Selecting Soft Plastics: Color Matters!

With a dizzying array of shades to choose from, even experienced bass anglers sometimes have difficulty selecting the right soft-plastic bait. Here are some guidelines that can cut through the confusion.

Photo by Brian Sak

by Brian Sak

Soft-plastic baits have been considered a standard in bass fishing circles for as long as I can remember, but thanks in part to a relatively new breed of cigar-shaped twitch baits that are becoming increasingly popular, these creepy-crawler-type lures are more widespread than ever. The key to the success of soft plastics is their versatility: You can fish them slow or fast and shallow or deep, and through open water or thick cover. And, of course, they catch bass!

The prevalence of soft plastics, however, doesn't mean that you'll catch fish by threading any old bait onto your hook. Even when bass are aggressive and fattening up for winter, you'll have to match the soft plastics you cast to the conditions you find on the water to fool fish consistently.

Confusion is often associated with selecting soft plastics, but sorting through the wide variety of shapes and sizes isn't the problem - it's picking colors that'll drive you nuts.

Walk into the soft-plastics section of a well-stocked tackle shop, and the importance of knowing what you want will impress itself on you forcefully. Baits sporting hundreds of color choices ranging from single solid hues to those with multi-tone translucent bodies wedded to contrasting tails are for sale. To add still more to the mix, manufacturers often add from flashy flakes - sometimes several colors of them - to the plastic.

Stock your tackle box with every color, and you'll need a wheelbarrow just to get to the water. That's great for wheelbarrow and worm manufacturers, but not so good for your bank account. Of course, you don't want to skimp, either. What would happen if you were at your favorite lake and didn't have that special color that bass were devouring on that particular day?

Successful anglers learn to compromise between not having enough different baits and having too many. And if you understand a few things about color, you can do the same.

WHY COLOR MATTERS
Historically, bass anglers have gravitated to either of the two ends of the range of attitudes towards fishing soft plastics: those who feel that brown, black and purple are all that they need, and those who spend more time searching through boxes of different colors than they do fishing. Today the majority of us will fall someplace between the extremes, often wondering whether we carry too few or too many choices.

Here's the question: Does color really matter? You can look to fish themselves for the answer.

Fish, or at least various parts of their bodies, come in a rainbow of colors. Bass are shades of green, with some species having fins approaching red. Sunfish run the gamut of greens, reds, blues, yellows and oranges. Most catfish are gray to black. Salmonids range from silver to bright red. If color hadn't been important to their survival, countless years of evolution would have resulted in all species looking roughly the same.

In addition, scientists have found, the eyes of fishes have rods, cones and a pigment called melanin, which means that fish can see color. Bass even have a mechanism built into their eyes giving them the ability to detect differences in contrast (dark versus light) - an asset when water clarity is poor.

When asked how much emphasis should be placed on color when choosing soft plastics, professional angler Mark Tyler points out that anglers shouldn't underestimate their importance. "Selecting proper colors can give an angler a big advantage over other fishermen and the bass themselves," he asserted, "making it as important a variable as retrieval speed and where to fish."

COLOR IN WATER
Color does matter, then - but which specific color or colors will matter most? When selecting soft plastics to throw, it's important to know which colors are actually visible to bass in their underwater world.

Sunlight is composed of different wavelengths of light, each corresponding to a specific color. If you want bass to see your bait, the wavelengths of the colors in it must be present in the light. This isn't a problem when looking at your baits out of the water; there, unfiltered sunlight makes your soft plastics look vibrant. Unfortunately, that's usually not the case below the surface, where light gets filtered.

Water is transparent, but it's never pure; it always contains suspended and dissolved particles that filter and absorb light passing through it. In most bodies of water, this effect blocks the majority of the light, and thus color, in the first 5 feet.

To complicate things, water itself absorbs different wavelengths of light at different rates, so some parts of the spectrum penetrate deeper than do others - a critical factor to consider when choosing a bait. The depth and order in which colors disappear will depend on the amount and type of suspended and dissolved materials, and no two bodies of water are alike. That's why different lakes, even those in the same region, are better fished with one bait rather than another.

It takes time on the water to learn what baits are most visible in every situation, but there are general guidelines that will help you pick colors.

In clear water, reds and oranges are often the first to fade, while greens, blues and purples still show themselves in the greatest depths. Because visibility is good in these conditions, most colors are perceptible down to at least 20 feet. When water becomes stained, however, the pattern shifts to a quick reducing the effect of blues and purples, leaving greens and yellows dominant in the deepest waters. Little color is visible below a few feet in the muddiest waters, with oranges and browns usually the most visible.

MATCH THE HATCH ... OR NOT
So now you understand that color matters, and you have a selection of hues to meet every situation. How do you pick a color to try?

Tyler feels that matching the hatch is the way to go. "Ultimately, we're trying to trick bass into eating something they think is real," he explained, "and the main thing I take into consideration is the forage bass are eating." Casting crawdad patterns when bass are chasing schools of shad will only reduce your odds of success.

After you figure out what the bass are dining on, choose a soft-plastic bait that approximates the forage. Try light-colored plastics when bass are eating ba

itfish and darker colors when crawdads are their fare. Tyler also recommends opaque hues on overcast days or when the water is dark, and translucent plastics on sunny days when the water is clear.

Tyler prefers multiple-color baits - whether they're made of plastics of different colors or of a single color with contrasting flakes - for attempting to mimic naturally occurring prey. "I've never seen anything in nature that has no variation and is one solid color," he observed. In addition to looking realistic, plastics made with two or more colors take advantage of a bass' ability to recognize gradations between light and dark.

Unnatural-looking soft plastics will in certain situations outproduce baits that look realistic. Sometimes that's due to conditions that are obvious, while at other times there seems to be no logical reason for the behavior of your quarry.

"If water clarity prohibits you from using a natural shad pattern, even when you know they're (bass) primarily feeding on shad," said Tyler, "you need to use common sense and adjust." Adapting to conditions is something you always have to be ready to do, but rather than go to the other extreme, Tyler suggests that you find a happy medium.

Exotic soft-plastic colors like Merthiolate, blaze orange, bubblegum and even white also have their place in your tackle box. "A lot of times we get that good old thing called a reaction bite," offered Tyler. "I call these colors my 'red-flag baits' - it's like waving a red banner in front of a bull." Wildly-hued plastics may not look realistic, but a bass's first instinct to kill makes them worth carrying.

CONFIDENCE AND EXPERIMENTATION
There are no sure things in bass fishing, but having confidence in your baits is a big step toward success. You're more likely to catch fish this fall by giving your color choice a chance. Even when fishing unfamiliar waters, Tyler recommends, stick with your selection for at least an hour. "Then, if the color hasn't produced," he said, "change it."

Keep things simple. "Each year I try to simplify more and more," Tyler remarked, "and as I gain confidence in certain colors I weed a lot of baits out of my tackle box." He usually hits the water with a half-dozen different colors for each style of plastic he uses, maybe increasing to eight colors for his favorites.

If you run across colors that entice you, pick up a few to experiment with. "But at the end of the year," cautioned Tyler, "weed them out if you have no confidence in them." If you were to leave every bait in your tackle box, your next purchase might really be a wheelbarrow.



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