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Do Fish Attractants and Scented/Flavored Soft Baits Actually Work?

Written by: John B
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The fishing lure industry banked an incredible $1.3 billion in 2019 - and yes, that’s billion with a “B.” Moreover, the combined annual growth rate for this figure stands at roughly 4.1%, and that’s during an economy plagued by COVID and reduced consumer spending.

By catering to the desires of anglers and employing research and development teams that would be the envy of any pharmaceutical empire, companies like Berkley, Strike King, Yum, Heddon, and Rapala leverage science, innovation, and more than a little market savvy into amazing products and astounding returns.

That’s good news for fishermen, and I don’t think there’s an industry that’s more responsive to its customer base than the lure business. 

But I don’t know an angler who hasn't heard the old chestnut that lures are made to catch fishermen, and there’s a truth laid bare there that occasionally freezes my hand when I reach for a new crankbait or worm color.

I’ll bet you feel it, too.

Outright gimmicks are rare in the angling world, though marketing and advertising often stretch the truth a bit, as you’d expect. But are fish attractant sprays and scented/flavored soft baits simple ploys to get you to spend money, or do they actually work pretty much as advertised?

In this article, we’ll take a close look at the science behind scented/flavored lures and attractant sprays, demystifying what they do and how they work.

Are these products worth the extra money you’d spend on them?

Keep reading to find out!

Related: Best Fishing Lures, Best Saltwater Fishing Lures

The Claim: Sprayed Attractants and Scented/Flavored Baits Attract More Bites

Whether we’re talking about sprayed attractants like Baitmate Classic Scent Fish Attractant and Bass Assassin Bang Fish Attractant or flavored/scented soft baits like those from YUM and Berkley, the most common claim is that these products attract more fish and stimulate more strikes:

  • Baitmate’s “natural fish oils create a scent fish cannot resist,” and its “fish pheromones genetically stimulate fish and trigger predatory instincts.”
  • Bang has a unique rendering process with live bait [that] produces the natural concentrated oils of the most prevalent forage species. No other fish attractant borrows so much from Nature.”
  • “Combined with Berkley's irresistible PowerBait taste, the real-life aesthetics and action of these soft baits are guaranteed to get you more bites.”
  • YUM is the only brand of soft plastic baits featuring LPT, a natural shad enzyme fish attractant along with salt impregnation for even more fish attracting power.”

The Science

Fish senses

We know that fish have a good sense of smell - what scientists like Hal Schramm describe as “extremely good chemical acuity.”

Catfish, for instance, can smell and taste the water around them with their skin.

As Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University explains, "Catfish are swimming tongues. You can't touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it's as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body."

Covered in roughly 250,000 chemo-receptors that act something like taste buds, and with an olfactory system that puts pretty much every other fish to shame, catfish can sense some amino acids at concentrations of just one part per 100 million.

Fully at home in murky, muddy water that limits visibility to nearly zero, catfish use scent and taste as their primary hunting sense.

Sharks are also blessed with a super-acute sense of smell. As they swim, water flows freely through their nostrils, or nares, and across an olfactory organ. Dissolved scents that touch these receptors are then processed in the shark’s brain, where about ⅔ of the brain’s total weight is devoted to this process.

This gives sharks the ability to detect prey at hundreds of yards (not the quarter-mile figure you might have heard), and shark anglers can attest to how effective chumming is as a shark attractant.

But most sport species aren’t as scent-oriented as catfish or sharks.

Largemouth bass, for instance, are largely sight predators, and like sharks, this sight-dominance is reflected in the anatomy of their brains.

When biologists take a close look at a bass’s brain, they find a direct correlation between the relative size of its parts and their associated senses. As Chris Horton at Bassmaster reports, “The ocular lobe of the bass is huge, relatively speaking. This means that the fish invests much of its neurological resources in its ability to see.”

If you want the full run-down on the largemouth bass’s vision, we’ve got you covered: Sight: The Largemouth Bass’s Most Important Sense

That doesn’t mean that bass are left with a rudimentary sense of smell, however. Scientists think it’s more sensitive than a dog’s but not as important for hunting as sight, sound, and vibration.

That’s in part because bass make the decision to strike with their eyes and lateral line and then move in like lightning. They actually prefer clear water, growing quickly because they can easily find prey. And it’s sight and sound that allow them to hunt at a distance, rushing in to swallow prey before it has time to react.

Biologists like Schramm just don’t think that gives the bass much time to smell.

But in murky, muddy, or stained water, bass turn to vibration as their primary sense and smell as their back-up.

And in situations like that, scented soft baits may make a difference.

Water solubility: oil and water just don’t mix

There’s another question that scientists can clarify for us: fish can only smell water-soluble compounds.

The reason is simple. Only compounds that are dissolved in the water disperse easily, and only water-soluble compounds can be detected by fish senses.

No one knows this better than Berkley.

Pretty much in a league of their own in terms of science-based research and development, their scientists have long known that oil and water don’t mix.

That’s a simple fact that pretty much everyone already knows, but its profound implications seem to be grasped by Berkley alone.

Mark Sexton, Berkley’s Manager of Fish Science and Product Testing, spells it out at its most basic. “The problem is, scents must be water-soluble or fish can’t smell them. So oil-based scents do not work.”

That’s worth repeating: fish can’t smell oil-based scents.

And guess what the chief ingredient of Baitmate, Bang, and pretty much every other attractant spray is?

You guessed it: oil.

Flavor and scent work, if the science is right…

Aerosol, oil-based attractants don’t work, at least according to scientists.

But what about flavored/scented soft baits like YUM and PowerBait?

Well, that’s a different story, and the devil’s in the details.

As we mentioned above, Berkeley has doubled-down on science, resulting in some revolutionary tech that’s taken decades to develop. The trick was to create a soft bait that could hold and disperse a water-soluble scent without being so soft as to compromise integrity and fly off the hook on each cast.

The result is the PowerBait line-up, and the science behind it is sound.

It leaks scent into the water around it, creating a small cloud in still water or a long scent trail where the water’s moving. In limited visibility, that can create curiosity, drawing fish toward your soft bait to check it out.

If the vibration is right, that can trigger a strike.

But that’s where the magic happens.

The real purpose of scent and flavor in a soft bait is to trick the bass at this point - after the initial strike. That’s when the bass is tasting the prey item to decide if it’s dinner or not.

This happens quickly, in roughly a ¼ second, competing with you and your hookset in reaction time.

If you beat the bass, reacting first, you’ll have it hooked. If it beats you, it’ll spit your worm before you have a chance to drive your hook home.

What salt and other added flavors do is confuse the bass momentarily, getting it to hold that soft bait just a bit longer, giving you more time to react and set the hook. Doubling or even tripling that time gives you a lot longer to react, and over time, that will make a difference in your fishing.

Conclusions

Let’s sum all this up into two conclusions, both backed by science:

  • Oil-based attractants don’t work. Fish can only smell water-soluble compounds.
  • Flavored/scented soft baits like PowerBait work primarily by confusing the bass after it bites, getting it to hold on longer and providing you more time to react with a hookset.

We’ll stand by these conclusions, which fly in the face of the marketing hype that suggests scents and flavors attract “more bites.”

Maybe in very marginal cases, with water-soluble compounds, in very murky water, Berkeley’s PowerBait can draw a bass in for a closer look. 

Just maybe.

But once a bass does take a PowerBait, it’s going to hang on for a split second longer than an unscented - or poorly scented competitor. And that will give you more time to set your hook.

Over the course of a day, or a tournament weekend, that’ll make a difference.

About The Author
John B
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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