A Discussion on Scent Response in Musky

A Discussion on Scent Response in Musky

Jodie Paul June 27, 2022

There are many scientific studies underway concerning movement, patterning and natural habitat of many freshwater fish of America’s lakes and river systems.  Though much more is known about the expanse of predatory fish in Earth’s oceans, now biological studies are catching up and many are focusing on the underwater habitats that grateful fishermen wish to understand.  

One topic rarely explored but always debated within the Musky community of anglers is beginning to see some light, but mainly in other species.  The topic of “Scent Response” seems to always come back around to sharks or catfish, but our favorite predatory fish is always hung out to dry.  In order to understand the recent uptick in scent-based products for fish, it is important to understand a bit about the biology of our underwater neighbors.

Freshwater fish have a pair of nostrils on either side of their face similarly to most other animals, called “nares”.  The nares are part of their olfactory system with one hole that takes liquids through a series of filters which eventually find their way out of a second hole.  It is during this process that fish of all kinds are able to “smell” the underwater world around them.  Because of the olfactory response, it adds more flavor to the water that each individual fish distinctly understands.

All types of freshwater and marine fish respond to various types of “odors” in the water, with responses varying across the spectrum as each species functions differently in the food/habitat chain.  What fish are generally looking for is pheromones (individual to species), digestive odors, and preferred food odors.  Odors in the water are made of water-soluble solutions.  So, before we go further, you may want to take that part into consideration.  If something isn’t water soluble, it will not dissolve or combine with water, like oil. 

So, what is each type of odor as it relates to a freshwater fishing environment.  Well, fish pheromones tell them when a fish is in distress (think fear sweating) or natural pheromones to tell a fish when to spawn.  Digestive odors come in the form of bile based amino acids.  These odors can be a result of heavy feeding windows in schooling fish as they are releasing their bowels into the water.  Food odors are identified by many species as preferred food smells, whether plant-based forage or live prey.

Not only do many freshwater species use their sense of smell to identify the world around them.  Some species use their olfactory senses as a homing device to help guide their migratory patterns.  So, now that we have the science out of the way, what does this have to do with musky fishing…

Well, use of scent-based product has been highly contested in the world of musky fishing since it’s inception.  Bass and catfish anglers are united in their use of spray, dip, and scented filled products with many tournament-winning fisherman praising scent tactics for their success.  In the freshwater arena, many would argue that catfish and odor go hand in hand as they live in a deep and dark environment, relying highly on scent to find food.

All things being equal, why are musky fisherman suspicious of the trial-and-error art of scent response in muskies?  Likely because no one has truly committed to the study.  Musky are ambush predators, meaning that they love to hide amongst weeds, reeds, rocks, and ledges to ambush unsuspecting prey.  Musky also strike when they aren’t hungry, when they are only annoyed, so you can expect anything flashy to most times catch their attention.  But what happens on stained lakes on dreary days.  Would this be an exception to driving more angler strikes?

Think of it this way, muskies can see fairly well, which is why they have perfected such an intense strike, but if you take this sense away, it leaves smell and feel      .  It seems to reason that late year fishing on dreary days is always well accomplished with live bait.  It is likely because in these occasions, muskies resort to their sense of smell to find something tempting in the water column.  And what is more tempting, something that makes some vibration but you can’t see it or something that smells like lambchops (to a human). 

There is no super science YET that tells us what muskies like best.  Do they prefer the smell of a crappie feeding frenzy, or the tang of perch potty? We might never know, but we can experiment with some types of scents to see if it affects fishing on the toughest days.  I have a feeling it might.  Take a scroll though the internet about what water soluble solutions might smell the most like Perch Slime and see if it makes sense to give your bait a dip, especially on days when the water is chocolate milk or if your preferred lake has a permanent coffee colored stain.  The debate is still open for more questions than answers, but it never hurts to become your own scientist to narrow down what makes our muskies tick.