Hooked on women

Fish find human females sexy - and that’s official. For the government is backing a fish bait based on female pheromones, much to the horror of British anglers, who appear to have been boycotting the product since its launch last autumn.

Ultrabite was hailed as "the first government-approved and scientifically proven fish attractant" when it came on the market. Managing Director John Loftus, who promised "great things for retailers" at the product launch, also announced that Ultrabite was set to "revolutionise the tackle trade".

But fishermen are not letting female pheromones interfere with their tackle. "When it came out folk were interested," says Glasgow Angling Centre. "It was mainly sea anglers and coarse fishermen trying it out as a mix with their other bait, but sales have tailed off since then."

Staff at Mike’s Tackle in Portobello are amused by the attitude of fishermen. "You feel like you have to put it on a high shelf. It’s like the days when men asked their barber for ‘something for the weekend’ - no angler wants to be seen buying it."

Game angling instructor Ian Moutter adds: "I saw the stuff when it came out and I chuckled . I knew game fishermen wouldn’t go for it - and they haven’t."

Mouter says he’s travelled all over the United Kingdom this season and only come across one person using Ultrabite.

" He smeared it on some of the flies and it didn’t appear to make a difference, but the fishing in that area was lousy anyway, so who knows if it works or not? Nobody in my world is interested - it’s the skill and challenge they go for and they don’t want to make it easy on themselves."

John Loftus finds the situation "quite ridiculous. As far as anglers are concerned it’s still going to take a great deal of skill to produce the trail, and hook and land the fish. They’re not going to come walking out of the water with their fins up."

The theory - spawned by a Scottish fisherman who said he caught more fish when fly-tying included pubic hair from his wife - was based on the idea that fish were attracted to female pheromones.

Scientist George Dodd, who is based in Wester Ross, put 30 years’ experience in scents research into testing the idea. Impressed, he contacted what was then the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries about carrying out further experiments.

"We were already working on a government programme on how pollution affected reproduction in fish and we’d been studying fish pheromones," says Andy Moore, a scientist with the government’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture (CEFAS). "We had already patented a product called Factor X that triggered a feeding response in carp and when we saw Dr Dodd’s core formula, with its human sex pheromone, it added the attractant needed to move the fish towards the food source."

Laboratory testing found a formula that yielded good results, and CEFAS joined forces with Kiotech - a private company set up by Dr Dodd - to market the product. But they reckoned without fishermen . Anglers were virtually crossing themselves and waving garlic.

"Ultrabite? " says David Mackay, President of Scottish Anglers National Association (SANA). "We know it exists, but it’s had no mention in the angling press and we represent 170 clubs and around 30,000 anglers. It’s never been discussed at any of our national meetings and if fishermen were substantially increasing their catches because of something like that, then word would get round like a shot.

"We have a huge number of members, from beginners to international standard, with plenty of excellent women , including our former president. They put their successes down to natural aptitude, rather than hormones, I may add."

George Holdsworth, chairman of Scottish Stillwater Fisheries, admits to both having seen and handled Ultrabite.

"It stinks to high heaven, and you can’t get it off your skin and clothes, which is offputting for a start, but we just don’t use it. Apart from artificial fish attractants being a danger to stillwater stocks, the whole idea of fly fishing is to use your skill to dupe a fish into following an imitation fly. I question it even works, because Trout Fishing magazine tried a test with two guys using it and two guys not using it. One of the guys using it caught more fish, but he always caught more fish anyway."

Ultrabite is unbowed: "We know it’s selling well, despite what fishermen try to maintain," says a company spokesman. "No ethics have been compromised. It’s natural, completely harmless and breaks down in 12 hours. All this fuss by anglers just shows how well it works."

Female anglers are right behind the men when it comes to the product, which is banned from contests. "The whole point of angling is to develop skills," says retired SANA president Jane Wright. "Otherwise it is no longer a sport, it’s fishmongering". She attributes her success to pure skill, not biological advantage. "I’m a retired lady, so I can say quite unequivocally that I rely entirely on skill.

"If there was any basis behind any of it, it was a purely natural occurrence, quite different from this blatant profiteering. This is like athletes taking steroids. "

Another professional woman angler would only provide her own insight on condition she was not named. "When this stuff about the guy fly-tying with female pubic hair came out I thought all this was hilarious and I didn’t believe a word of it - until one night we’d been having a bit of a bevy after a competition and we were feeling sorry for one old guy who’d had abysmal catches that day. So I said, ‘Right. I know what’ll fix it,’ and I went into the toilet and removed my underwear, sneaked it into his tackle box and removed it the next morning when he was at breakfast. I’d sobered up and I felt a right idiot, but the old guy had a really successful day. I never knew what to make of that."

Angling broadcaster Fiona Armstrong says Ultrabite never seemed to work for her, but she’s keeping an open mind. But she notes: "The biggest fish caught on rod and line in British waters was a 64lb salmon on the Tay, caught by a Miss Ballantine, and the biggest catch using fly was also by a woman, Clementina Morrison. Both were excellent, experienced anglers. If it had been men who caught the biggest fish, would anyone have looked for the reason ? Of course not."