Do Fish See Color?

One of the questions which always arises when I am giving a lecture of fishing is do fish see color? Of course the answer would have to be yes, otherwise why would lure manufactures make lures in such a wide variety of colors. Now they might think that fishermen are just a bunch of dolts, but I suspect that they realize that fish see color and make lures in different colors to fit different light conditions.

Professor Hill did the definitive work on how fish see color at Oklahoma State University. His work lead to the invention of the Color-Selector. The Selector allows fishermen to determine which color of lure to use by dropping a light detector to the depth you wish to fish and reading the color coded dial. The system works well, but many fishermen don't want the expense or extra equipment, so they continue to use the colors they have always used with very little thought about which color of lure fish prefer.

Here are some concepts about colored light that you should keep in mind when choosing your lure. Light is broken into its components when it hits the water and certain wavelengths (colors) penetrate to different depths depending on the clarity of the water. In very clear water, like you might find at Lake Powell, light can penetrate as deep as 40 feet, but only the blue part of the spectrum. Many western waters have a greenish color and naturally, green light penetrates to the greatest depth. You can usually see 10 to 15 feet deep in these lakes. In stained water, where you can see down to 6 feet, the colors, which penetrate, are orange, green and red. Where you find muddy water, the only light to penetrate is the long wavelength (red color). All other light is reflected by the particles in the water. So it would seem logical to choose a lure with red in it when fishing in muddy water. When I'm bass fishing in the back of muddy coves I always choose a craw pattern which is black with red glitter and a fire claw. The other important aspect of fishing in muddy water is to use a lure, which reflects the small amount of light that is available. A good example would be an EGB Spinnerbait with a silver and black blade. I use the EGB because they use real silver to coat the blade and silver reflects light better than any other material. Combine the silver with the contrasting black and you have a lure, which is very easy for fish to see. To make this combo complete, add a black and red skirt and you have one of the best bass catching lures for muddy conditions. If you're chasing pike, make the skirt a hot pink or chartreuse and jump up to the oz. head. Spinner fishermen, whether working for largemouth bass, pike or rainbow trout can't go wrong with EGB's new 360 pattern. It combines a hand painted red beetle on a silver background and adds black spots for contrast.

If you find yourself faced with a stained water situation, which occurs anytime you have mudline or throughout most of the Canadian shield lakes, you need to choose a lure that is orange, green or chartreuse. The classic example would be a firetiger color. It combines those three colors with a black back for contrast. Rather than choosing silver for flash in your baits, instead try copper, brass or gold. If you're throwing spoons for pike or trout try the EGB in style 202, 205 or 208. These color combinations of gold with black and silver make the right color of flash to draw fish to the lure. If you are fishing soft plastics, pick a base of smoke, brown, pumpkin or melon and add orange, green and copper flake to make a highly attractive lure.

Many of our fishing situations in the west occur where you can see your lure up to 15 feet deep. In these waters green, smoke, pumpkin and white are very productive colors. (White is not a color, but rather all of the colors of the spectrum combined.) For the toughest fishing conditions, you should fish these colors without any glitter added for flash. One of these times would be when bass are spawning. EGB lures really shine for these water conditions. Patterns 300, 330, 370 and 380 are all very productive colors for trout or salmon.

In super clear waters my lure selection goes toward clear baits with a variety of glitter colors. When using craw patterns I usually like ones with some pepper combined with green and orange or red glitter. I also like a smoke base with blue, gold and pepper. My selection in hard baits goes toward the flashy side. Combinations of blue and silver or gold and black will always produce fish in almost any species. EGB has several patterns that fit this criterea. Patterns 203, 204, 206, 207, 209, 210, 320, 370, 380, 390 and 400 will be productive in clear water with bright skies.

All of the information that was previous discussed, applied to lure selection during high light conditions and various water conditions. So, what do you do when you're faced with low light conditions early in the morning? There are three different light levels, which occur each day. Low light occurs from first light until sunup. Medium light occurs from sunup until the sun reaches 20 degrees to the horizon. (You measure 20 degrees by holding your hand at eye level and pointing your middle finger at the horizon. Spread your index finger as far as you can and sight down your middle finger. If the sun falls inside that area, then it is call medium light. Finally, high light is most of the day, from either side of 20 degrees to the horizon. Here are a few general rules about light condition and lure selection. Keep in mind that these apply to clear water conditions. When you are fishing very early in the morning and the first light appears in the sky, blue, purple or black in combination with silver flash work best. As the sky takes on an orange glow, especially at sunset, red and orange are the most productive colors. Once the sun is up, switch to green lures that use red, yellow or orange for contrast. After the light becomes bright, the more neutral colors of brown or gray will be the best choice. Use lures that only have a splash of bright color, such as fluorescent pink or chartreuse. Too much color triggers a negative response from the fish. To relate light condition back to water clarity, when you are fishing muddy water you are basically fishing low light conditions all of the time. That's why black, silver and red work well under muddy conditions.

Lastly, if you are fishing at night you are fishing in the absence of light. Fish have much better night vision than we do and can easily feed under the darkest sky. In fact many of the largest fish feed at night and avoid most of the fishing pressure. When choosing a lure color for night fishing, the first thing to consider is the amount of available moonlight. If it is a full moon, choose a lure that is dark with a lot of flash. The emphasis here is on a lot of flash. In soft plastics, black with silver glitter, motor oil with gold glitter, smoke with silver glitter or blue with blue glitter can all be equally effective. Another good choice is merthiolate. This combination of black and red can be deadly. Of course fishing a spinnerbait is always a good option. The flash and vibration of the spinner attract fish to the lure and the black or white skirt is an easy target. If you are working a stickbait the foil covered ones produce the most flash and usually catch the most fish. If clouds partially cover the moon, then pearlized chartreuse will out fish any other color. I don't have an explanation for this, I only know it works. On dark of the moon nights, the dark brown of black lures seems to be the best. Slow down you presentation and work very close to shore for most fish when it is very dark. They loose most of their inhibitions when it is dark and will feed in very shallow water.

With tackle boxes full of different sizes, shapes and colors of lures it is often hard to know where to start. Hopefully I have helped you eliminate the guesswork when it comes to choosing which color to fish. If you're fishing with a partner, each of you choose a different color of lure in the same style and use the same presentation. You will quickly learn which color fish prefer at that point in time. If fish quit striking your lure, quickly change to another color. This is especially true when light conditions are changing. Once you have mastered color selection, you can advance to lure presentation and fish location at which point you will be a master angler.

For further information about fish behavior and how to become a better fisherman, read my biweekly column in Fishing & Hunting News, Colorado Edition. You can contact me at with any questions about different fishing conditions or lure selection.

Lynn Ensley

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