So powerful is a catfish’s sense of smell (and taste) that they’re likely capable of perceiving their entire universe with their sniffers. Much the same way we observe four separate pine trees on a hill, catfish can likely smell four different carp swimming alongside a distant brushpile. I say “likely” because in truth, we still don’t know for sure exactly what catfish and other species are capable of relative to the detection of scents and odors.
We do know, however, that catfish are gifted with an abundance of olfactory folds—a type of ultra-sensitive tissue used for scent detection that lines each of their two olfactory pits. What’s remarkable is that while a 2 ½ pound channel catfish may have up to 140 such olfactory folds, a 7-pound largemouth bass has just 13. Moreover, both rainbow trout and Pacific salmon—each known for its remarkable ability to detect scent in water and even navigate hundreds of miles by it—possess just 18 olfactory folds at full maturity.
Either catfish in their often-dark river realms are enormously gifted sniffers, or there’s a ton we still don’t understand about this remarkable piscine sense. What we know for now is that olfaction is the primary sense used for a multitude of critical tasks: recognizing predators and mates, identifying specific underwater areas from a distance and for detecting potential food.
As catfish approach prospective prey, taste kicks in. It’s well documented that a catfish’s entire body is covered with taste buds, although the special structures are most densely concentrated around the mouth and barbels. Cats can taste food without mouthing it, simply tickling it with their whiskers.
Consider that catfish possess a much greater abundance of taste buds and olfactory folds than almost any other species and you suddenly realize the profound significance of scent in most all catfishing presentations.
Good Scent – Bad Scent – No Scent
So what exactly is the right scent for catfish? Evidence suggests that the catfish’s olfactory system is highly tuned to sensing amino acids. Of interest to anglers (and big catfish) are the amino acids found in the blood and tissues of familiar baitfish. Oppositely, amino acids such as serine, which is contained in human skin, has been shown to be highly offensive to many fish species. The amount of serine in human skin apparently depends upon the gender, age and even race of the individual.
Studies of migrating salmon have demonstrated that the introduction of serine into rivers can be so offensive that just one part of human skin dissolved in 80 billion parts of water is enough to stop migrating salmon for up to an hour.
While little to no research of this type has been conducted with catfish, most veteran anglers acknowledge the ill effects of certain odors, particularly when cats come in contact with their baits.
Tournament angler John Jamison has spent appreciable time experimenting with both scent additives and odor elimination products. He’s convinced that certain seemingly “unlucky” anglers may merely be the ones who contain the highest levels of serine in their skin.
“I started comparing catfishing to deer hunting,” Jamison said. “We go to great lengths to stay hidden from the sniffers of big bucks. We wash our clothes, hands and hair with special soaps; we wear scent-neutral attire in the treestand, and even chew special gum that blocks human breath.”
“It occurred to me that if we’re overestimating the role of scent in deer hunting, we’re completely underestimating its importance in catfishing. Given that catfish can smell so incredibly well, I no longer start fishing until I’ve removed all offensive scents from the equation.”
Jamison and his tournament partners now frequently wash their hands with scent elimination solutions made specifically for anglers. Their preference is No Trace, an all-natural anti-odor product that can be sprayed onto hands, and even clothing. Its benign, water-like appearance and texture, Jamison says, knocks out noticeable odors such as gasoline, insect sprays, and tobacco, as well as neutralizing serine secretions in skin. According the developers at Rippin Lips, No Trace is formulated with specialized proteins called enzymes, which the company calls the most powerful odor eliminators in nature. They’re some of the same ingredients used in similar products for the hunting market. Interestingly, No Trace acts not only as a natural antimicrobial, but it also works as an antiseptic and disinfectant, aiding the healing process of minor cuts and scrapes.
In Jamison’s boat, applying No Trace prior to handling any bait or equipment has become standard operating procedure. Throughout the day—after eating lunch, applying insect spray, handling gas or oil, etc.—he’ll apply No Trace several more times; certainly prior to cutting fresh bait, sharpening hooks or handling line.
Unlike other scent removal products, No Trace isn’t a soap, but a fine liquid spray that can be applied without additional rinsing in water. Considering the awesome scent detecting power of catfish, attempts to remove all traces yourself and various off-putting odors from your presentation—even if we can’t ourselves smell them—ought to be as natural as tying a knot or sharpening a hook.
Scent Additives Today
The other side of the equation is, of course, fortifying baits with liquid scent applicants. For anglers using cutbaits, one of the biggest issues is keeping fresh bait on the hook. Top catmen regularly refresh their rigs, replacing waterlogged, scent-stripped baits with a new blood- and oil-riddled chunk.
Particularly when bait’s in short supply, enlivening a new or used bait with some type of scent additive can make a significant difference, not only in attracting catfish from distances, but also in triggering them to bite.
Often, Jamison chooses to pre-cut baits prior to fishing, placing the chunks in a bait cooler and then marinating the whole works with scent. It works particularly well in summer and winter—phases when extra scent and flavor routinely induce extra bites. Once he’s filled the container with bait, he’ll pour in a 4-ounce bottle of Scent Trail—an amino acid and fish oil based attractant that can also be sprayed onto individual baits.
Beyond marinating pre-cut baitfish or spraying scent directly onto individual baits, anglers also use hypodermic needles to inject strips of bait with various scents. “Injecting baits rather than spraying them allows scent to saturate the flesh, where it flows more gradually and naturally in the water. This works especially well in warm water, which seems to pull natural blood and scent out of cutbait faster.
“Think of it like injecting a deep fried turkey. All those juices and flavors just ooze deliciously with each bite. Insert the needle just under the skin of a fillet and squeeze in a small amount of attractant. Repeat this at various places on the fillet. For a huge burst of flavor, you can also inject larger amounts of scent into the body cavities of whole baitfish.”
Angling on both sides of the scent equation—invisible and aromatic—yields justified confidence and extra bites. Eliminate the bad. Enhance the good. Put out a powerful, positive underwater message. Make it easier for cats to locate, accept and chomp your bait. Specialized scent products today bring out your best game. A few shots of the good stuff are powerful medicine indeed.