Smells Fish are Attracted To (and Scents They Hate)

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Every fisherman has experienced the frustration of watching somebody else catching fish while their own bait remains untouched. As it turns out, scent can be a major factor in whether or not the fish are biting!

Fish are attracted to smells they find in their natural environments, such as fish extracts, baitfish guts, slime from prey fish, and natural baits like maggots, worms, or crawdad. They also like milk and some cheese products. It is important not to mix these with smells that repel fish.

Fish like stinky scents they find in their habitat, and they hate smells they’d typically find on your boat. Keep reading to learn more about what scents will help you catch the most fish!

What Smells Are Fish Attracted To?

Fishing enthusiasts have sworn that one scent or another catches the most fish since the dawn of time. One old man on the lake will tell you to use nothing but hotdogs, another will only use worms, and another uses nothing but cheddar cheese.

Who is right? Which of their baits works the best?

The answer is that it could be all of them. Scents work for fishing, and they work extremely well when used correctly.

But you must always consider that the most effective scents will vary from region to region, season to season, or even day to day. In general, you want to use scents that exist naturally in the water where you’re fishing. I don’t use shrimp bait when trout fishing in Idaho. But, there are likely exceptions to any of these recommendations.

Scents that Attract Saltwater Fish

Some of the best saltwater baits that attract fish, at least in part based on scent, include:

  • Shrimp
  • Sandfleas and sandflea eggs
  • Crab
  • Clam
  • Squid
  • Herring
  • Krill
  • Fish slime

The above is only a short list of some of the most popular and proven scents that attract saltwater fish. There are bound to be many more.

You can attract fish to these scents using both artificial and natural, or even live baits. Many anglers will use live crab or herring as bait. Frozen shrimp is a popular bait along the Gulf coast and you can almost always find it in local bait shops, as long as you get there early enough before they sell out.

When I was in Florida recently for the big ICAST fishing tradeshow, I had the chance to do some surf fishing. We went to a bait shop in Vero Beach called King Pompano Bait & Tackle Shop where the owner was beyond helpful. According to him, pompano (a prized fish you can catch in the surf all over Florida) are most attracted to shrimp and sandfleas. Then they like crab and sometimes squid as well.

Under his recommendation, we used Fishbites Sandflea strips along with a bit of frozen shrimp and it worked great that day! We didn’t get into big numbers of fish, but we caught enough to have a good time.

Scents that Attract Freshwater Fish

Since freshwater fish aren’t so accustomed to the crustaceans of the sea, you’ll probably want to stick to a different set of smelly baits when fishing lakes, rivers, and streams.

Some of the most attractive smells for freshwater fish like bass, trout, and panfish include:

  • Worms or nightcrawlers
  • Crawfish
  • Shad
  • Shiners
  • Corn
  • Cheese
  • Grubs or maggots
  • Liver
  • Panfish
  • Salmon eggs and other roe

There is a food chain when it comes to freshwater fish and bigger fish like largemouth bass and pike will often eat their smaller pond sharers. So they are often attracted to those scents along with that of other slimy creatures like worms, grubs and crawdads.

A lot of panfish are not above cannibalism either. In fact, when I was a kid my grandpa would take me perch fishing a lot. The first small perch we caught got diced up and used as bait for the rest of the evening. Turns out, perch love to eat perch and they hesitate less to strike when they smell that familiar smell of their own kind.

Bass will hit on lots of scents, including frogs and other topwater creatures. And they love the scent of minnow bait fish like Shiners and Shad. Pike will even eat ducklings. So the menu is vast for these lake monsters.

Trout are not as carnivorous, so they are often more attracted to the nightcrawlers, corn, and cheese-like scents. They generally feed on a lot of insects, larva, and the eggs of other fish. This is why so many artificial baits like PowerBait Trout Dip are heavily scented with roe (masses of fish eggs or sperm) to attract trout.

Shout Out to StinkyBalls

Stinky balls company booth at icast tradeshow
StinkyBalls makes baits that are engineered to attract fish based on scent.

I just recently got back from ICAST 2022 where the most eye-catching brand on the whole floor was StinkyBalls. I was smiling and chuckling before I even talked to the guy, especially after seeing their tagline is “grab some!”

Besides a hilarious name, they’ve got a unique product that can add scent to any bait, including hard plastic topwaters. And they don’t stink right out of the container and leave your hands smelling bad. They release the scent once in contact with water and each bait should last around 25 minutes.

The scents originate from actual baitfish, or whatever the attractant is, that is liquified and then infused into their little stinky balls. They are designed to be eco-friendly as well. I’ve got a small sample of the night crawler scent that I look forward to trying out soon.

If you’re reading this because you are an angler trying to hone your craft, you should check these guys out.

