Colour - Does it really matter?

by Greg French

Perhaps the question most commonly asked by anglers is, "What lure should I use?" Fortunately there is some logic involved here and, with time, choosing a lure becomes less of a riddle. You learn that a diver is totally impractical in a shallow stream. On the other hand, you accept that wobblers only function when used at a speed which keeps them close to the surface - of little use when you are targeting fish down deep.

With more experience you refine your choice. You use a small blade spinner in very shallow streams because it is less likely than other lures to snag. Perhaps you use heavy Cobras and spoons in conjunction with your down rigger simply because they are much cheaper than (most) bibbed "deep diving" lures. You discover that lures which are obviously designed for a specific purpose usually deliver goods and that those which look fancy, cost plenty but fail to explain themselves are best left on the shelf.

Now, what colour should you use? A particular style of wobbler, Cobra or plug may be available in thirty or more colour combinations. Does each pattern really have a specific purpose? Is it necessary to buy a complete range in case only one or other colour will prove successful on the day. Is it possible to tell which "rules" are old "wives" tales and which are the results of pseudo science and marketing? Let me declare my bias. I am not a "match the hatch" man. Long ago I adhered myself to the idea that essence of successful fishing is learning to deduce where in any water to find the most catch-able fish. The lure or fly need not imitate anything specific but it must be functional. Everything else is secondary. Indeed, a preoccupation with changing lures is counter productive. You cannot hope to catch fish while your line is out of the water and if you attribute too much importance to the lure itself you fail to observe how habitat, weather and time of year affect your quarry. Fishing is not a matter of luck and you should take care not to develop an over-reliance on gadgetry.

What do we know about the trout's sensitivity to colour? They certainly have cone cells on the retina (at the back of the eye) and so can distinguish some colours - but exactly how well developed this colour vision is remains a subject of hot debate. The important thing to accept is that a trout's perception of its world is nothing like that of a human's. Its eyes most probably cannot focus great detail or sharp colour and its brain probably interprets the information in ways inconceivable to us. In any case the trout relies heavily on other stimuli, including ones which are alien to the angler (such as subtle changes in water pressure which are sensed by special receptor cells in the lateral line). What we observe, though, is that trout react strongly to contrast and movement.

Over the years I have caught several well-conditioned trout which turned out to be completely blind, their eyes either hopelessly opaque or missing. Most of these were taken on fish spoon wobblers and Celtas, but one caught recently was tempted by a tiny black beetle fly!

One thing I have noticed is that these who cut their teeth on lures and gaudy flies conclude that things big and flashy are more likely to be noticed than thinks small and bland. Indeed, among fly purists who started out lure fishing, a majority will verify that initially it was extremely hard to put faith in tiny dull flies. It takes time to perceive that a small offering is often the one most likely to be eaten. It is even more incredible that this can be true even when the fly is presented under the cover of darkness.

Once, at Dee Lagoon, I watch a spin fisher wandering along the shores. He carried with him a tackle box which looked more like a brief case and inside there was a regiment of fish spoon wobblers. I suspect that he had one of every colour that the manufacturer had ever produced. He would tie on a lure, spend ten minutes or so fishing a hundred-metre section of shore, return to the tackle box, tenderly replace the lure in its assigned space, clip on an alternative, and fish the same beat again. The tackle box rooted him to an unproductive section of shore and cut his effective fishing time by at least half. During the time I watched him he sampled non of he diversity of the rest of the lake shore, took little interest in the water and must surely have continued his fishing with flagging confidence. I wondered what powers he would ascribe to the lure which finally passed within range of an aggressive trout.

If, at any water, you examined the favourite lures of the best anglers you would likely find a stunning array of colours. Many of these anglers unwillingly underplay the importance of experience and confidence. As a youngster I was amazed by the consistent springtime bags returned by one old timer at Lake Echo. Eventually I learned that when the frogs were about there were concentrations of big brown trout in the marshes. Since the old man trolled a shallow running lure along the outer edge, he was bound to connect with good fish. Less knowledgeable anglers fishing along the rocky banks were running a lottery. Yes the successful angler had a favourite colour combination. No he didn't waste time changing lures or lose confidence in what he was doing.

Although I have played down the importance of colour, every lure is coloured and a choice must be made. What is sensible and what is hocus pocus?

