Lure Color - When it Matters, When it Doesn't

“What color are you getting them on?”  It’s a common question out on the lake when fishing with friends, and often the topic of much controversy when fishing for all species.  It’s also typically one of the last variables I mess with when trying to fine-tune my offering in the great experiment we call fishing.  So many other factors will affect a fish’s willingness to strike, long before lure color ever comes into play.  Still, there are scenarios in coming months where color WILL play a large factor in your success.  Here’s a rundown of when it matters, and when it doesn’t. 

I spoke with famed tournament angler, Devil’s Lake guide, and fishing communicator Johnnie Candle at the recent Scheel’s University out in Chamberlain, SD this spring about the topic of color, and found his thoughts closely resembled my own on the subject.  “First and foremost you need to have your baits in front of fish,” said Johnnie un-prompted.  “Color can’t overcome fishing where fish just aren’t (nearby).  After you’ve found fish, gotten a few to eat, and then fine-tune retrieve, speed, action, and other offerings, then maybe you can start to crack the code of which colors work better,” says Candle.

I offered a few experiences when trolling in a more controlled environment where one bait in a certain color shined in the morning, then another color picked up stronger in the afternoon.  “Sure,” he said, “You see that quite a bit when light levels or overall weather patterns change, but fish can also move under these conditions or prefer another presentation.”  Which is why trolling multiple baits in varying colors, especially in areas that allow more than one line (the more the merrier), allows you to work through the initial variables until you can start to crack the color code.  Eliminate selection due to other circumstances such as bait, depth, speed, and method, then work through your colors.   

Color matters typically only when you can prove it matters, as in the above trolling example or in pressured water bodies where fish see it all.  Still, there are other reasons when color can make a big difference, such as during this year’s Minnesota Fishing Opener.  I opted to get after some shallow sunfish and crappies in a rather clear lake.  It was moderately windy, making strike detection a bear, but shallow sight-fishing was still in play.  For this tactic to work, you need to first and foremost pick apart likely locations in the shallows where you can see fish, but it also requires you to be able to see your offering.  On that day, lake, and with those light conditions, small white curly tail grubs were the most visible option as they were readily sucked down by anxious gills and a few big spawning crappies.  I caught a good number of shallow panfish that day, not necessarily because they preferred the color of my offering over another, but because I could visibly detect the strike and immediately set the hook.             

Baits come in a myriad of colors these days, though I keep reaching for many of the same combinations I always have.  Reds and oranges in crawdad patterns, perch, gold, firetiger, and purpledescent tend to be top crankbait colors for me, with plastics in chartreuse, white, black, and watermelon being staples depending on the species, time of year, and water fished.  That said, there are several times annually when a bite shows me something new.  An unintended wrinkle to an old pattern, or a forage opportunity that completely changes my perspective on a familiar water body.  Chartreuse pepper on the river, or shrimp-like colors near-shore on the Chesapeake, all indicate a local interpretation of preferred forage.  That's why I can't fault lure manufacturers, as we live in a wonderfully varied fishing environment, with even the weirdest of colors seemingly having a niche somewhere and sometime.  

Orange, and I mean the brightest, gaudiest, blaze orange you can find has been just that outlier for me in recent years.  I attribute it to the rise in invasive Rusty Crayfish in many of the larger waters I fish, as I’ve seen orange craw patterns dominate in many conditions as fish in the livewell regurgitate scads of orange carcasses.  From Lake of the Woods, to Leech, and other smaller waters in Northern Wisconsin, crankbaits and plastics that imitate a scurrying crayfish have been winners no matter the time of year, species, or tactic.  This preference in known infested waters has been the closest thing I’ve noticed to a “silver bullet” in selecting the right color for the job.  Rapala now offers several colors of Retreating Craw Patterns that have worked on numerous occasions, no matter where I'm fishing.

Still, on nearly all waters, I’m with Mr. Candle in worrying first and foremost about fish location, then putting together the right technique or bait that enters their strike zone in a manner which gets them to eat.  It’s easy to spend the entire day trying to piece together the small parts of that puzzle without ever getting to color.  In those situations, go with proven choices, confidence colors, and local favorites.  Once you’ve got a bite going however, work to change up colors to tip the scales in your favor, while being mindful of the few curveballs that nature can throw you along the way.