consider:
> Scientific study shows that if human beings place their hands in the water upstream of migrating salmon, the fish often break their school or turn completely around and swim away.
> Shallow-water bonefish anglers using crabs for bait watch their quarry track from hundreds of feet away, using nothing but their sense of smell, honing in just like a bird dog.
> When chumming snapper, the best chum is always the oiliest. Itís not uncommon to chum snapper up in just a few seconds when using sardines, the baitís oil slick apparent on the surface. And all commercial chum is mixed with pure menhaden oil; without it, the chum fails to work.
> Rather than use cut-bait on trotline hooks when sampling catfish, many biologists use soap. A particular brand Ė containing the highest concentration of animal fat and oil Ė has been scientifically proven to be as effective as any form of natural bait.
So what does all this prove? Nothing, I guess, other than how little we understand about bass and their use of smell in feeding.
But it underscores one principle: The importance of keeping an open mind.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)