Making Sense of Scented Softbaits
August 14, 2015
Livebait is undeniably deadly, but in many situations today's crop of advanced softbaits offers equally or more effective options. In addition, softbaits are far easier to gather, care for, and store between trips. They never go belly up in the bucket, and often prove much tougher than natural baits.
Lifelike or strike-provoking action, profile, and color are key concerns when selecting softbaits, whether you're jigging for crappies, Texas-rigging largemouths, or slinging swimbaits for walleyes. But scent and flavor remain important in many situations as well, especially when fish are feeding more by taste and smell, or when tough conditions have fish in a funk.
Walk into a well-stocked tackle shop and you find many choices, almost too many at times. To help make sense of what to choose and where to fish it, I offer the following thoughts from the softbait frontlines.
When Scented Baits Shine
"Scent and flavor are most important whenever you're fishing a slow-moving bait or when you're hoping fish hold onto the bait a bit longer after they bite," says Scott Bonnema, a well traveled and successful bass tournament competitor. In spring, he favors scented Senko-style stickbaits in slow-motion presentations for both largemouth and smallmouth bass. "The fish have time to sneak up on and assess the bait, gently pick it up, and often swim quite a distance with it before you feel them," he says. "Anything that causes a bass to hold on until you realize what's happening is golden."
He says the same goes for Carolina-rigging because bass can swim several feet with the bait before you realize it. "If a bait has no flavor, they may peck at it and drop it," he explains. "But flavored baits encourage them to hang on and move off, giving you a far better chance to catch them."
Bonnema also factors scent into the equation when dragging tubes and other small softbaits. Along with encouraging bass to hold onto baits, he believes you can also create a fish-attracting scent trail. "I've seen many times when two anglers are fishing tubes, and the one in the back of the boat outfishes the other," he says. "I believe it's at least partly due to the bow angler's bait emitting a scent trail that gets the bass in the mood to bite when the second bait comes into view."
At last spring's Sturgeon Bay Open tournament on the famed bay of Lake Michigan by the same name, one of his top tactics for smallies up to 8.29 pounds — the big fish of the event — was slowly working scented baits along bottom. Tubes were rigged on 1/8-ounce jigheads and sweetened with extra scent. While Bonnema has experimented with a wide variety of attractants, including sprays and markers, tubes beg for a shot of high-octane gel.
His other top bait was a Trigger X Slop Hopper, which is infused with Ultrabite Aggression pheromones, which the company says mimics chemical cues from predator-prey interactions. Ultrabite was developed and patented by Britain's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences. It relies on synthetic pheromones to stimulate fish behavior, and I've fished the product many times, including when it was used in Mustad's earlier attractants.
One of the most compelling cases for Ultrabite I've seen first-hand occurred in June 2005, when Missouri bass pro Denny Brauer and I put Ultrabite to the test for smallmouths on New York's Finger Lakes. Fishing identical tubes in the same manner, baits laced with Ultrabite consistently caught more bass. I've seen similar results for salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, as well, where supersized softbaits and cut salmon sweetened with the attractant outfished unseasoned baits. In Alaska, the case study involved a group of outdoor writers on a press trip with Cabela's and Mustad. Pheromone attractants were so effective, the press corps ended up jockeying for position to man the lines with Ultrabite-enhanced baits, as the non-doctored lines often went fishless.
While Trigger X offers a selection of bass baits including the Slop Hopper, for 2015 the company continues its push into the panfish arena, adding the Wingding, Boot Tail Minnow, and Curl Tail Minnow. Back in 2013, Trigger X released a flurry of cold-water offerings, including the Mustache Worm, which proved deadly on hardwater panfish. These baits encourage tight-lipped panfish to bite and hang on longer than with standard plastics.
It's worth noting that a bait's chemical makeup can also be a factor. Trigger X sports a phthalate-free composition, eliminating the plastic smell of some baits than some anglers believe can put fish off. Berkley utilizes water-based resins to make Gulp!, which have no plastic odor and disperse the baits' flavorings faster than traditional plastics, which become most effective once a fish has the bait in its mouth.
While pheromones may be an emerging frontier, baits with food-based flavorings and other natural attractants have a strong track record. Options include various baitfish, crustaceans, and other forage flavors. Anise- and garlic sweetenings have been around for decades and have a dedicated following. Many anglers, including more than a few pros, also swear by salt-infused offerings.
"While no major breakthroughs have occurred recently, a number of companies are tweaking formulas," says In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn. "The folks at Berkley continue to be the leaders, with full-time researchers and chemists working on the development and implementation of tasteful flavors into baits that can be economically made and distributed."
Indeed, Berkley began raising the softbait bar back in 1985, with the hiring of Dr. Keith Jones, who has led the company's research ever since. Jones was soon joined by chemist John Prochnow, and together the two have ushered an array of fish-catching products to market.
"Trout PowerBait was our first big hit back in 1988," Jones recalls. "It outfished salmon eggs and other baits three or four to one." Though the selection of baits expanded to serve bass, walleye, and panfish anglers as well, Berkley hasn't forgotten salmonid seekers. For 2015, the company unveiled a palette of catchy new colors for PowerBait Power Eggs, Gulp! and Gulp! Alive! Floating Salmon Eggs that cover the original, garlic, and Gulp!-flavored spectrum.
After considerable research on the bass front, Berkley debuted the soft-plastic PowerBait Power Worm and Power Grub in 1989. The bass-busting cocktail of natural attractants was an overnight success, and spawned a long line of PowerBait products that fuel countless presentations worldwide.
