As a kid, when I first started to learn how to fish, I was immersed with all the pictures of jig heads, plastics, and lures of various colors. I remember feeling overwhelmed when walking into a bait and tackle store. I thought that the amount of variety in regards to bait selection was too much and that fish were too selective on what they would deem appetizing. Little did I know it wasn’t as complex as I had thought, the concepts never change and the information is out there if you look around.
What I was experiencing was the push of various types of marketing/consumerism and a lack of education and experience in the hobby. I continued to advance along in my fishing career, never really gaining interest in what the colors of the lures meant or were used for since I predominantly fished for catfish and sunfish using worms and other live/cut bait that I caught or bought from the store (which I list in my blog here: my favorite catfish baits). It wasn’t until more recent years when I gained an interest in getting better at fishing as a whole and really began to try to experiment to learn what baits were used for what.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that predatory fish will eat anything that moves like, or resembles a minnow, crawdad, or worm/leech/larvae in the water. What I wanted to learn was why fish like trout were a little pickier in the colors of jigs we used in comparison to some bass and crappie here in the Midwest.
I remember trying out a few new spots with different baits wondering why I wasn’t really getting any bites on my artificial lures.
“Was it because this one doesn’t have a spoon on it?”
“Am I reeling in too fast?”
“Is the knot I tried to lure on not giving the lure the right action?”
All of these things were going on in my head, but I never really asked myself, what the various colors really meant when fishing for more predatory fish. Sadly, it took me way too long to do the research and figure out what colors of lures/plastics were meant for what environment/weather. It may seem like a small detail, but I assure you that it can make a difference in the amount of fish you are going to catch on a given day.
If you are new to fishing or need a refresher in regards to lure/plastic bait selection, let me be a guide for you through the process. Though it may seem daunting, I assure you that once you break down the colors and understand the context in which they work, you will become a better at fishing. From there it will all be about developing your technique (also known as putting what you’ve learned to the test)!
1. Understanding Light Underwater
Before getting into the basics of bait/lure color and presentation I want to talk about how light is different on land than in water. First, understand that water absorbs some of the wavelengths to various degrees. The bright colors such as red, orange, and yellow tend to be absorbed first, and then the colors following these warm colors on the wavelength chart will begin to disappear as depth increases.
Beyond the loss of color due to absorption underwater it is important to understand that light also is absorbed when underwater looking horizontally (depending on depth) so various colors will be filtered out in relatively small distances.
Another thing that many people are aware of but may not understand is the effect of magnification and refraction in the water. Things can appear closer underwater than they seem. Anyone who has done any bow fishing or tried to spear a fish underwater will confirm this as this is one of the reasons why they miss fish. Refraction is also the reason why that “GIANT” fish underwater wasn’t as big as you thought he was when you get him in the net or on shore.
2. Understanding Fish Vision And Behavior
Fish eyesight is complex. It is a subject that has been studied for many years and is being improved upon every year. It seems that fish eyesight is dependent on the family of fishes and the environments in which they live. Generally speaking though, most fishes have eyesight comparable to mammals.
There is some evidence that certain fish can have better eyesight in darker environments due to the evolutionary selection for this trait/adaptation over time. Some fishes can also see UV rays and colors, which we cannot. There is some evidence that this could be helpful for things such as mate selection and foraging.
Most fishes are adapted to the limited light availability beneath the water and have preference to colors in which their native prey are colored or camouflaged. This is because they typically coevolved together so at certain water levels/environments those colors and movement must standout to the fish otherwise the fish species would have died out long ago.
This is why bottom feeding scavenger fish such as catfish and suckers like carp or buffalo have evolutionarily invested in the use of barbells to help smell/taste their food. This is because scent travels a lot further than their eyesight, especially in deep depths where there is little to no visibility. Once you add sedimentation and mud into the mix, the clarity of the water prevents any real visibility at the bottom of the river/pond/lake.
White and silver are well known lure colors that many people claim to live by when crappie fishing. I have watched various YouTube accounts such as Richard Gene the Fishing Machine and heard him claim that on overcast and cloudy days, using a white plastic on a jig gets him plenty of crappie from a boat with the right amount of jigging (link to his video).
Despite what YouTubers have said, from what I have read online though, white/silver bait is really meant to be used high in the water table (not deep) and in water that is relatively clear in sunny conditions. If you are fishing close to the surface though the water visibility should be pretty good as the light hasn’t been absorbed yet depending on sedimentation and thermocline (when warm water mixes with cold water from the bottom) after rains.
I think that this is a sign that though there are typical generalities to certain colors and methods each fishery is different. Fish of the same species may take your bait at one lake/river/pond and then completely ignore it at another. Just food for thought, but be versatile and keep a log either in written format or mentally of what was working.
Darker colors seem to be used more for specific areas where the water is more dingy and not clear. There could be high amounts of algae or sediment in the water. The depth of water could also play a role as many fish may bed in structure that is in deep pockets or areas that don’t get a lot of sun underwater. This would be the perfect area for you to introduce a few new darker plastics into the water.
Based on my research as to what other people have to say about using dark lures/plastic, many argue that when there is overcast, these darker baits are the best to use as they show off greater contrast to fish in hard to see waters. Like I mentioned before, be adaptable and see what works for you at your favorite fishing spots.
Chartreuse is what many bass fishermen around my area seem to recommend when throwing top water lures. I myself have used this color of lure and been successful in larger lakes from a boat rather than from the shore. To be fair though I think it is important to mention that the water in my area is typically muddy and has a dingy hue to it.
Despite this lure working at larger lakes/reservoir I have struggled to catch bass with the same lure at other small ponds and in my local rivers, where I have caught bass before.
Depending on the variation of the colors, these colors are typically bright and used in the same conditions as the white/silver lures and plastics. They too are ideal for sunny days and clear water, though from my experience the clear water is a bit of overkill rule. If you notice that the bugs or native prey in the water have any shade or tinge of the bright colors mentioned above, consider throwing some bait or lures in to try. It won’t hurt a thing and you may find a color of bait that really works in that fishery.
There are generalities all throughout fishing and bait selection that many people continue to follow. Being a successful fisherman/woman is dependent on your understanding of biology and physics in regards to how fish see/live underwater and how light is different in the water than above land.
Once you figure out the basics and understand the places that you are trying to fish, play around with the types of lures or baits you are using if you plan on going after some predatory fishes. I hope this information was helpful, and inspires you to go out and get to fishing!