The longer I fish the more I’m convinced color is our least important consideration. Long-time Barkley and Kentucky lakes guide, Malcolm Lane, and I discuss this often. I guided for years, but Malcolm has been at it for over three decades, and he admits that the main reason he doesn’t care to guide bass fishermen is they often drive him crazy by constantly switching baits and asking what color he thinks they should try.
We agree wholeheartedly: The action of a lure is most important. Some of this is built into a lure, but much of it is controlled by the way the fishermen manipulates the bait and is loosely referred to as presentation. Often the difference between catching a bunch of fish and none is a very small variance in presentation.
This is why one guy in a boat might be catching fish after fish, while another in the boat, using exactly the same lure, catches little or nothing. I’ve seen this happen often. Most of the time, the guy not catching fish is simply fishing too fast, especially with soft-plastic baits for bass, but also with most crappie lures.
I’ve seen it happen just as often with spinner baits and crank baits. With these lures, much of the presentation is built into the bait. Most people think all you have to do is throw them out and crank them back, but the speed at which they are retrieved can make a big difference. Imparting pauses or twitches add many presentation elements as well. Always try to pay close attention to exactly what you were doing and how fast you were reeling when a fish hits.
Sometimes fish mess them up. If they become bent or somehow slightly out of tune, their presentation qualities can be altered drastically. We may get the impression that the fish “just quit biting,” when in fact they just quit biting what we were throwing because it stopped displacing water or wobbling or flashing in a way that invited bass to eat it.
The vast majority of the time, the difference is simply in the speed of the retrieve, which is influenced by the equipment as well as the guy cranking it. When I was guiding crappie fishermen, I always carried a couple of extra rods with very slow reels, and I tried to get clients to use them instead of the fast and fancy models they usually brought. It was much easier to slow them down with equipment than to get them to crank slower.
Nine times out of 10, I’ve noticed that the guy not catching fish is fishing just a little too fast, but the opposite can occasionally be true.
One fall a couple of clients and I were throwing Rattle Traps to schooling fish. We were all fishing the same model, color and size and ripping them back as fast as we could. John and I were catching fish on nearly every cast, but Jim wasn’t catching any, even though he was cranking just as fast. This seemed strange, so I tried to determine why. First I closely examined the lures, then the lines. I considered the difference in rods briefly, and then looked at the reels.
John and I were using fast reels with 6-to-1 retrieval rates. Jim’s reel was 5.1-to-1. John had another outfit with a fast feel, and we both insisted that Jim try it. He was into a fish on the first cast and began matching us fish for fish.
Next in importance, I believe, is size and general shape. I’m convinced that a lure that resembles the general dimensions and outline of a food form fish are most accustomed to eating will get many more strikes than one that is too large. It doesn’t hurt sometimes to go a little smaller, but bigger seldom is better. The more abundant a particular forage, and the more accustomed bass become to feeding on them, the more selective they become to size and shape.
That’s why I harp so much about the pervasive “big bait, big fish” attitude that I believe has misguided so many of today’s bass fishermen. Size and shape are more important than color. I’ve often seen two guys fishing the same size of a particular bait, but ones with radically different color schemes, with no appreciable difference in the catch rates.
A lot of fishermen think color makes a big difference, and they can site examples, but that’s because color is the only thing they ever consider. The difference of color scheme between one guy who is catching and one who is not may be most obvious to the human eye, but presentation is probably what the fish sees. The general size and shape, and especially the body language, or action, of the bait is what trips his predatory trigger.
These, and many other instances, have lead me to believe that color is of least importance. Color catches fishermen, that’s why manufacturers are always coming out with new combinations and dazzling paint jobs. It makes very little difference to the fish beyond visibility.
Fishermen pick out various colors of lures because they think particular hues look lifelike, but by far more fish are caught on various lures that have a bright, sometimes fluorescent, shade of chartreuse. There is absolutely nothing in the aquatic environment that is chartreuse. Chartreuse, however, is very visible at various depths and in waters of various clarity.