A good starting point is black. Black has the advantage of achieving a high contrast, especially in discoloured water and in times of low light. Since it is a neutral shade its also vulnerable when trout are unusually wary and has long been used as the principal colour in many traditional wet (and dry) fly patterns. Many people have an innate reluctance to use black and reason that black is not highly visible (wrong) or that it is not likely to act as an attractor (wrong again). Let me assure you that black works. I would not feel too disadvantaged if it was the only colour option allowed. In fact the vast majority of my favourite lures, wet flies, night flies, ands dry flies are black. Believe me - trout have no trouble homing in on a tiny black nymph even on the darkest night. I have been told that black is the almost exclusive preference of a family which heads an international lure manufacturing company. This is despite the fact that the factory must produce a bewildering array of colours in order to remain viable. Black might be effective but it simply does not have pizzazz. Most trout, especially males, colour up during the breeding season, their red, pink and orange hues becoming quite intense. At the same time fish can be seen squabbling along themselves. Thus we observe a link between the colour red and aggressive behaviour. Also, during the spawning runs many fish feed on bright orange eggs which are dislodged from the gravel by other spawners and river currents. Little wonder, then, that the flies and lures used to catch pre-spawners are almost invariably red - or fluoro alternatives in yellow, orange and hot pink.  

Red also seems to arouse curiosity. Once, when fly fishing from gum beetle feeders, some friends and I found a bay where a lot of wattle blossom had been blown on to the water. My standard yellow imitation was consistently refused, and I suspect that the fish were also circumspect about very yellow gum beetles and anything else that might resemble wattle blossom. We tried several dark beetle patterns, and eventually found success with the ever reliable Red Tag. I guess that something with red on it could not be construed to be just another bit of flotsam. Virtually anything partly red seen by a Tasmanian trout would be edible, either a beetle or a fish. Mind you, I think that in these cases red is simply a trigger that says to a trout "I am different from the rest, come and check me out'.

The lures most commonly used in Tasmanian lakes are coloured green and gold. These maintain reasonable contrast in murky water and are also very effective in clear water. The reason why they work is usually rationalised along the lines of "matching the hatch" but us probably more due to the fact that they have been employed with consistent effect for so long that novices use them as a first choice. Confidence leads to success and thereafter the angler sees little reason to experiment with alternative colours. Thus the tradition is perpetuated.

Most baitfish in saltwater are flashy so silver is a logical and effective colour to use when targeting sea trout. Mind you, green is also popular and I attest to the effectiveness of black (yet again).

My only experience of glow-in-the-dark lures in Tasmania was at Lake Pedder, though Fish Cakes with luminous spots seemed to me to be no more or less effective than those dressed in normal colours. I affirm the effectiveness of lucent flies at many New Zealand river mouths, notably in the Rotorua and Taupo districts, and especially when fishing for pre-spawned rainbows, but I note that anglers who prefer to use traditional flies, including all-black flies, seem to fare well enough. Just why trout bother to strike at little beacons sliding through the night water had never been explained and, of course rankles the sensitivities of purists appreciative of the "match the hatch" philosophy. Will we ever understand the intensity of a trout's curiosity and/or natural aggression?

There is an old adage that suggests that it is best to use bright lures on bright days and dull lures on dull days (is this the opposite to what you would expect?). I am firmly convinced that such pedantic are overwhelmed by more important considerations. Let's face it, if you fish near the surface when heat has forced fish down deep, you won't have much success no matter what colour you use. However, I do accept that rainbows are much more likely than browns to strike at gaudy lures, be conditions bright or dull.

Another common thing for the lure fishers to do is to borrow a leaf from the purist fly fisher's book and try to imitate the food they believe the fish to be eating. Accordingly, black-and-yellow is the traditional colour preference for Lake Crescent where the fish feed heavily on golden galaxias while gold lures are popular on certain mainland waters the trout feed on small carp. These colour choices are known to work and the rationale involved in their selection helps consolidate an angler's confidence. Really there is no compelling reason to try other colours. Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that red-and-black or green-and-gold (or a multitude of other colours) would prove equally as effective. I seriously doubt that trout often strike at lures believing them to be a specific food item.

You can buy expensive gadgets such as Colour C Lector and Multi C Lector which purport to tell deep trollers what coloured lures they should be using. A probe near the bomb analyses, among other things, pH, temperature, clarity, and trolling speed to come up with the ultimate lure colour. The possible readings canvass virtually all colour options offered by the major lure manufacturers. Put faith in one of these machines and your existing lure collection will seem woefully inadequate. Call me a cynic, but it seems like a great marketing ploy. By the way, I have read no scientific assessment supporting the manufacturers claims.

My advice, then is clear - don't worry to much about colour. You could fish the rest of your life with only black or red-and-black lures and catch just as many trout as you would otherwise. My tackle box also contains green-and-gold and silver lures, and I advocate fluoro colours when targeting pre-spawners.

When visiting unfamiliar waters you might as well use tried and proven local patterns - if there is general consensus about what is best- otherwise it pays to stick with what you would use in similar waters at home.

Many experts argue, tongue in check I am sure, that lures are designed to catch anglers not fish. Whatever the truth be, you don't need dozens of lure styles and colours to be a successful trout fisher. You will catch more fish if you keep your kit simple and learn to pay attention with what is happening around you.