Bob Boese, Louisiana

January 12th, 2009

Fish Perfume
By Bob Boese, Louisiana

During their Empire days, the British were infamous for military clashes across the globe. Unfortunately for the Brits, most of these were very costly in men and equipment. Nevertheless, staunch in their 19th Century beliefs that proper rules of engagement and honor must be part of gentlemanly conflicts, the old guard thinking prevailed and troops often suffered disastrous defeats. From the slaughter at the Battle of New Orleans (2000 casualties) to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War (40% casualties) the best and bravest died. You'd think they'd learn, but no. Next came Khartoom (11,000 military and civilian dead, albeit mostly Sudanese troops) and the Boer War's Battle of Majumba (70% casualties or captured) where the concept of honor and valor prevailed, and produced staggering losses. Hindsight shows that other strategies were usually available — different approaches that might have brought better results. But Brits are steadfast, even unto death.

Meanwhile, a battle no less virulent was being waged on the chalk streams of England. Led by flyfisher F.M. Halford, the dry fly purists became adamant and unwavering in their belief that fish a wet fly was a vile and loathsome practice — even though there were seasons when dry flies met with humiliating defeat. On the other side of the conflict, author G.E.M.Skues promoted nymphing and fished to great and consistent success with soft hackles, wets and emergers, much to the chagrin of the Halford crowd.

Today there are still Englishmen who are reactionary purist dry fly fishermen, and who curse the hoards of nymphing blasphemers. They condemn silver tongued angling devils who seduce the minds of the unlearned fishing masses and fill these innocents' heads with thoughts of glorious rewards without suffering. The British purist knows that anguish and distress guard the only honest path to piscatorial salvation. For the true believer, misery and torment must precede success. Wretchedness is the normal state of being.

Americans heard the purists' fire and brimstone warnings and decided…sometimes you just need to do what works.

A cold day in January and an expert fisherman is puzzled by a particular pond. He has the latest equipment and the finest lures, has perfected the most complex fishing skills, yet has yet to catch any fish. A young boy he regularly sees at the pond catches fish continually. After more hours of no fish, the expert is completely frustrated. Finally, he approaches the boy and asks for the secret to catching fish in this pond. The boy spits a brown mouthful into his hand and says "You've got to keep the worms warm."

Bass and bluegill have a very acute sense of smell and can detect a few parts per million of a scent many yards away. They have nostril looking holes called nares, two on each side of the mouth, that bring water into an inner chamber lined with sensory pads (chemoreceptors). When a fish moves water is forced over the pads and when quiet they can force water over the pads with muscle movement. The chemoreceptors pick up chemical signals and transmits them to the frontal lobes of the brain, which interprets the signal and the fish responds. Bass and bluegill can smell their "home" portion of a lake much as ocean species can smell the unique trace of their home reef and salmon can smell their home river. They know what nature smells like. For fly fishermen, a serious problem has been created by the universe of modern flies — where many have no parts that nature created. What replaced nature is nylon based threads, chemically processed fiber dubbing and chenille, plastic and metal tinsel and hair, rubber and silicone l egs, foam, wire, glues and varnishes. None of these smell like fish food and many contain smells that repel bass and bluegill. Gasoline is reputed to be the most repulsive, followed closely by solvents — like those found in glue and head cement. Of course there is the amino acid L-Serine, found in humans and immediately identifiable as a bad thing by bluegill and bass. Human skin emits L-Serine odor and can (inevitably will) transfer this to a modern fly. The result is, when bad things combine, the fly might actually repel fish. Fortunately, there are items available to fly fishermen that counteract negative influences. These go by the odious name of "attractants" and no purist fly fisherman will use them for fear of eternal fishing damnation.

Reverend Johnston, a temperance leader and an angling purist, was fishing a royal coachman when he encountered a man who had suffered a heart attack and lay dying on the bank of the stream. His line still in the water, the man had hooked a 22" trout which was lolling in the water, still hooked to a bead head prince. Peeking out of pockets in t he dying man's vest were two cigars, a pint of bourbon, a fly box filled with nymphs and a spray bottle of fish attractant. In a loud voice the Reverend demanded: "These are tools of Satan. Denounce these devilish things! Let him know what you think of his evil!"

The dying man said nothing.

The minister repeated his order.

Still the dying man said nothing.

Johnston then asked, "Why do you refuse to denounce the devil and his evil tools?"

The dying man answered, "Actually, until I know where I'm heading, I don't think I ought to aggravate anybody."

Whether the title "attractants" is an accurate description, and if these add-ons actually send out positive odors to fish (enzymes, hormones and pheromones) is still in the maybe category. But, consider this: how do purists combat repulsive odors? What do you do when fish can identify predators by scent and will easily notice the presence of unnatural chemicals from humans such as L-serine, sun tan lotions, insect repellents, tobacco, soap, oils, fuels, and glues and varnishes used to make fishing flies? Well…uh…you know, sometimes sinners have all the fun.

Harry, a fishing purist, and Chuck, a nymphing blasphemer, were neighbors and argued constantly over Chuck's blasphemous fishing methods. Chuck, it seems, had developed a highly successful fish attractant known as Catch-Mo-Fish.

One morning Harry was walking along a steep cliff on his way to an isolated high mountain stream, when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight for more than a thousand feet. Knowing he couldn't hang onto the branch forever, and that there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff, he began yelling for help, hoping for a miracle, that someone might be passing by and would hear him. He yelled for a long time, and was about to give up when he heard a voice echoing off the hillsides singing the Catch-Mo-Fish attractant jingle. (From a popular ad using the tune to 'Macho Man'.)