Chartreuse is not popular or very effective with slower baits, such as jigs and worms, indicating that the slower a bit is presented, the more important color becomes. That may be true. The consistently productive colors of jigs and worms are of the darker or more natural hues. This may, however, have something to do with the increased depth at which jigs and worms are fished, and the muting effect of low light penetration upon the various colors. Black is black at any depth, and blue doesn’t change much either, while red, which is most visible to fish at full light, fades quickly in relation to light penetration.
I don’t mean to imply that color is of no importance whatsoever. My point is that the average bass fisherman pays so much attention to it that he almost totally ignores the much greater importance of presentation, size and body shape, and he’s certainly not examining the subtle differences in presentation that really separate the top fisherman from the average.
Before changing colors, try changing the speed or cadence of the retrieve. Try retrieving you lures and baits deeper or shallower. Try a different type of structure. Try using a smaller version of your favorite lure. If you still feel you must change, try changing to a completely different style of bait with completely different presentation qualities, not just another color variation of the same thing.
During years of guiding, I noticed that the guys who always had the most trouble catching fish were the ones who spent a lot of time fishing in their tackle boxes instead of the water. Invariably, they were always searching for the perfect color. Like Malcolm, it kind of drove me crazy, too.
But you don’t have to take the word of a couple of old, worn out guides. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back it up our assumptions.
In the first place, it probably is a mistake to judge a bass’ vision by our own, because bass see everything a bit differently than humans, not just because they live in a totally different environment, but because their eyes function much differently than ours.
For one thing, their eyes are placed on the sides of their heads, affording them monocular vision, which means they can see well on both sides of their heads at the same time. Each eye has the ability to see over a 180 degree range, so their only blind spot is a narrow area directly behind them where the bass’ own body obstructs vision. We, on the other hand have binocular vision, which restricts our field of view to the front, but also allows us great depth-of-field perception.
Like some of us, they are nearsighted, which means that unless a lure makes noise, it needs to be cast closely to the fish to be detected. They also have limited binocular vision similar to ours in a narrow band directly in front of them. Their binocular vision, however, is really just an overlapping of their monocular vision, so although they can see things at a little greater distance, these objects are blurred and depth perception is impaired, sort of the way we see if we cross our eyes slightly.
This is why you will most often see a bass make a little swoop to the side at the last second before they strike a lure they have been following from behind. This little side-step at the last second allows them to see the bait most clearly the instant before they take it. Short strikes, or complete misses, could mean they saw something distasteful upon close inspection. Under their clearest vision, during that last-second swoop, they sometimes changed their minds like a batter’s half-swing.
Scientists believe that bass receive about five times more light through their eyes than humans. This, of course, gives them better vision in deep or dark areas, but it doesn’t mean that they can see five time better than humans. It means, simply put, that they are five time more sensitive to light. They have a fixed lense and the cornea is of uniform thickness. They don’t have eye lids or pupils to dilate and compensate, so they make up for this by seeking shade or moving deeper.
They need this extra sensitivity because water absorbs light quickly. The deeper the water, or the more turbid the water, the less light there is to reflect off objects. Plus, when the surface is broken by ripples, some of the light is refracted, so the diffusion of light is rapid. Often just a few feet or the shade of a fallen tree are enough.
The most confusing aspect of their sight is the fact they have two types of receptor cells in the retina. Their “cone” cells perceive color and are used mostly during the day. Their “rod” cells see only in black and white and are used at night. These receptor cells reverse themselves every 24-hour period, so bass are actually color blind about half the time. Consider that the next time you’re trying to pick out the perfect color.
Sometime before sunset a bass’ internal senses trigger the advance of black-and-white vision in preparation for darkness. Completion of this process takes hours, so it is believed they have a sort of color fade as the rod cells advance. Then, just before daylight, the cone cells begin to advance, causing a gradual recognition of colors. For most of the morning, and for most of the evening, their ability to distinguish different hues of the color spectrum is limited. Ironically, that is usually when we do best with our lures of many colors.
We often think that the color of a lure was why a bass hits this or that model, when in fact, most of the bass we catch are fooled during times when they can’t actually distinguish between colors very well. If what you’re using is catching them well during the middle of the day, color might be the key. Early and late in the day, however, they may be hitting that “latest and greatest” model not because of the fancy finish that caught your eye and emptied your pocket, but in spite of it.
Again, I will say, presentation is all important.