A biologist's look at bass senses, part 3

In our final installment, we cover taste and smell

underwater bass
Photo courtesy of JerryMcKinnis.com

There is no doubt that bass rely heavily on their eyesight and lateral line for survival, but do scent and taste play a role as well? A lot of lure companies have certainly based their products on the fact that their stinky baits will catch more fish than the average competitor. However, bass are sight predators for the most part, so should you really be concerned if your lure smells or tastes good?

You bet ... though at times it may be more important than others.

Although the olfactory (odor-detecting) portion of the bass’ brain isn’t quite as large or well defined as a typical scent feeder like a catfish, they can smell, and scent does play a role in their feeding. Like with sound, fish are able to detect smells underwater far greater then the average human can in air.

While smell may dissipate quickly for humans in the surrounding atmosphere, it lingers much longer in water, and a fish can detect odors in far smaller quantities. Some fish, like salmon, can even smell their home stream from miles away, using scents as faint as one part per million to navigate to the same spawning stream where they were hatched.

Bass aren’t quite as perceptive (at least we don’t think so). However, like most fish, bass have nostrils on either side of the head. These nostrils contain an olfactory rosette that detects odorous chemicals and transmits them to the brain for translation. When visibility is poor, this ability to smell prey becomes much more important for survival. However, even when visibility is good, a finicky bass may be more enticed with a sweet smelling morsel than one that has no other special appeal.

So fish can smell, but can they taste what they eat? They certainly can, and in many fish the taste buds are quite developed. Like in humans, most fish have taste buds around the inside of the mouth and on the tongue. However, there are some fish that take their sense of taste to a whole new level. Obviously, catfish are among the most specialized. Their barbules (whiskers) are loaded with taste buds, allowing them to determine if they want to eat a morsel just by brushing it with their whiskers.

Bass don’t have barbules, and when you think about the differences between catfish and bass, you can understand why they don’t need them. As we have already discussed, bass are sight predators and use their vision as the primary sensory tool to locate and capture prey. Catfish, on the other hand, don’t see as well and have to rely on their highly developed sense of smell and taste to locate food. Although a bass doesn’t rely as heavily on taste as a catfish, flavor still plays a role in a bass’ feeding activity.

So, as an angler, how does knowing about a bass’ sense of taste help you to catch more fish? Obviously, hard baits generally have immediate hooking ability with the standard treble hook configurations. However, bass have an opportunity to inhale a soft plastic and scrutinize it a bit more. They can sometimes do it so subtly that you don’t even know they have it. If they don’t like the way it feels or tastes in their mouth, they can just as quickly spit it back out. If you’re getting a lot of hits on your favorite soft plastic, but there’s nothing there at the hook set, you might want to experiment with flavored scent sprays. That’s all it may take to get them to hold it a second or two longer and allow you to connect next time.

The bottom line is that bass can smell and taste. It may not be as important for an angler as lure selection or presentation, but it could mean the difference between catching a limit and being skunked.

Originally published January 2011

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