Making Sense of Salmon Scents
April 27, 2012
For nearly two hours I fished my favorite egg cure along the bottom of a deep ledge without so much as a nibble. Earlier in the morning, springers were rolling in the upper end of the hole and should have been stacked against the ledge I worked.
Changing out Corky colors, I thought that might be the ticket. Not until I went with a different egg cure, however, did the bite turn on. No sooner had my first cast with a new egg recipe found bottom than a springer hammered it.
The aggressive bite turned on a feeding frenzy within the hole and in the next six casts, dad and I landed our limit of four keepers on the river. The scenario was no surprise, and if there's one thing I've learned in my more than 40 years of catching spring chinook, it's that the key to success can be found in targeting their strong sense of smell.
Whether fishing with eggs, lures, driftbobbers or plugs, salmon scents can be applied (where legal) to just about anything presented to a salmon. The use of scents opens up a whole new world to salmon fishing, allowing anglers to target the sense of smell in addition to sight. Being able to appeal to both a salmon's sense of sight and smell often yields success that otherwise wouldn't happen.
If the human sniffer were as powerful as that of a salmon's, life wouldn't be enjoyable. Imagine filling your living room with water, then placing a single drop of shrimp oil in it. A salmon can detect the oil smell; we can't even come close.
With such an acute sense of smell, targeting a springer's sense of smell offers huge benefits to open-minded anglers.
If there's one thing I've learned over my years of scent use while fishing for salmon, it's to not limit yourself to a "favorite" scent. Just like egg cures, scents have their good and bad days. It has nothing to do with the scent flavors, or necessarily the brand of scents being used. Instead, it comes down to what fish react to on any given day, and this can change.
Take people, for instance. One day popcorn sounds good, the next day, chocolate chip cookies. What appeals to salmon can also change and having an array of scents to offer them can make the difference between catching fish or going home empty-handed.
Personally, my favorite scent is pure-grade anise oil. If I had one scent to use day in and day out, I'd choose anise oil. But there are days it simply doesn't work. When fish are in a hole and not biting, it's time to offer them a different bait, and/or a different scent.
When anise oil fails to produce, I'll often switch to shrimp oil. If shrimp oil fails, I'll try crawfish, tuna or some other scent. Vanilla extract, DMSO, herring oil, rootbeer extract and sugars are all proven salmon-getters. Salmon have an affinity to sweets, so keep that in mind.
Today's salmon scents can be applied to just about any terminal gear. With the advent of super-sticky scents, Pro-Cure, for example, has made it possible to apply scents to the smoothest of lures, plugs and even hooks. The fact these sticky scents adhere to smooth metals and stay on in fast, turbulent water, greatly increases their effectiveness.
When curing eggs for salmon fishing, scents can be added during the curing process or added to the final cured product, just prior to fishing them. When springer fishing, try to have at least three different bait cures on-hand. Keep in mind that what works one day -- or one hour -- may not produce the next. In this case, change is good.
If fishing a Corky with yarn, scent can even be added to them. Some streams may not allow bait, but will allow the use of scents (be sure to check regulations for the streams being fished).
Many anglers choose to handle baits and apply scents with rubber gloves. This is because they don't want human odors being transferred to the bait from the oils on their hands. For this, rubber gloves made of nitrile are a favorite of anglers.
DIFFERENT BAIT = DIFFERENT SCENTS
In addition to the use of consumer-applied lure scents, baits also produce unique scents. Many egg anglers, for instance, use only a borax-based cure, allowing the natural smell of the egg to do the work. Other's add scent to their egg cures, the flavors of which are many.
The reason we use baits is not so much because they look different, but rather the fact that they smell different. I'll never forget the first time I used sand shrimp for spring chinook in the early 1970s.
I'd heard of a few anglers catching fish on sand shrimp, so decided to try it. We were over 300 river miles from where the fish being targeted in an upper tributary last saw a shrimp, so I held little hope. But after three of us quickly limited out I became a definite believer. Not one bite came that day on our favorite egg cure; all came on sand shrimp. This bait is still one of my favorites and goes to show the benefit of learning to think outside the box.
