How To Fish Stillwaters

August 4th, 2003

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

Smell Tracks

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

Why is it on any given body of water, at any given time, there are always a few fishermen who catch more fish than anyone else? Now I'm not talking about a few locals who are on the water daily, and have figured out some small nuances that separate the successful fishermen from the unsuccessful.

Neither am I talking about the electronic freaks who have their boats or float tubes completely covered with electronic gadgetry designed to take the skill out of reading water (yes, I do have a Buddy Two). I'm talking about those one-on-one situations where everyone on the water is comparably skilled and equally outfitted.

For example: A local fly fishing club has an outing on an area trout lake. Everyone is fishing the same general area. They are using the same sink-rate lines, the same test leader, tippets, and the same fly patterns (the successful angler has given just about everyone in camp his hot fly). But the most successful angler just keeps on catching fish, while other fishermen report only spotty results.

While the unlucky anglers may refer to this phenomenon as just plain "lucky," there is usually more to it than simple good fortune. Strange as it may seem, skill may also have had very little to do with it.

What one factor could have separated the have's from the have-nots?

A chemical called L-serine. The smell on your hands. I remember as a youth outfishing my father and his angling cronies on almost every trip we made. It got so bad it was embarrassing to my father's friends. Initially, Dad thought it was great. But when his fishing buddies quit inviting us on their fishing trips, my father suddenly found ways to avoid taking me along. At first I feared it had something to do with body odor...or bad breath. I now believe it had more to do with the odor on my hands (or lack thereof) than anything else.

Dad and I tried an experiment some years later at a popular western Idaho trout lake. I baited Dad's hook, he baited mine. He caught fish, I didn't. When we later baited our own hooks, things returned to normal. I caught more fish than he did.

Technically, L-serine falls into the category of compounds known as amino acids. The fact that amino acids have a high solubility in water reinforces the problem, because fish thus have the opportunity to detect this chemical.

While scientific studies have not confirmed my "positive" L-serine theory, I strongly believe it does exist. In his book, The Scientific Angler, author Paul C. Johnson writes, "Every time a fisherman casts and retrieves his line and lure, he leaves an invisible smell track. All humans have some level of L-serine in their skin oil; everything a fisherman touches contains a chemical remnant of L-serine plus anything else he may have had on his hands.

"What else?" Johnson writes. "Plenty: gasoline and motor oil, suntan oil and sunscreen, bug repellent, and nicotine, for smokers (my father was a heavy smoker), are all potential negative smell track generators.

Johnson goes on to describe the most common negative, neutral, and positive smell tracks. Every angler would do well to memorize this list.

    NEGATIVE SMELL TRACKS: L-serine (human skin oil), nicotine, petroleum and derivitives (gasoline and motor oil), suntan lotions, bug repellents, chemical plasticizers added to soften plastics, and perfumed soaps.

    NEUTRAL SMELL TRACKS: Alcoholic beverages, anise oil, natural vegitation (grass, leaves), human urine, chlorinated water and treated septic water, soda pop and fruit juices, nonperfumed soap and biodegradable detergents.

    POSITIVE SMELL TRACKS: Fish extracts - including herring oil, baitfish guts, fish slime (can also be a negative if the slime originates from a species offensive to the game fish being sought; e.g., the slime of a northern pike is negative to many species), natural bait (including juices from worms, frogs, crawdads, leeches and maggots), milk and some dairy products such as cheese, and human saliva.

An old time walleye guide described an experience he had observed on a top lake in Canada: Neither member of a husband and wife team had even had a bite during a morning of fishing. They went in for a shore lunch. Almost immediately when they went back out on the water after eating, the wife started catching walleyes.

The husband, using an identical line, lure, and technique, never got a strike. They began discussing why. It was finally determined that the only thing they had done differently, was she had smeared Oil of Olay on her face to prevent windburn. He tried it...and began catching fish.

What's in the stuff? Among other things, natural turtle oil.

For several years I've been routinely washing my hands several times a day when I'm fishing; with a good neutral (non-perfumed) biodegradable soap. Even if I "might" have a positive L-serine on my hands, I'm still not about to take any chances. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal, More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from Marv. You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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