Nothing gets me into more fights than a good, old fashioned debate about lure color…… I guess it’s just one of those things that fisherfolk get really fired up about. My views get plenty of supporters, but no shortage of skeptics, either.
So which side of the fence will you be on? Read on, only time will tell!
But before we start, let me give you a sense of where I’m coming from. You see, I’m often criticized for being too scientific about lure color lure. Go figure….. I am an aquatic scientist after all! But the truth is, I’ve never blindly followed science. Sure, my writing on lure colors is based on decades of scientific evidence. But I was a fisherman long before I was a scientist. So what you’re about to read is a mixture of decades of fishing observations plus scientific knowledge.
Interestingly, my fishing observations have more often than not agreed with the science – with some notable exceptions.
Ok, so let’s walk through the complex and murky world of lure colors – as seen through my eyes 😉
How Can We Even Be Confident That Fish See Color?
It’s a fair question – and a good starting point for an article about lure color. After all, we know that dogs and cats can only see blue and green, deer can’t see orange and bulls can’t see the color red. Yep, a red rag to a bull might as well be a gray rag……
Most of these animals are at least as highly evolved as fish, so it’s reasonable to expect fish might have similar limitations. But we can’t exactly ask a fish what lure color it sees best, can we now?
So until technology allows us to communicate with fish there will always be a lot to learn.
There are tens of thousands of fish species, and we know that different species have different adaptations to their environment. And there is probably variation within species, just as there is with human vision.
For example, 8% of the human population suffers from one of the 4 different types of color blindness (see image to the right). So if not all humans see colors the same way, who’s to say fish do, either?
But how much does it really matter? After all, 40% of red-green color blind people aren’t even aware of their limited vision by the time they reach college age. They existed just fine without seeing the full range of colors that others couldn’t.
The truth is, fish rely on vision much less than humans – and especially color vision. As you’re about to find out, fish evolved in a world that filters out lots of colors. So lure color is often irrelevant to them, despite many fisherman being absolutely convinced otherwise. Realize that and you can start focusing you attention on more important things that will get you bites.
Taking A Fish Eye View Of The Lure Color Puzzle
Lets start with a quick biology lesson – about fish eyes.
Even though fish eyes are different to human eyes, we share many common elements. Just like birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, fish eyes are made up of a retina, and iris and a lens. There are a few differences of course, because fish eyes are adapted for life underwater. I’ve talked about some of these in my article on lure fishing tips – and in my Kindle book on lure color selection
But here’s the important thing: Within the retina of all the animals we’ve mentioned are some special cells that convert light into nerve impulses. They tell us a lot about the importance of lure color to fish.
There are two basic types of light receptor cells: Rods and cones. And they work together like this:
1. Rod cells detect light and contrast. They can work in very low light and allow us (and fish) to see shapes, silhouettes and shadows in dimly lit environments. But they don’t detect color.
2. Cone cells are the ones responsible for color vision. But cone cells need lots of light in order to work, so when the light gets low, color vision starts to fade. Think about your own eyesight as twilight progresses into night – as light fades, the vibrancy of colors fades too.
Scientists studying the eyes of fish have found that there are vastly more rod cells than cone cells. This tells us that fish are far more dependent on shape, silhouette and contrast than they are on color. Interesting!
Special Adaptations Of Fish Eyes For Color Vision
There are a couple of other notable things about fish eyes. First, the pupils don’t dilate or constrict (except sharks). That’s because fish live in pretty dimly lit environments and don’t so much trouble with too much light getting in. Human eyes get bombarded with more light than they can handle, so our pupils constrict to reduce the problem.
The second thing about fish eyes is that the cone cells have evolved to give better color contrast depending on light conditions. For example, it’s thought that gamefish are especially good at distinguishing between different shades of blue, which helps them see prey in an environment of predominantly blue light. Freshwater fish have evolved in algae or sediment colored water and can distinguish better between shades of green, yellow or red.
Understanding Lure Colors Below The Water Surface
Let’s leave behind the “What colors can fish see?” question and get on to a more important one:
“What colors exist underwater?”
For a color to exist, light of the right wavelength has to be present. Simple as that. In a pitch black room our eyes can’t see any color. In a dimly lit room our eyes see very little color, just shapes and silhouettes.
Lure Color Tip #1 Deep Water Equals Dull Lure Colors……
Colors are less intense under water, that’s a fact. And the reason is simple….. there’s less light below the water surface.
Think about it! In deep oceans the water is very clear. But just a few hundred meters below the surface it’s pitch dark. So none of the light that hits the water surface reaches these depths. Little wonder we have all those weird deep sea critters……
Now consider this: The daylight that reaches earths atmosphere traveled almost 150 million miles through space from the sun – and almost none of it was lost on the way here. If it’s a clear day then very little visible light is lost in the 10 miles of atmosphere above the earth’s surface, either.
