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October 26, 2001

Under the Rainbow

How inshore guides pick their colors to catch more fish.

At a popular mangrove edge in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, several boats are catching redfish on every toss. As they cast, I see their hard plastic plugs fly through the air, hit the water and get struck again.
"That's easy; they're eating plugs," I smugly say to myself. I pick a plug with a gold insert (an old reliable for redfish) from my box and cast into the same area amid a swarm of tailing fish, but can't get a strike to save my life. It doesn't take long for frustration to brew. Before I move from that spot, however, it would be wise to check one thing: lure color.
After casting a variety of colors at the tailing reds, I finally hook one on my third color choice, which contained a silver insert. My trip ended with tired arms because I didn't stick with the traditional favorite and give up. Instead, I kept experimenting with various colors until I found one that turned on the fish.

Do Fish See Color?
Can color really make the difference in fishing success - or is it just coincidence? Marine biologists who specialize in the study of sensory perception in fish conclude that colors do make a difference. Sam Gruber of the University of Miami, one of the believers, says, "Many fish have excellent color vision, probably better than ours."
H.O. Schwassman, a retired marine biologist from the University of Florida, says that after various tests and studies he believes most fish use vision as their primary sense and even see exactly as we do (as far as the visual light spectrum).
"Psychologists have trained fish to react to different colors," Schwassman says. "Many game fish react (more) to visual stimuli than to any other sense."
Gruber, known for his studies of sensory perception in sharks, says fish have better vision because they have an extra color receptor. Our three main receptors consist of red, green and blue. It is uncertain which additional color the fish see, but, he says, "It enhances their vision significantly."
Experienced guides and manufacturers also stand firm to the idea that fish see color, and pros have seen the scenario played out many times. Mark Nichols, owner of Florida's DOA lures, saw firsthand how snook can shift their visual preference.
"In Chokoloskee (in Florida's Everglades)) one day we crushed the snook on chartreuse, but the next day, same tide, we couldn't buy one on that color," says Nichols. "That day, the red-and-pearl combination was all that would work."
A variety of factors determines which lure color works best, depending on your particular region. In some areas like Florida, a checklist can get long.
Contrast plays a huge factor when predator fish hunt bait. Gruber says the fish see contrast better than color. "That's why they (the baits) have counter-shaded body styles," says Gruber. "They know when contrast is not enhanced, it hides them."
What this means to the angler is that your lure will stand out more if it contrasts with the surrounding underwater environment. That environment can be grassy, rocky, sandy, murky or clear. Manufacturers use professional guides in their natural laboratories (inshore waters) to put each one to the test before the colors go on the market.

Stick With the Basics; Try Something Different
Fish Trap Lures of California makes over 80 colors, but 15 years of trial and error keep bringing them back to the "five basics." That's the term owner Barry Brightenburg came up with to help people keep it simple.
"Sticking with a couple of colors is the key," says Brightenburg. "When people use too many colors, they get confused. So I came up with five basic color schemes in soft plastic jig tails that nearly always work: brown, blue, green, red/orange, and a darker brown, blue or green."
Everyone wants a catch-it-all lure, but according to Brightenburg, finding the right lure color requires a learning curve that makes you narrow your search through trial and error.
Tackle shops and especially national tackle outlets carry mind-boggling selections of lures. How do they decide on the colors they sell? Gordon Kroeger, purchasing agent for Captain Harry's Fishing Supply in Miami, says three elements govern selection of lure color for its catalogs.
"It's a combination of advice from manufacturers and top fishing guides and traditionally what always sells," says Kroeger. "Established inshore colors (for Florida) consist of red-and-white, black back with a silver side, blue back with a silver side and green back with a silver side."
"Sometimes just trying something different works," says Capt. Mark Bennett of Port Charlotte, Florida. "If I'm working tarpon when sight fishing, I'll use several different colors to see which works best. One guy throws pink, another throws pearl until we find what they like. I've found that water color can make the difference. The cleaner the water, the more low-key or natural. In turbid water I'll go with motor oil/root beer because it gives off a nice profile."

Which Color Today?
Plug-tossers in many areas find the best color can vary almost daily. Understanding factors such as weather, prevalent bait, water conditions and seasons can improve your productivity with artificials. Sometimes changing colors as the day progresses can increase your catch. Bachnik uses this technique in southwest Florida.
"The 'woodpecker' color - white with a red head - has been fantastic for years (for snook and trout)," he says. "The best times seem to be early morning and late afternoon. Then in the middle of the day, use a natural color, something that looks like a greenback (minnow)."
In Texas, Capt. George Knighton of Galveston loves red-and-white - for flounder, redfish and trout. "I've been using it for 27 years with great success. It's good in any water condition. The red color helps to excite the fish. If you open a tackle box at random in Texas, you will probably find that color combination more than any other."
According to Brightenburg, California anglers have historically loved the root-beer color and fished it in a scampi or similar twin-tail soft plastic baits. But just over a decade ago, with the introduction of scad-style baits, color preferences shifted to clear silver-flake bellies, which catch more fish. However, big calicos still prefer non-flashy, dull-colored lures.
Matching the prevailing bait can greatly enhance your success, according to Knighton. He says trout and redfish in Texas usually feed on shrimp or shad. Having a discerning eye that can pick up on local color patterns helps.
"When trout and reds are feeding on shrimp, shrimp usually jump at the surface," Knighton says. "When this happens, you need to be ready to switch to a shrimp-colored tail."
"Dark-colored lures silhouette better," says Al Gagliarducci of Gags Grabbers Tackle Co. in Massachusetts. His locally popular Mambo Minnows and Floating Rattling Poppers have led anglers to striped bass in the Northeast for over 20 years. He says his most effective color is olive with a silver insert and white belly because it resembles an eel.
Knighton agrees with Bachnik and others that water color and clarity also play an important role in choosing lures. Since water conditions in Texas change drastically, he has a standby for each of Texas' dark colors. "Galveston can go from 'chocolate' to emerald green, as opposed to places like Florida that can have clearer conditions," he says. "In the off-color water, go with red because it creates nice silhouettes. In lighter-colored water, try white-and-pearl."