How an under-appreciated sense can help your fishing.

Sharp, melon-like odor of fish may have led this angler to the baitslick above.

Rewind to the summer of 2010. In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Food and Drug Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service began employing highly sophisticated instruments to detect contamination in seafood products.

Tests conducted by experts showed oiled shrimp detectable at 1 to 12 ppm.

That’s right: Humans sat down and sniffed samples of shrimp. Authorities knew what they were doing. The human olfactory sense can detect oil in water as diluted as one part per million (ppm). The “sniff test” was much quicker and cheaper than chemical analyses costing $800 per sample and requiring several days.

Veteran anglers have long known to trust their noses—and for more than just verifying the edibility (or bait-worthiness) of shrimp. There are other ways, too, how sense of smell helps in fishing.

›› A few sniffs can detect faint gas or diesel fumes in a bilge. This particular sniff test is always a smart way to begin your day, and a critical safety procedure after refueling an inboard or I/O vessel.

›› Many saltwater anglers smell a school of menhaden or sardines before they start looking for them. Some say the smell is reminiscent of cantaloupe. Captain Chip Blackwell, who fishes the Miss Mary out of Mexico Beach, starts looking for schools of bait before they show up on his fishfinder. He then works upwind until he sees them on the surface or they mark on the screen. Bluefish or mackerel tearing through oily baits will magnify the melony scent.

›› In fresh water, most every bream fisherman contends he can locate bedding bluegills by the smell alone. It’s often described as a rich, musty, earthy smell.

›› An angler fishing in the back cove of a lake knows that the distinct smell of hydrogen sulfide gas—like rotting eggs—means that either that part of the lake has a lot of dead vegetation on the bottom, or their fishing partner had chili. In either case, it’s time to move the boat.

›› At the same time, that sulfurous odor in the mangrove bays of peninsular Florida indicates a healthy ecosystem. Where bacteria are breaking down the leaf litter, crabs and other small prey items are sure to be found. An especially strong “eggy” smell in this environment may be a sign of low oxygen, which means keep your eyes peeled for rolling or laid-up tarpon.

›› The sharp, gunpowder scent of dried bird poop is another one familiar to inshore fishermen. Pelicans and herons often roost near good fishing holes.

One problem with relating our sense of smell in fishing logs or among friends is a lack of descriptive vocabulary. We have dozens of terms for water color, sky patterns and other visual clues. And yet, the ability to detect four drops of oil in 50 gallons of water would be the equivalent of having high-powered binoculars for eyes.

Maybe it’s time we begin paying attention to what’s right under our noses? – FS

First Published Florida Sportsman magazine, April 2012.

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