But once light hits the water surface it’s gone in just hundreds (even tens) of meters.
There are plenty of reasons for this. A lot of light gets reflected off the water surface, rather than penetrating into the depths. Some light gets scattered, some gets absorbed…… But for we lure fisherman the reasons aren’t that important. All we need to know is how it affects lure color.
Going Deep Is Like Turning The Brightness Down……
Here’s a way to visualize what happens to lure colors as the water depth increases:
1. Take a few lures to a room in your house that has a dimmer switch
2. Hold the lures in front of you and turn the lights up to maximum brightness. Note the intensity of the lure colors
3. Slowly turn down the lights. Note the intensity of the colors now!
Notice how the colors become less intense as the light dulls? The duller the light, the duller the color – until they become impossible to see at all. In fact, only about 22% of light gets as deep as 10m (33ft). Imagine switching an 80 watt globe for a 20 watt one! How would that change the intensity of color you see?
Lure Color Tip #2: Water Reduces Visible Color
Dimming down your lights simultaneously dulls all of the colors you can see. But what if you also changed the color of the globes?
For instance, imagine you switched your normal white globes for some blue ones. What happens to the way you see color now?
Not only do all colors become dull – but many colors disappear completely! Your eyes haven’t changed, of course. They are still capable of seeing red, orange, yellow and green……
But because a blue light doesn’t contain red, orange, yellow or green wavelengths, it doesn’t matter that your eyes are capable of seeing them. They just no longer visible.
That’s why it’s often irrelevant what color lures a fish is capable of seeing. Water is natural filter that removes or blocks out certain wavelengths. So even if a fish has full color vision, some colors are just not there to be seen.
In clean, clear water reds are the first colors to disappear with increasing depth, followed by orange, yellow and green. Blues and purples penetrate the deepest.
When the water is less clear the story gets more complex. Greens are the most visible colors in algae affected water. Reds are most visible in tannin stained water and yellows or browns in silt affected systems.
Lure Color Tip #3: Even Surface Conditions Reduce Lure Color Intensity
Ok, this concept is a little more difficult to explain in written words. So I’m going to encourage you to watch the video to the left for a full explanation……
But basically, the intensity of your lure colors is affected by surface ripple much more than you might expect. This won’t come as any surprise to most divers – they know that even if the day is bright and sunny, surface ripple dulls the colors beneath the water surface.
What’s going on is a complex series of reflections and refractions that reduce light penetration. To put it in the simplest possible terms, the rougher the water surface, the less light can penetrate into the depths.
Once again, fish start seeing outlines and silhouettes of your lures more so than actual colors…….
Lure Color Tip #4: Dirty Water Is The Final Nail In The Coffin
As if the light and color filtering effects of water and surface ripple aren’t enough, then there are the extra challenges of when the water is dirty, stained by tannin or algae affected.
Each of these affect the visibility and intensity of lure colors in their own complex ways. As I mentioned earlier, green wavelengths tend to penetrate deepest in algae affected waters. In stained water where the tannins create a red tinge, the red wavelengths penetrate deeper than other colors, with orange and yellow next best. And in waters affected by silt browns and yellows are most visible.
Having said all of that, it can all become a little academic deciding which lure color gets deepest. The fact is, when water is very dirty, stained or algae affected, very little light penetrates to any depth. Color often becomes a moot point, although dark colors that throw a strong silhouette can be easiest for the fish to see.
In many ways, the selection of lures for these conditions becomes similar to lures for night fishing
One Last Thought Before The Lure Color Recommendations
What I’ve done in this article is outline what lure colors the fish can see on the basis of their eye adaptations and their environment. And if you formed the impression that often it’s very few colors, you’d be right.
But there’s one more piece of the puzzle:
Just because fish can see a particular color, doesn’t mean they’ll take it. And if they can’t see a particular color it doesn’t mean they’ll reject your lure, either.
I laugh when an old timer tells me that 90% of the fish in his lake always take a particular color, green for instance. If he’s a successful fishermen then in my opinion two things are happening:
1. He catches fish on green lures 90% of the time because 90% of the time that’s what he ties on, and
2. Because he’s convinced that he’s using the right colored lure, he’s not wasting energy thinking about colors. Instead he’s probably focused on how to fish his lure to maximum success.
Look, there are definitely some times when the color of lure that you choose can make all the difference. The right color has fish all over your offer like fat kids on a birthday cake. The wrong color and it’s, well <crickets chirping>
The real trick is not to fall into the trap of believing that lure color is always important.
Lure Color Charts
The following charts show the most visible colors to fish under various conditions.
Clear Water Lakes, Rivers And Estuaries – Lure Color Chart
Algae Affected Waters- Lure Color Selection Chart
Stained Waters Lure Color Chart
Dirty Water – Lure Color Selection Chart
Related Resources (Click Images For More)