"Catch-Mo Catch-Mo-Fish
I'm gonna go and Catch-Mo-Fish
Catch-Mo Catch-Mo-Fish
I wanta go and Catch-Mo-Fish."

"Help!" Harry yelled.

The singing stopped. "Hello?" came the reply.

"Can you hear me?"


"Help! I'm down here!"

Chuck's head appeared over the edge of the cliff wearing a cap with a Catch-Mo-Fish logo. "I see that. Hi, Harry."

"Oh, Chuck. Thank goodness. Can you help me?

"Sure. I probably have a rope. Hang on for another minute."

There was a long pause and the sound of activity on the top of the cliff. Harry felt his grip slipping. "Please hurry."

"I'm coming."

"Chuck, help me! I'll promise you anything if you'll save me from here."

"Well…," the end of a rope appeared. How about you promise to try my Catch-Mo-Fish?"


There is no argument that fish attractants can neutralize unwanted negative scents. What works best for bass and bluegill seems to be anise, garlic, grape, worm, shad and crawfish scents. Most of these are designed to aid in catching bass and larger predator fish. Although only BaitMate advertises a panfish product, attractants can be made at home with mineral oil and added scents from the spice aisle, and eliminating human scents will help in panfish catches as well. Field tests with double dropper rigs of identical flies have shown that an attractant treated fly outfishes the untreated fly by a factor of 4 to 1. Amazingly, because the world if full of surprises, WD40 is a great attractant and now comes in a felt tip dispenser.

Meanwhile, like the hard-headed Brits, the purist scoffs and turns a deaf ear, while purist wives spread false rumors to confuse the masses.

    Wive's Tale #1: When you catch a fish, the smell of the fish you caught on the fly will mask other scents. Actually, the substance schreckstoffen is released from a fish's skin when flesh is broken and this frequently elicits a fear and flight reaction in similar fish. After catching a fish you fly is possibly less attractive to other fish. At least one attractant, YUM, uses a similar scared shad smell to lure aggressive predators and is not appropriate for attracting panfish.

    Wive's Tale #2: Man-made fly tying materials don't smell. Actually, many of these materials are petroleum based and petroleum products are among the most repulsive to fish. Even natural materials which are packaged or stored in plastic bags can pick up odors from the packaging.

    Wive's Tale #3: Washing your hands gets rid of repulsive odors. Only half true, washing with some floral scented soaps can make things worse. Washing with natural scented or unscented soap (Ivory is good) will wash repulsive odors from human hands.

    Wive's Tale #4: Using fish attractant is illegal. Simply false, even on the most restrictive gold medal fly fish only catch-and-release waters, no prohibition against attractant on flies has been found.
    Publisher's note: It is always wise to check your local regulations. Better safe than sorry.

    Wive's Tale #5: Using fish attractant ruins the action of the fly. Only half true. Using an oily attractant on a dry fly hackle can ruin the action and sink the fly. Don't do that. Attractant on a wet fly or nymph will have no negative effects. Some attractants come in colors and should be avoided as they will discolor anything (flies, clothes, fingers) — especially the red colored attractants.

    Wive's Tale #6: Fish attractants can hurt the finish on rods and deteriorate fly line. Heavy application may cause oil spots on a cork handle and cause some discoloration, but no other adverse effects should occur.

    Wive's Tale #7: You have to coat the entire fly with attractant. Actually, selective application on a fly will suffice to release attractants while masking most other smells. Use a spray bottle or place drops (with a needle or bodkin) on the body of a fly.

    Wive's Tale #8: Attractants can get rancid on your fly. Only half true. Some attractants with natural products (fish and vegetable oils) will eventually get rancid, but most attractants wash off with fishing and a brief rinsing before returning a fly to a fly box should resolve this issue. One product, KICK'N BASS is particularly difficult to remove from baits, which is not so good in your fly box but is normally considered a plus in other fishing applications.

    Wive's Tale #9: Fish attractants are poison to humans. No, but probably won't do you any good. Some fish attractants contain "not for human consumption" warnings, but not poison warning labels.

    Wive's Tale #10: Other fly fishermen will hate you for using attractant. Only half true, the other half will hate you for catching more fish than they do.


    4 oz. plain mineral oil (do not use scented oils or vegetable or olive oil)

    1 tsp anise oil or extract

    1tsp garlic oil or extract

Combine the ingredients. Put in a squeeze bottle and place a drop on each wet fly used. ~ Bob

About Bob:

Robert Lamar Boese has fly fished for five decades. He is an environmental negotiator, attorney and educator who has provided environmental legal services for more than thirty-three years including active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Justice. He is a well known fly tyer with several unique patterns to his credit. He has developed and authored federal and state regulatory programs encompassing a broad spectrum of environmental disciplines, has litigated environmental matters at all levels of the federal and state court systems, and is a qualified expert for testimony in environmental law. He has authored over 60 published text chapters, comments or articles on environmental matters, is a member of the Colorado, District of Columbia and Louisiana Bar Associations, and is a certified mediator. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Boese has been a high school teacher, an associate professor of Environmental Law and Public Health, has authored numerous fiction and sports publications, and is a softball coach and nationally certified volleyball referee. He is the president of the Acadiana Fly Rodders in Lafayette, Louisiana and editor of Acadiana on the Fly. He has been married for thirty years and is the father of two fly fishing girls (25 and 21). For additional information contact: Boese Environmental Law, 103 Riviera Court, Broussard, LA 70518 or call 337.856.7890 or email

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