Fly fishing is an ever-evolving sport with an ever-evolving set of rules, conventions and ethics which accompany it. In most areas of the world, what anglers consider everyday fly fishing tactics and techniques have traveled great distances from the dry-fly-cast-upstream-only ethics of England's 19th century chalk streams. Wherever the boundaries of fly fishing lie at one particular time or another, one thing that is certain is that anglers are always looking for ways to push the envelope. Currently, the use of added scents in fly fishing is a controversial topic. Some anglers have chosen to add scented gels and floatants into their arsenal with the simple goal of getting into more fish. Certain scents are known to attract fish and may also be useful in covering up natural and unnatural human odors that may repel fish. Others have been critical of this approach, most often citing the notion that the use of scents takes the "fly" out of "fly fishing", rendering flies little more than new forms of bait. Other opponents flat out call it cheating.
So, what's the reality? Are scents a way of cheating your way into more fish without developing your skills as an angler? Or are they a new and innovative way of expanding the boundaries of our sport that, in time, will be looked upon as a commonly used tactic not unlike other formerly new methods and techniques that were once considered taboo?
We reached out to some of our favorite people in the world of fly fishing (as well as folks that happen to know a thing or two about it) and asked them.
Using scent is not "cheating," it is just another method of attracting fish to the fly. However, most fly fishers eschew the use of scent because they view fly fishing as using artificials that are widely separated from bait, and one of the attractions of bait, of course, is the scent. Most think that scenting the fly would not be any different than bait fishing. Fly fishers seem to want the fish to accept the reality of the fly by its looks, rather than by its smell.
Fly fishing, we must remember, is not a sport developed by the fish. It is totally a human activity with human limitations as to the type of lure and type of tackle. So, to scent or not to scent? If you do, probably best to keep it to yourself, at least at this time juncture.
I guess it really boils down to each angler's personal views. I messed around a little bit with smelly jelly scent attractor on some flies a few years ago and I honestly couldn't see any difference in hookups over non-scented flies, that is for trout at least. Is it borderline cheating? I think most would say, yes. On the other hand, people use artificial rattles and blades (for sound and flash) in flies to add attraction, and despite them not being a natural tying material, no one seems to have a problem with it. People also us UV sprays to enhance the natural colors of flies, and no one has a problem with those either.
When you look at scent attractors used on flies it's really just another way to stimulate one or more of the senses fish use to help them determine whether what they're looking at is a food item or not. I'm not going to look down on someone doing it, but I don't think you'll ever see it legalized in competitions. I once heard of a guide putting fish food in a zip lock bag with his flies overnight before his guide trip the next day for stocked trout. Would I ever do that? Hell no, that's the definition of cheating and half ass guide, but you may find me pricking my skin with the hook to dab some blood on my shark fly if I was fun fishing and the sharks weren't cooperating.
This is something to be decided by each angler. I have clients that would cringe at this idea and others that just want to feel the tug on a fly rod no matter how it works. I generally believe that the art of tying a fly is to make it look good enough and move correctly enough in the water to entice a fish to eat and scent shouldn't be added because if it is then those things don't really matter. An example of that is guys catching fish on scented baits when spin fishing that look and move nothing like what they should if at all. On the other hand if a guy just wants to feel the tug I understand that too.
If an angler abides by all local stream regulations/laws (some protected trout streams prohibit the use of any natural or man-made addition that attracts based on scent or taste), I see nothing wrong with using scented products on flies. In fact, it should be embraced; as anything that puts more fish on a beginner's line and instills confidence is a good thing.
It is to be expected that most purists will be disgusted and consider it blasphemous to even suggest the use of scents, but fly fishing is slowly adopting and embracing some of tactics employed by our "conventional fisher-friends." One needs to look no further than the most recent "Product Issue" of Angling Trade to find three different fly patterns (think Crank Bait and Spinner Bait) that look more at home in a tackle box than on a fly patch (Schmidterbait , Game Changer, and the Schmidterbug). The use of UVF and UVR tying materials is yet another method adopted from the conventional arsenal that is just beginning to gain ground as anglers are educated on how fish see and perceive their prey.
The experimentation of scents on flies has probably been around as long as the sport itself, though very few will openly admit to it. There are hundreds of forum topics through-out the interwebs that tip-toe around the topic including: "Second-hand" stories of "old-timers" rubbing Skoal spit on streamers, smearing Cheetos (pun intended) residue on a dry fly, and soaking egg patterns in fish oil.
Whether you rub your fly in stream muck, use products that contain "odor-masking pheromones to hide human scent," use conventional bait scents or processed cheese products; it certainly could be perceived as "cheating" depending on where you draw the line and which side you find yourself on.
Editor's note: High Horse manufacturers and sells premium fly floatant in various configurations, including traditional, scented and UV-infused.
I use scent. I have no problem with scent. There certainly are those who look down upon people who use scented flies but there are definitely times where it makes a huge difference especially with carp and pressured steelhead.
One of my favorite stories about scent is one time when I was fishing with [a client] for carp in Lake Champlain. The fish were being snotty and after a bit he turns around to me and says "ya got any jizz to put on the flies?" I did, and anise made the difference.
I just have no issue with it. It is legal, it is available. It isn't live bait. It still doesn't replace a good cast or a good presentation, but instead gives a bit of advantage in a pinch with difficult fish. I don't use scent often and only with fish that are being really difficult or if water is very high and muddy.
Honestly I think that if more people would come down off their high horse and stop worrying about things like scent or considering buggers to be cheating they would enjoy our sport more. Let folks do what they do as long as it is legal where they are fishing. The rest of it is just semantics.
We all draw a personal line in the sand on what we define as fly fishing. Some anglers believe if you're not fishing dry flies upstream to rising fish with a bamboo rod you're not fly fishing. (I'm not one of them.) Personally, I have thought about using sent on my flies more than once. My motivation is not to attract the fish as much as to cover up human scent, gasoline, sunblock or that funky aroma marabou gets over time. I've never crossed that line simply because in my mind, fly fishing is about the process more than the end product.
In short, we choose to fly fish because it's challenging. Right? By scenting our flies that philosophy changes. If production is truly what we seek, and we're willing to cross the line of scent, why not just use a spinning rod?
I don't think it's "cheating" unless fishing regulations expressly forbid scents, but I think it's a crutch. To me, the appeal of fly fishing is being able to hook and land fish with "minimalist" resources. If you're at a point where you think "glugging" flies is going to make or break your day, you probably have other issues with your fly-fishing skills that are more worthy of attention.
That said, who am I -- or who is any angler for that matter -- to insist what is fair and what is foul? Seriously, we use bobbers but call them strike indicators. Is a "spoon fly" a fly at all, or is it really a lure? Are foam flies, or bead rigs, or things that aren't made of fur, thread and feathers really flies? Maybe not in the traditional sense, but they sure work.
When it comes to fishing, I try not to judge anyone but myself. I'm in favor of letting people choose their own means to find fulfillment in fly fishing. So long as they play by the regulations. Whether you think a good day is catching 50 trout with a San Juan worm and a bobber, or tricking one wild brown with a size #20 dry fly, or even scenting your flies… I say go for it. After you land enough fish, your own parameters of fair and foul tend to adjust themselves.
Where do you stand on the use of scents in the world of fly fishing? Is anise, shrimp or any other scent currently in your fly box? Will it ever be? Share your thoughts in the comments below.