Does scent matter for steelhead?

Posted: December 26, 2012 by Hellcat in Fish Reports, Fly Fishing, Gear Fishing, Out of Area, Salmon, Trout & Steelhead, Salmon, Trout & Steelhead, Warm Water
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I’ll take a quick shot at explaining, from my experience, whether masking the human scent matters or not when targeting steelhead. Again, Steelhead. This article isn’t a discussion of salmonid tendencies towards scent but independently of steelhead.

It should go without saying that most of us reading this article are aware of the importance of masking human scent when salmon fishing. Particularly when using bait. But does it matter when you are steelhead fishing also? I get this question more often than any other. Let’s take a peak at some possible explanations I have found through years of experience.

An angler attempting to chorale the elusive steelhead should understand a few things about the fish as they relate to behavior through the senses. While I will relate the sense of smell as it ranks next to the sense of sight….I will focus on the former and save the latter for another article. Although a comparison in some terms will be relevant.

Alas will come the inevitable question as to whether there is an inherent difference between ‘gloving up’ (use of nitrile gloves during baiting/angling) and not ‘gloving up’. Furthermore the question of adding oils, scents or pastes to steelhead baits…such as jigs….will also almost always come up.

Let’s take a peak at some perceived facts about steelhead I’ve acquired over the years…….

Steelhead behave differently than salmon. They are not the same fish. They are a difference creature all together. That being as it may…they are often lumped into the same categorization when subjects of discussion such as ‘scents’ or ‘human smells’ arises. Unfairly so. Why? For one, steelhead may or may not be returning to the ocean after it’s current fresh water experience. Behavior while in freshwater displays whether that fish will be returning to the salt or not.

Whether a fish is feeding for survival or attacking to protect territory can go a long way to tell you which destiny awaits each fish and leave you just as clueless about either. Salmon we know for certain are dying the moment they enter the freshwater. There is no second, third or forth journey yet to come. This one is it. Perhaps this is why a salmon are designed with such an undoubtedly superior smell system to that of a steelhead?

How do I know?

Behavior. I know, I know…again with the ‘behavior’. In all truth I believe a steelhead is hooked ninety percent of the time due to a visual stimuli that tricked it versus smell. Steelhead are curious creatures and they reach and grab with the only thing they can….their mouth. Think about the steelhead bite itself….short of a plug strike the angler will almost always describe the steelhead bite much different than that of a salmon bite.

I propose all of that goes back to the visual versus the smell propensities. All of this being said….and as it has been pointed out to me by my peers as I write this article….human beings secrete hormones(L-Serine is most commonly known) exclusive to those of carnivores/predators so why not just be better safe than sorry and ‘glove up’?

My own answer to the question has been to glove up during the times of bait use which falls under the ‘safe than sorry’ umbrella. And perhaps not be so concerned about smell transported to only a jig…or only a spoon..or spinner..or a plug. Thanks to a gift box of black nitriles from Russell Gilkey though I think I’ll use them all the time for a while.

*Let’s carry this article on in the comments section below.

*What perceived facts have YOUR own experiences given you from your times on the river?

  1. ed fast says:

    I’ve never been too big on scent. However, being careful to mask ours, be clean and/or add ascent that steelhead like doesn’t hurt and it just might help so why not do it? That’s my take.

  2. Hellcat says:

    Great take, Ed. I figured with the success you have consistently your feelings would be along this line…..

  3. Patrick Robinson says:

    I really don’t use any scents at all. I did for a bit and didn’t really notice an increase in productivity.The only masking of my scent I use is Ivory before I leave in the morning and I don’t wear gloves while baiting. I do the same for both salmon and steelhead and seem to get into a few of both. That being said my salmon season was pretty terrible but my steel has gotten of to a decent start so who really knows? To each there own is my take on scents.

  4. Hellcat says:

    Thanks, Patrick!

  5. Padron says:

    Good eggs do the trick some days…others I’ll go shrimp on a jig, but less concern than salmon.

  6. vasiliy strizheus says:

    Great article as usual. I havent done enough of my own testing to agree or disagree. All I know is they dont care how my spinners and spoons smell

  7. Hippie Kicker says:

    I think negative smells will play a role in catching or not . I have hooked steelhead with and without scents both gear and bait. Only time I do use scent is if water visibility is poor. I think they like to taste everything or mouth things in curiosity than smell. But what do I know I’m not a fish biologist lol.

  8. jason says:

    Interesting. Winter fishing i always tip my jig. sandshrimp tail or piece of raw or cured prawn meat. Never use scents or added oils for steelhead. However i always am washing hands and always wear gloves. Thats just my experience.

  9. Rod Cragg says:

    Great Job Mr. Heller, Your articles are simply a reflection of your own studious background … Keep up the great work..I always glove up when fishin’ , Just common practice for me..

  10. Hellcat says:

    Just wonderful feedback from everyone thanks so much guys!

  11. Chad W. says:

    Great article Heller, I learned something 🙂 . I’ve only plunked for Steelhead so far and used scent most of the time on my spin glo and shrimp tail. Now I won’t be upset if I forget to sent up or run out of scent, but I will keep using it when I have it. Thanks.

  12. Jered Sanchez says:

    Yo! I am a believer of better to be safe than sorry when it comes to glove use. However I don’t think we will ever have a true answer to the arguement. Because I have been on the both sides of the coin. I know and have seen people who are some of the most filthy people I know and have seen them hook ridiculous numbers of fish. I have seen the same from glove wearers. One thing I can say is I have spent countless hours targeting fish in water that had no fish in it. The number one most important thing is timing. Don’t waste time fishing water where there are no fish. Do research, no when and where to go. Then over the years develop a program of where and when to be on the water to give yourself the best chances. Get out and explore, don’t quit, and be patient. It will take time, but in the long run it will be worth it. It will fill the freezer and keep the fish coming.

  13. This is a difficult one for me as I have sometimes been super careful when fishing for Steelhead and caught none. Then there are the times where I have been smoking a cigarette and cutting bait with my bare hands and have caught them. To me it seems to be that in small rivers they don’t have as much time to inspect it and will hammer it in a reactionary way due to sight. Then again, I really don’t know.

  14. Mike K. says:

    In my experience sight comes before smell. i base this on the fact that while bobber fishing on the columbia and snake in nearly still water the scent(s) selection seems to matter to the fish. When fishing smaller rivers with more current it seems color makes the bigger difference. In slow or still water the fish have more time to decide whether to bite or not and smell can make the difference. In faster currents the fish have less time to decide so the scent or lack of isn’t as important. But as you said better safe than sorry

  15. Captain Jack says:

    I think Mike nailed it. flowing water using artificials such as spinners, jigs, and plastics. Pretty much anything presented at current speed probably does not require too much caution on scent masking. however pulling plugs or jig/bait fihing in still water one should probably be more carefull.

  16. Headrush says:

    “Glove it up” just to be safer than sorry is how I always look at it. Although scents never seemed to make much of a difference from my personal emperience. Like Mike said sight before smell if the presentation is good its game over…

  17. BHoov says:

    Scent always makes a difference IMO I always try and glove up or throw some stank on my gear just in case my flavor isn’t what they like especially people who smoke or chew need to be wary nicotine is no bueno for steel

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