Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


Information Page.

"The 'Magic Bait' syndrome"

The slim balsa floats rocked gently on the oily swell as the sun settled towards the western horizon. Ten feet below thin slivers of mackerel flesh jigged and wavered in the clear water, responding to every bob and curtsey of the floats. Les’s orange tipped balsa pencil ducked sharply and then stabbed beneath the surface. He struck with the smooth, confident motion borne of many years experience and the ‘Avon’ rod whipped over in to it’s battle curve. The clutch of his corrosion-pocked Mitchell fixed-spool reel buzzed smoothly and yards of 6lb line were dragged through the rod rings. After a few minutes of give and take I lifted the landing net from the sea and laid it on the stone jetty where a fine, fat, mackerel drummed it’s slim propeller on the cobbles.

Les unhooked the fish and added it to the six already in his “Safeways” carrier bag. I glanced at the small “pile” of two modest fish beside my own ex-army haversack and wondered, not for the first time, whether the pilchard oil, which Les used to anoint his baits, made any difference.

The feelings which I experienced during my mackerel fishing session are common to most anglers when they see someone else catching fish while they struggle to spot a bite on virtually identical tackle.

This feeling is what I call the “magic bait syndrome”, a widespread belief that the other chap must have some secret formula to account for his apparent success. In recent years the sales of scented solutions have increased rapidly at first in coarse fishing and lately in the marine field. The poor old pilchard oil now has to take a back seat behind the rows of bottles that contain “irresistible” combinations of chemicals (irresistible to some anglers at any rate). So perhaps it is worth taking a hard look at the principles of fish attraction by such substances.

Firstly, is it possible to tell when your additive is “working”? If you fished for wrasse with two rods; one baited with fish and the other with crab or worm it would soon become apparent which bait was catching, and which one wasn’t. However, it is not so easy to tell whether you have made a good bait better. Chance factors play a large part in determining whether a fish is caught on one rod or another. In consequence to detect an improvement in catches of 20 or 30 percent would be extremely difficult. It would certainly need many thousands of rod hours of properly controlled experimental fishing to prove that any additive resulted in more fish on the beach or in the boat.

Proof aside, what sort of effects should we be looking for in a prospective bait improver? The original idea in carp fishing was simply to make your bait stand out from those of your mates. By regularly feeding in baits flavoured with honey or vanilla or gravy salt or camel droppings it (apparently) proved possible to educate the fish into selecting flavoured baits. Assuming that this programmed education is not necessary (or even possible) in most sea angling situations, what is left?

Some fish find their food mainly by “smelling it out”. In others the sense of smell is of little significance. The “nose hunters” are mainly nocturnal and live in deep water where the light is poor. Baited video cameras lowered in to the deep sea (2000 metres) have shown that almost all the fish, including sharks of up to eight metres long, arrived by swimming upstream. In another experiment, American threadfin shad were shown to use scent as a means of detecting food “beyond the range of vision”.

These, and many other studies, have confirmed what anglers have known for years - that some fish sometimes find food sources by tracking down the source of certain smells. However, this is only part of the picture. Each species of fish has it’s own “personalised” scent fingerprints which it recognises as food. When under-water television, photography and baited fish traps were used to test the attractiveness of both natural baits and pure chemicals to fish: three of the species of fish tested preferred different compounds!

The fourth species, a hagfish feeding entirely by it’s sense of smell, was only attracted by natural baits. Once again there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that there is no single magic chemical.

Even complex mixtures of chemicals will not work for all species. In addition it is possible, even probable, that a particular bait additive will attract unwanted species (there are such things - surely nobody wants to catch bootlace eels or bullheads!!!!) at the expense of those sought. Little is known about the likes and dislikes of our more popular sea fish and, since one fish’s bait is another fish’s poison, concentrations of some chemicals may even repel the fish you are after.

Chemicals released by fish-food organisms are more than just attractors. Among the more important functions they may make the fish try to feed when it actually finds the food and they may stimulate the fish and give it an appetite, which is perhaps the most important feature of all. To sum up, natural food contains the correct combination of chemicals to attract, induce feeding and stimulate appetite. Concentrated essence of jollop can be useful for pepping up bait or in a few cases to enhance the attraction of artificials - but magic it aint.

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com


The 'Magic Bait' syndrome.


These fish will take a ragworm baited spoon as if it was their last meal.  Prawn and clam baits will also catch to some degree.  However, we have tried many other baits and even flavoured artificial bait without much success.


Bass are largely sight feeders.  They will, however, search for the source of scents particularly in coloured water or at night.


These fish may not be very interested in the scent of the bait.  I read years ago that they gollop down baits soaked in a variety of noxious substances.