Years of research and refinements yielded Berkley Gulp! in 2003. The water-based resins and water-soluble attractants saturate the surrounding area with scent, making them a natural for slow-moving presentations. Gulp! Alive! arrived shortly thereafter. "It's similar to Gulp!, except Gulp! Alive! is packed in natural juices that constantly recharge the bait," Jones explains.
Along with flavored baits, Berkley offers a number of attractants in dip, gel, spray, dust, and fluid formulations. Notably, the company's new Rotten Cheese Gulp! Alive! spray and liver-flavored Gulp! Alive! Marinade are a hit on the catfish scene. A squirt of cheese spray adds olfactory punch to a variety of sponges and catbaits, while the marinade is brewed for saturating these baits before deployment.
YUM remains a major player in the food-based scented softbait market. Its attractants, used in all baits except Money Minnows, rely on a trio of amino acids created by stressed baitfish. "There's no doubt the F2 formula encourages bass to strike and hold onto baits longer, so you can get a good hook-set," says company spokesman Lawrence Taylor. "Olfactory cues are one of the hurdles you must jump while a bass is determining whether it's going to strike or not. It's especially important when using slow-moving softbaits." For 2015, YUM brought five new baits to market, including the Sharp Shooter, a drop-shot and finesse worm offering all the supple, shapely features of hand-poured plastics without the sticker shock.
Northland Fishing Tackle's Impulse Instinctual Attractants utilize a baked-in micro-plankton formula that many anglers find effective on many species. I've used Impulse panfish baits such as the Scud Bug, on tight-lipped crappies, with notable improvements in catch rates over standard plastics. Television host and tournament organizer Chip Leer finds the Impulse family's effectiveness extends to largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, and more.
"Dragging tubes is a prime example," he says. "But even more stationary presentations, such as bulking up an RZ or Slurp! jighead with a 3- to 4-inch Smelt Minnow or other Impulse softbait shines in cold-water situations, when walleyes slide in and watch a bait, but don't open their mouths until they get a whiff of the attractant."
Some anglers swear by scents for faster-moving baits as well. Here, the idea is to create a scent trail, but it also involves getting fish to hold the bait longer once contact is made. For such applications, scented baits like Northland's new crankbait-style softie, the Paddle Shad, are standouts.
On a different front, longtime pork producer Uncle Josh offers a series of baits made from pork fat and other natural ingredients. The lineup was revamped last season, and expanded for 2015 with the Pork Baby Crawler, a downsized version of the 7-inch Pork Crawler that proved immensely popular with walleye anglers. This smaller bait is ideal for slow-death rigging and other presentations for finicky fish.
Though I live in Minnesota, I've spent considerable time fishing southern waters. Last year, for example, while on a press trip with Cabela's on Lake Fork, I learned a pair of valuable tricks. I shared a boat with crappie master Billy Rushing. A fixture on Fork, he often uses an 1/8-ounce leadhead tipped with a Larew Slab Slay'r spear-tail grub. His secret to success, however, is threading a single Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibble onto the jig hook.
"That bit of extra attraction can be important," he says. Sure enough, as we swam jigs over sunken brushpiles, jigs tipped with Nibbles consistently scored strikes while those without often were ignored.
I also fished with bassin' legend Tommy Biffle. While we conversed about our previous careers on Ford Plant assembly lines, the soft-spoken Oklahoman managed to teach me the effectiveness of his namesake presentation.
When designing Larew's Biffle Bug, Biffle insisted the soft-plastic, beaver-style bug have a hollow body for holding rattles and fish-attracting scent, such as the company's Biffle Bug Juice, which Tommy also helped bring to market. The gel is billed as an amino-acid based crawfish formulation, with garlic. And it was packed inside a Biffle Bug rattling across a midlake rockpile when a 10-pound Lone Star largemouth inhaled it on our final evening on Fork. Under the setting Texas sun, I found yet another reason to believe in the power of scents and scented softbaits.
Gulp! Versus PowerBait
Two of the biggest players on the scented softbait stage originated in Berkley's laboratories in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Berkley PowerBait dates to 1988, while Gulp! hit the American market in 2003. Despite the brands' long and proven track records, some confusion remains among anglers regarding which to fish, when.
"In simplest terms, PowerBait's ability to make fish hang on longer after striking makes it perfect for active presentations that appeal to fish hunting by sense of sight or lateral line," explains Dr. Keith Jones, kingpin of Berkley research since 1985. "Gulp! products, meanwhile, are designed to flood the strike zone with seductive scents, so they're better for slower presentations."
Arkansas bass pro Scott Suggs, who cashed a million-dollar paycheck using PowerBait at the FLW Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita, offers presentational guidance. "PowerBait is great on pressured lakes and whenever bass aren't in a biting mood," he says. While a 10-inch Power Worm was key to his Cup victory, Suggs fishes a variety of PowerBait designs, and is particularly fond of the Crazy Legs Chigger Craw on a football head jig.
For Gulp!, Suggs' favorite application is dropshotting smallmouths. He threads a 3-inch, olive-color Gulp! Leech on a #1 dropshot hook, 8 to 24 inches above a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce drop-shot sinker. "It's my favorite way to fish smallies, either drifting or directly beneath the boat," he adds.
Top walleye pro Mark Courts uses PowerBait and Gulp! in many of his strategies. "It's changed the way I approach walleye fishing," he says. Courts uses Gulp! baits all season, but notes their heightened value in cold water early and late in the year. One of his favorites is a 4-inch Gulp! Crawler on a slow-death-style rig, which he deploys throughout the open-water period.
When pitching or vertical jigging, he often selects a PowerBait 3-inch Twitchtail Minnow. "It has so much action, and is available in a variety of colors," he says.