This shout out is not sponsored and they didn’t even ask me to put it in here. The links are not affiliate (commissionable) links. I just thought it was a cool brand, a great name, and a small business worth mentioning while talking about smells that fish are attracted to.

They did give me a cool t-shirt though! 

The Science of Scent for Fishing

Fish have a sense of smell that is 1000x stronger than a human’s, and they can’t get enough of some good, stinky bait!

You just have to make sure not to contaminate it with human smells, boat smells, or petroleum-based smells, which fish can’t stand.

How Scents Attract Fish

If you’ve ever taken a peek at fish nostrils, you’ll agree that they look pretty strange. This is because they’re made so water can flow in one side and out the other, carrying scent particles with it.

Fish hunt using sight and sound, so that pretty lure does make a difference, but they often rely on their sense of smell for the final stage before they bite. You can have the most realistic-looking bait on the planet, but the fish won’t care if they get a whiff of human skin oils, nicotine, or sunscreen the moment before they bite down.

If they get a good scent, one they identify as food, they’ll bite down hard and keep holding on. This is how you get them hooked well enough to reel in, even if they’re big fellas. You need to convince them to devour the bait instead of nibbling!

Oil and Water Scents

The material you use makes a difference in how well you’ll catch fish. You’re tossing your bait in the water, and that can complicate good ideas.

Natural baits infused with the scent, will generally be the most effective because they’re continuously bleeding their scent trail out into the water. They’re broadcasting to fish that a tasty meal is only a few minutes away.

Things like worms soaked in scent, pieces of cheese, or baitfish guts will have a nonstop stink that fish are interested in.

Oil-based scents are alright, but oil and water don’t mix well. This can make it difficult for the oil to diffuse into the water and lure the fish to your line. However, oils like herring oil will still attract fish in the area even after they’ve diffused. At least for some saltwater fish where herring co-exist.

Water-based scents can get washed off the second your bait hits the water. Water does clean off water-based things, after all.

Positive, Neutral, and Negative Scents

Paul C. Johnson, author of The Scientific Angler, posited that you could put scents into three categories when dealing with fish. There are positive smells, which fish are attracted to, neutral smells that fish don’t care about, and negative scents that fish are hardwired to avoid.

Positive smells are the ones mentioned above, like bait guts or worms. Neutral smells are things like garlic, anise, alcoholic drinks, and human urine, which can be used to cover up negative scents. Negative scents are things like human skin oils, sunscreen, bug spray, or gasoline.

What Smells do Fish Hate?

Hooked worm for bait on a man's palm

Fish are picky little critters, and they hate the smell of many things. Some of the things that fish generally hate include:

  • Human skin oils (L-serine)
  • Bug Repellants like Deet
  • Sunscreen and Suntan Lotions
  • Fragranced soaps
  • Lotions, especially fragranced
  • Nicotine, cigarette ash, tobacco
  • Petroleum derivatives like oil or gasoline
  • Chemical Plasticizers used to soften plastics

Basically, fish hate the smell of you. It isn’t personal! You’re just not made of the things fish like to find and eat in their environments. You’re covered in things that don’t taste good. If you’ve ever gotten sunscreen in your mouth on accident, you can probably understand where the fish are coming from.

What Happens if Fish Smell a Bad Scent?

Imagine trying to eat at a restaurant that smells heavily of bleach or garbage. If a fish approaches your bait and gets a whiff of sunscreen instead of worm guts, they’re going to turn around and leave. Nothing about that bait will still register as food to them.

If that bad smell permeates the water, putting off nasty-tasting little droplets in all directions around your boat, the fish won’t even approach. This is a frequent cause of bad fishing days, even when your neighbor pulls in multiple fish.

What Should I Do To Avoid Putting Bad Smells On Bait Or Lines?

There are a few key things you should do to avoid contaminating your line with a bad smell:

1. Apply Sunscreen and Bug Spray Well Before Fishing

You definitely want to apply both sunscreen and bug spray before fishing. But the trick is to do it without repelling the fish.

The best practice is to apply sunscreen and bug repellent off the boat before going around any of your gear. This will give you a chance to wash your hands well and let the particles settle before you put your bait on the hooks.

When you need to re-apply, you can head back to shore for a few minutes. This will give you a bathroom break and a chance to grab a few more cold drinks, anyway.

Again, let the particles settle before going back around your fishing gear. Nobody wants sunscreen in their mouth, and that includes fish.

An alternative to this is to rig your fishing rods the day before, when you don’t have any sunscreen, bug spray, or other contaminants on you. Lots of anglers do this anyway, especially if they plan on fishing topwater or plastic baits. Rigging in advance means you’ll have less contact with the baits right before tossing them in the water and less chance of spoiling things for yourself.

