Can Fish See Color?

Everyone has their favorite lure colors that they swear by. I am no different, with my preference for chartreuse lures and flies.

But do colors really matter that much for catching fish?

Some say, “Yes”. Some say, ”No”. I say, “I don’t know”. But we can examine the issue and see if we can come to some sort of conclusion.

How Do Fish See?

Vision seems to be a little different from one species to the next, especially when it comes to colors.

Studies have shown that most fish species vision is geared more towards motion detection and contrast recognition, rather than colors. It seems that fish that live in deeper water have less color vision than shallow-water species, which makes sense as most colors are gone after around 50 feet or so.

Other species have eyesight that is better in low-light conditions, which is why they are active night feeders. Some fish’s vision is best at daylight and dusk, which is why they bite best at these times. Distance plays a big part in this as well, as most fish are nearsighted. They use their sense of smell and hearing to close in on prey, and only use vision in the final attack.

Sharks are the exception to this.

They are farsighted, and cannot see things up close very well. This makes sense as most species have an extra eyelid that closes during a final attack, to protect their eyes. They use sight more than other fishes until they make the final assault. Of course, sharks aren’t really fishes, as they have cartilaginous skeletons, rather than bone.

He evolved 450 million years ago, during the Silurian Period, so a lot of things had already been worked out, giving them the opportunity to experiment with new stuff, like 5-7 gills, no swim bladder, etc…

Lure Color Selection

Scientific studies have shown that the choice of lure colors is a complicated issue, with no clear answer.

Under some conditions, lure colors seem to be able to improve your chances of attracting a fishes attention. Under other conditions, color is of little, or no importance in attracting fish. A lot of it has to do with the way light reacts with water.

What you see as colors are not what a fish sees.

What we actually see is called the Visible Spectrum. These are the colors that we can actually see. Humans can see the wavelengths from dark red to deep purple, or violet. Indigo is the farthest we can see into the short wavelengths and Smoky Topaz in the long wavelengths.

Beyond these are infrareds and ultraviolets. These are outside the Visible Spectrum, and our capability to see, but fish and other animals can see them. The long wavelengths, or reds, have less energy than the short wavelengths (blues…). This effects how far they can penetrate into the water.

The water clarity has a lot to do with how far light can penetrate water.

Saltwater and water with a lot of algae and other particles will restrict the light waves and not allow light to go as deep as clear freshwater. As light penetrates deeper into the water, the less energetic wavelengths will begin to disappear. Reds go first, generally at a depth of around 10 ft. Next, the orange and yellows begin to fade out at around 33 feet deep. Beyond 60 feet, there is nothing but blues, grays, and blacks.

What this means is that your red lure will appear gray at 15 feet deep. But, since fish see into the infrared and ultraviolet, to them it might appear as green. If you are fishing deep, say 40 to 50 feet, it doesn’t seem to make any sense to use anything other than gray or black lures. According to most studies, it would seem black is the safest way to go under most conditions.

But there is an exception to this. Fluorescent colors, which do not appear in nature at all, react differently.

They react with ultraviolet light, which penetrates the deepest. Fluorescent colors are visible much deeper and from a farther distance. But they may not appear the same to a fish as they do to you. The Fluorescent Orange on your Fire Tiger-colored Shad Rap may appear as shades of green to a fish at 30 feet.

Studies have indicated that at times, under certain circumstances, a particular color may get attention from some fish. For example, fish that develop orange breasts during the spawning season, such as bluegills, are more likely to attack a lure or fly with an orange breast. Fish that are gorging on a particular baitfish will show a marked preference to lures that are colored and marked similar to the baitfish.

Some Final Thoughts

Color is not the only thing that attracts fish.

The profile, or shape of a lure, the noise and vibration it puts out, and the contrast against the background all have significant effects on the effectiveness of a lure.  Studies indicate that contrast may be the most important issue as far as vision goes.  Black lures are your safest bet in most conditions.

It contrasts well with most natural environments. Most fish will be looking at your lure from underneath it, and the black shows up well against the sky. This is why most fish are light-colored on the belly. It makes it harder to see them against the sky. Multi-colored lures that contrast work well. Red and white is a classic color combination that still works great most of the time.

Black and white, Chartreuse and white, Yellow and white, and black and yellow are all great combinations.

Keep in mind how your lures will look to the fish at different depths. Use lighter colors in darker water, and dark colors in clear water.

Buy the colors you like the best. We all have our favorites. Mine is chartreuse. But keep in mind that most lures (and most fishing gear, in general) are designed more to catch you rather than to catch fish. And it works well, according to the financial records of most major fishing tackle companies.

Does a gray and white Big O really outperform a red and white jig? Probably not, but the Big O can set you back $4.00 or more, while the jig is less than a dollar, or better yet, you can make your own for around .25 cents or less apiece. But, you should use what you like. Your confidence in a lure plays a very important part in the effectiveness of a lure. And besides, collecting lures is half the fun….

Happy fishing…

Leave a Comment