Color Me Caught

Anglers often sport big tackle boxes so they can carry their favorite lures in a wide variety of colors. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)

If you’re like me, the lures in your tackle boxes exhibit a kaleidoscope of colors. Some of my boxes contain only one lure type—spoons, for example, or jigs. However, none of these boxes contain lures in only one or two colors. No matter what artificial I’m casting, I have a rainbow of colors from which to choose, and every angler I know is similarly equipped.

A reasonable person might wonder if all these colors actually are necessary. Can fish really distinguish different hues?

I’m convinced they can. Fish have just flat told me they want a particular color in preference to another on too many occasions. Let me cite some examples.

I was crappie fishing with a friend recently, and my friend began catching nice fish on a jig with a red head and yellow body. I knew the color lure he was using but didn’t use the same color because I wanted to know if that specific combination was the only one the panfish wanted. My buddy said I was just being hard-headed, but I ignored his chiding and tried various other colors: red with chartreuse, pink with yellow, orange with yellow and more. Some differences were very subtle, others contrasty. But I didn’t catch a single crappie until I offered precisely the same color combo—red head, yellow body—my friend was using.

Here’s another example. While bass fishing, a friend and I thought we might get skunked. We had tried darn near every color and type of lure we had and failed to catch fish. I was down to just two lures I hadn’t tried—a weedless, silver spoon and a beat-up plug. I opted for the spoon. And blam! On the first cast, a 3-pound bass nailed it.

Ten more casts produced two more bass. My friend took notice and looked to see if he had a similar spoon. He did. In fact, it was the exact same spoon, only in a gold color instead of silver. His lure had the same action and profile as mine, but after 50 casts, it hadn’t produced one fish. When finally I had cut off my silver spoon and loaned it to my crony, he landed a 7-pounder on his third cast!

Reading these examples, most anglers would conclude lure color definitely plays a role in eliciting strikes from time to time. But we should look at the issue more objectively.

For starters, let’s examine some scientific facts. We know, for example, many gamefish have color vision because their eyes contain cones cells responsible for color vision. But some colors may be seen better than others. Take largemouth bass, for example. In his book Knowing Bass, Dr. Keith Jones, who has studied bass senses for decades, notes, “Their color vision is strongest in the areas of medium-red to green. It fails rapidly moving into the blues and purples, as it does toward the far reds. These color extremes are seen as lighter or darker shades of gray or black. Very pale colors of any shade are likely seen as simply light-colored, whereas dark reds, greens, blues and purples are interpreted as simply dark.”

This suggests color is meaningful to bass in some cases but not others. Worrying over minor shade differences in blue, dark-purple and dark-red lures is pointless because bass see all shades of these colors as essentially the same. On the other hand, for mid-range colors where bass discriminate best, it makes perfect sense to offer a variety of lure colors when even small variations can make a big difference.

Here’s how this might affect your fishing. Let’s say you’re fishing a heavily pressured lake where many anglers use dark-purple plastic worms. After a while, bass here might avoid all dark-purple worms equally because they view them as the same and have had bad experiences when eating things this color. But bass that have learned to shy away from purple worms might see watermelon/red flake worms as distinctly different and therefore an OK meal.

We’re talking about bass in this example, and other fish species may or may not be similar when it comes to color detection. There are some factors, however, that come into play regardless of the species you’re targeting. For example, lure depth should be considered when selecting colors because as light penetrates water, different wavelengths in the color spectrum begin disappearing. Subtle variations in lure color may be important when fishing on or near the water’s surface, but colors become increasingly less relevant in deeper waters where they are filtered out. Moreover, in muddy water, it’s pointless to fret over the exact shade of blue or green because reds, oranges and yellows are about the only colors of light available.

Any color readily seen provides an advantage, but the ease with which a fish can spot a lure against the prevailing background often is more important than the lure’s color. After all, having the fish detect the lure is the first step in catching it. It’s helpful therefore to know the position from which a fish will view your lure and against what backdrop. If the fish will see your lure from the side against a weedy green background, a lure that contrasts with that background will stand out better. This is why, for example, a dark-colored lure may work best at night. After dark, predator fish often position themselves so they can see silhouettes of prey passing overhead against the somewhat lighter sky, and dark colors create sharper outlines.

At night, dark-colored lures often work best because fish can more easily see the lure’s silhouette. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)
At night, dark-colored lures often work best because fish can more easily see the lure’s silhouette. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)

Many other factors relate to how well a fish sees a lure or lure color—so many, we can’t discuss all of them here. Time of day, wind velocity, types of dissolved particles in the water, sky color, season: all these and more affect one’s ability to catch fish on a certain lure color.

The fact is, however, we often worry too much about all these variables and whether or not this color or that will catch the most fish. While knowing why fish may respond in one way or another to a particular color is useful, it’s possible to overanalyze the facts and fail to enjoy our fishing. I much prefer using some basic guidelines that have proven helpful regardless of when and where I’m fishing and what I’m fishing for. Perhaps they will be useful to you as well.

1. What’s on the menu? I always start by learning what the gamefish like to eat where I’m fishing. Asking a local fisheries biologist or angler usually produces this information, and then I try to “match the hatch” so to speak—using lures closely mimicking prey color, size and shape. Baits resembling predominant forage almost always elicit more strikes than baits that don’t. Be sure, however, you use the right lure for the right cover and structure. If you know a lake has lots of shad in it, for example, you may want to throw shad-colored lures, but only if you’re fishing areas where shad will be. If you move from open water to shallow grass beds, it may be best to tie on a crawfish imitation instead.

If an angler can learn what fish forage is common in a body of water, he or she often can “match the hatch” and use lures with colors, shapes and sizes similar to the food animals to catch fish. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)
If an angler can learn what fish forage is common in a body of water, he or she often can “match the hatch” and use lures with colors, shapes and sizes similar to the food animals to catch fish. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)

2. What’s hot? You’ll often hear about a specific lure in a specific color that all the locals really like. Don’t discount the value of using these “hot” baits. Often there’s something subtle about baitfish coloration, the behavior of a certain forage animal or the color of the bottom or water that makes a particular color (or range of colors) work best. If you hear the lake you’re planning to fish is a “green lake,” stock up on your favorite baits in colors like watermelon and green pumpkin.

When you hear about a lure in a particular color that’s really “hot” on a lake or stream, it’s a good idea to consider using it as local conditions may account for its fish-catching ability. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)
When you hear about a lure in a particular color that’s really “hot” on a lake or stream, it’s a good idea to consider using it as local conditions may account for its fish-catching ability. (Photo courtesy Keith Sutton)

3. Are the fish telling you anything? Sometimes you must experiment and let the fish tell you what they want. Switch colors periodically without changing any other variables, and pay attention to details when fish hit. If you can fish with multiple poles or multiple lures, start with a mix of colors and see if fish show a preference. Often a single rod gets all the action until you switch all lures to the “color of the day.”

4. What colors do I really like? Every angler likes some colors better than others, and it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of angler confidence when fishing. We tend to persevere longer and try harder with a lure we have had success with in the past.

Here’s hoping some of these tips help you choose the right color lure for catching loads of fish in your favorite lake, pond or stream.

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