In addition to using baits that may be natural to the setting in which you're fishing, try baits that salmon encounter in the ocean. Remember, salmon are aggressive predators and feed on a wide variety of food when at sea.
Over the years, anglers have done well on cured salmon eggs, sand shrimp, chunks of herring, sardines and even eel. Squid strips have also produced springers, as have baits like crawdad tails and even raw bacon-wrapped plugs.
Take into account the rivers being fished. While fishing some rivers over the years, I can assure you I've had better success using crawdad tails and bright red, cured eggs than I have using those same baits in other rivers.
Remember, each bait carries its own unique odor and that's often what entices a fish into biting it, not the sight of it. If you know salmon are in a hole and you're not getting a bite, don't leave that spot without trying at least one other bait or scent.
I don't know how many times over the years I've fished a hole without getting a strike, then, when I leave, another angler comes in and immediately hooks a fish. This usually has nothing to do with our styles of presentation, rather the fact the other angler gave the fish something different to smell. The fish were there; I just failed to do my job of trying different offerings.
When it comes to catching salmon by targeting their sense of smell, two approaches can be applied: Let the bait sit or cover water with it.
No matter which approach you try, keep in mind the purpose of using scents is to establish a scent line that fish will eventually follow to your hook. Which approach you use, passive or aggressive, comes down to the water being fished and the conditions faced.
If targeting traveling fish in a narrow slot, keeping your bait in one place is a good idea for it allows a consistent scent trail to be laid down that the fish can follow. At the same time, if travel routes find fish moving slowly through them or they are wide in nature, then you may want to speed up things and take the presentation to the fish. This can be done by back-bouncing, back-trolling plugs, casting lures or drift-fishing.
By covering water you're laying down more scent with the objective being to get a reaction bite from a salmon. If anchoring your bait in one spot, you're establishing a scent trail the fish will detect and, hopefully, intentionally follow to the hook.
If fishing amid ledges, seams and boils early in the morning or later in the evening when fish are moving, try to cover as much water as possible. At mid-day in the same hole, direct sunlight and fishing pressure may have salmon nosing tight against the ledge, close to the bottom. In this case, change your presentation style so it stays in one place, allowing the current to carry the scent right along the rock face where fish are stacked. This mid-day approach will often find you hooking fish when other anglers have called it quits.
If drift fishing or plugging a section of water and no bites occur, go back over the same water, but this time with a different bait or scent.
Last spring a buddy and I back-bounced eggs through a prime salmon hole without so much as a bite. We rowed back upstream and this time ran a pair of plugs through the same water. The plugs were wrapped with tuna, and this time both rods went down; we landed one fish. The fish were there the whole time, they just liked the tuna aroma over the anise and sardine offerings we made to them the first time through.
SCENT OR MASK
When it comes to scents, they serve two purposes. First, they offer an attractive smell that fish intentionally seek out. Second, they mask human odors.
One thing the bass fishing world has taught salmon anglers is a sense of human scent awareness. Studies conducted years ago on some of the top bass fishermen reportedly confirmed that their hands produced less oil than that of their competitors. This equates to less human odor being transferred to the terminal gear, thus more fish being caught.
While many anglers use scents like sardine, shrimp or anise oil as a cover scent, other's don't want those odors on their hands at the end of the day. Studies have also shown that lemon scented Joy soap cuts through oils extremely well, and explains why you'll see a bottle or two of this soap in the boats of many top-notch salmon anglers.
If using soap to keep things clean, apply it often, especially after touching any food. The nitrile-based rubber gloves also work to mask human odor, and many anglers choose to leave these on all day long.
This spring, plan on paying close attention to the water being fished and don't be afraid to experiment with a variety of scents on your outing. Whether they are in the form of bait, commercial or home-concocted scents, they can make a big difference for anglers when it comes to putting more meat in the freezer.
Signed copies of Scott Haugen's popular book, Egg Cures: Proven Recipes & Techniques, can be ordered from www.scotthaugen.com, or by sending a check for $15 (includes S&H), to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489.