2. Wash Your Hands With Fisherman Friendly Soap

There are a lot of soaps on the market to get rid of fishy smells on your hands, but there aren’t as many that get rid of the human smell for the fish. Be careful when looking for soaps, so you don’t mix these up!

Good lure-cleaning hand soap will give you a neutral smell while removing food residue, hand oils, sunscreen, and other fish-repellant scents.

Wash your hands thoroughly after eating, smoking, applying sunscreen or bug repellent, or any other activity that could lead to transferring bad flavors to your bait.

3. What Should I Do If I Already Got The Bad Smell On Things?

If you already contaminated your line, don’t worry! Accidents happen, and you can salvage this.

One option is to change out your hook and line. Yes, it’s complicated, but it gives you time to clean up later.

A second option is to mask the scent with a fish-neutral scent like garlic, anise, or beer. Covering the hook and line with these neutral smells isn’t proven to attract fish, but it can mask the offensive smell strongly enough that the fish can take an interest again.

Another option that might seem entirely crazy, but that is bound to appeal to some desperate fisherman, is to urinate on your hook and line. For some reason, human urine is a very neutral scent to fish. It can mask the fish repellant scents enough that you should be able to continue using the hook and line.

What Spices Attract Fish?

Various colorful spices on display

This is a tricky question, flavored with folk legend and tradition as much as it’s backed by science. Many fishing enthusiasts swear that spices are what get them the catch. Variations of bait spice mixes are nearly infinite!

While the evidence that it attracts fish is anecdotal at best, it does seem like there is proof that it neutralizes odors that fish find unpleasant. When the difference between the fish biting and ignoring your bait is just how human or artificial it smells, this can be enough to hook it!

Some of the herbs and spices used to attract fish are listed below:

  • Chilli
  • Cardamom
  • Cumin
  • Anise/Star Anise
  • Fenugreek
  • Tumeric
  • Curry Powder
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Paprika
  • Cinnamon
  • Black Pepper
  • Salt

The most popular bait spices on this list are garlic, anise, and salt. These spices specifically have some evidence that they neutralize repellant odors, which can often be useful in bringing the fish back.

If you feel like using a piece of meat from your lunchtime curry to catch a fish, it’s worth a try!

What Scents Attract Catfish?

Large catfish swimming

Catfish are unique among fish for the sheer number of scent receptors on their bodies. Nobody is quite sure why they have that many scent folds, but they have them. You can take advantage of this as a fisherman!

Choose The “Ripe” Bait

Catfish love stinky bait. “Ripening bait” is a nice way to say “letting bait get stinkier until nobody can stand to have it around,” but that is just how catfish like it. They treat those liver chunks, fish guts, and blood like a college student treats free pizza.

The smell only makes it more attractive, cutting through river muck and pollution to draw in the big ones.

Some special catfish-specific treats include:

  • Blood
  • Amino acid blends
  • Rotting shrimp
  • Limburger cheese
  • Chicken livers
  • Baitfish guts

Any of these will draw in a catfish, but a good fisherman will remember that there is more to the scent game than attracting the catfish. You also have to avoid repelling the catfish.

Scents That Catfish Avoid, And So Should You

Catfish have stronger olfactory senses than other fish, which means you should be even more cautious of some fishing scents that could ruin your catch.

Like other fish, Catfish hate the scent of human skin. That L-serine our skin produces is disgusting to fish, and it’ll clear out a fishing spot for so long you’d hardly believe it. Try not to get people-smell all over that stinky bait.

Catfish also hate sunscreen scents, bug repellents, and artificially fragranced perfumes and soaps. They probably hate gasoline, petroleum scents in general, motor oil, and plastic scents that other fish avoid, but weird things are found in catfish stomachs.

Follow the same rules for scent as with other fish. Wash your hands with bait soap to mask the skin oils, apply sunscreen and bug repellent on shore before you fish, and don’t smoke around the bait.

Amino Acids and Catfish

Catfish really love amino acids, even more than other fish. Some experienced fishing enthusiasts will go so far as to inject their bait with mixtures of blood and amino acids. This ensures a scent trail that will last for hours and a huge burst of flavor that will get a catfish to bite down hard.

Does Garlic Attract Fish?

Whole, powder, and garlic chips on wooden table

Despite what many anglers and other fishing enthusiasts say, there is only anecdotal evidence that garlic actually attracts fish. It’s more likely that garlic neutralizes repellant scents, allowing the bait to become more attractive to fish again.

The neutralizing factor of garlic can count for a lot when it comes to bait and lines. The neutralizing factors of garlic and other spices, like anise, can remove the human scent from your gear, and that alone can help you get better catches.

Don’t underestimate how much fish hate their repellant scents. Neutral is great!