Yesterday the pattern terminated in a PK Panic and I feel pretty certain water color had a lot to do with the ultimate color selection—firetiger. We’ve been speaking of color, as it pertains to fishing. The angler’s palette. Color adds that final brushstroke to a pattern. But just how complex should the subject be?
Complex enough for me to complete an article on the topic for the 2013 Bass Guide and have a quite a bit of copy left over.
I talked to pros and friends about studies, where fish learned to avoid targets of any color that gave them a slight electric shock and consistently hit the colored targets that produced food. According to Rich Zaleski, you can throw all studies out the window that were performed in a lab. “Show me how they respond in the real world,” he says. He has a point (though the study I mention proves to my satisfaction that bass can be conditioned quickly with color, whether done in a lab or not).
Scientists and fishermen both pay attention to what bass respond to. Each group is tuned in to its own wavelength (though I daresay fishermen often listen to scientists better). Much like the fish we study.
What’s the visible spectrum for bass? As far as we know, it includes the colors that the rods and cones in their eyes suggest they can see. But, for an angler, from the standpoint of applicability, it means which colors they respond to best. Dr. Keith Jones, author of Knowing Bass, says stick to the part of the spectrum between red and green when experimenting with shades of colors—the portion of the spectrum most of the visual apparatus of a bass is best tuned in to.
The topic can, of course, become much more complicated. Unless you don’t want it to. Some adhere to the kiss theory (Keep It Simple, Stupid). They tend to apply the same handful of colors and patterns to every situation. For others, color is another aspect of the game that allows us to play endlessly without ultimately concluding anything of importance whatsoever. Color can be a very complicated topic. If you want it to be. Easy to understand why many of us don’t.
How complicated? Moving across a region from lake A to lake B, we find different genetics. Bass in those lakes have, historically, responded to different prey in different numbers and in different water colors at different depths with varying degrees of success. Successful color theory has something to due with how bass have been tuned in to color and patterns over the millennia. How bass tune in to color may depend on things like depth of prey interception, water color, and historic prey types and abundance. The way I look at it, every lake has its own set of effective colors.
Consider prey abundance. In Lake A, the most abundant source of protein might be supplied by silver shiners. For the “match the hatch” crowd, that suggests a steady diet of silver- or white-sided lures with black dorsal regions (natural countershading). But how will substrates, water color, and ambient light in Lake A affect the appearance of shiners? Silver and white might not be the colors bass see at all. If the water is stained, copper or gold shades may create the most natural imitations of a silver shiner. If the water is clear, natural countershading in “natural” shiner colors (the same ones we see) should work better. Looking at a lure you’ve just dipped into the water may not tell you what bass actually see, but it does provide clues. Looking at live craws and minnows in the water with the naked eye and through a camera lens can provide more clues. But don’t get too carried away—what a bass sees is almost certainly different, providing another facet to any theory.
One day I sat down to review photos taken on the water and every fish looked bright yellow. Hmmm. Took me a moment to realize the fish were reflecting light reflecting from the yellow sweatshirt of the photographer. Each lake, reservoir, and river is surrounded by a landscape that reflects light into the water, suggesting that conditions (sunny, cloudy) play a role. Organisms living in the water give it color, pine pollen adds a shade of yellow, and the mix of suspended sediments have a say in which colors reflect and which do not. Without getting any more complicated than that, is it so hard to believe that each waterway has a unique chemistry and thereby a short list of colors bass see best? And another list of colors that blend in best? And that all animals living there have adapted their own colorations based on those colors? And that those two lists may differ slightly from the lists you develop in waterways just down the road? They might also be exactly the same, but when traveling to different regions we often see stark contrasts in lure colors that get bit consistently well.
After talking to all these “experts” it occurs to me we’re all experts when it comes to color on our pet fisheries. At the very least, we’re researchers. Anyone who experiences bass responding differently to various shades of the same lure has a piece of the puzzle in hand. When noting those preferences in correlation with conditions and water color, another piece falls into place. Keep going? Up to you. Just remember: Since every lake, reservoir, and river carries a unique blend of sediment from a unique region, and each rests or runs over a unique blend of substrates—the differing palettes blend, for each waterway, a unique water color. We may not be able to tell the difference, and bass probably can’t either, but every shade of water color changes the appearance of the lures you drop into it in subtle ways. Things living in that water adapt to those unique substrates and water colors, ultimately allowing them to blend in better.
And predators learn to respond to what they see. Trying to interpret what that might be, armed with a blend of science, practical experience, and a palette of colors filling a tackle box certainly makes you an artist, of sorts, if not a full-fledged researcher on a topic science necessarily coughs at. “Ahem,” the professor clears his throat. “Moving on to subjects where something can actually be proven…”