How little things have changed over the last 30 years when it comes to lures for winter walleyes. On the other hand, even modest changes have been mightily significant in the production of more fish.
Sturdy spoon-style lures like the classic Bay De Noc Swedish Pimple and the Acme Kastmaster have been with us for more than 30 years and are catching fish as well today as when they were first introduced. The Jigging Rapala, meanwhile, remains one of the most revolutionary ice lures of all time. Yet the "shape" of fishing with swimming lures changed when Nils Master offered the option to jig with a panfish-shad profile bait called the Jigging Shad. More recently, Salmo offered the Chubby Darter, another swimming lure with a unique profile and swimming characteristics. And this season, Rapala offers yet another probable classic in their Jigging Shad Rap.
For the most part, most introductions have been more mundane -- sometimes-important improvements on overall themes. Glow lures, first introduced in the early 1980s, were more recently going to change the way we fish. Then it was new glo or super glow and, the last few years, the whisper was about lighted lures, which mostly haven't caught on. Glow lures have, however, become tools in a larger arsenal.
The ability to fine-tune through the presentation process separates great anglers from the good ones. Most good anglers can find some fish. Great anglers catch way more of the fish that come in to check what's going on. This is even more obvious in ice fishing, because you're sitting stationary on ice -- you should have perfect control of lure movements. Presentation details ultimately determine how successful you are.
One aspect of the process I rarely see discussed except in quick passing is that of lure color and patterning, fundamental elements of the presentation package. The presentation package can be thought of as a blank canvas upon which we paint a picture that will or will not be good enough for the fish to buy. Because ice fishing is such a stationary affair, fish really get to scrutinize your painting.
Granted, lure choice and lure movements are overall more important elements of the presentation package than color and color pattern. Color and pattern, though, are the foundation upon which our painting is built. Get the basic color right, in conjunction with reasonable color patterning, and you go far in making fish feel comfortable enough to take another step toward purchase -- and, finally, given a variety of other factors, to make the final big step. The right color and painting pattern, I'm saying, helps to predispose fish to the idea that everything else you add to the painting is right, not wrong.
FORAGE COLOR & PATTERN
I take several factors into consideration in working through the color puzzle. On one hand, I like to know what fish are feeding on. Particular baitfish project prominent general color patterns. Shad are silver with a modestly darker back. Then, though, look beyond such a general pattern to consider subtle holographic hues that also play a role. In the case of shad, subtle greens, blues, purples, and golds play forth in the right light.
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I'm not saying that "matching the hatch" is critical; I'm saying that knowing what the "hatch" is plays a role in the overall equation and in the final working solution. Often it works well to match most of the hatch (most of the baitfish color pattern), then to add a contrasting color like a chartreuse, a red, or an orange to modestly heighten the overall contrast and visibility of the package. Such a touch of color may also play on a fish's curiosity, just enough to get it to sample a lure -- a tentative bite. At least this is true during the day. Dark-light paint patterning becomes more important after dark, as we'll discuss in a moment.
COLORS WALLEYES SEE WELL
Next, factor in the actual colors each fish species sees well. Our best scientific evidence suggests that, at least when light is present, walleyes see best in the red-orange-green portions of the spectrum -- substantially less well when colors bend toward blues. So, walleyes can be somewhat discriminating when it comes to reds, oranges, and greens. At least in daylight, they may see a touch of orange added to a lure. They can probably see subtle underlying hues in those portions of the spectrum, too.
Overall, though, walleyes are much less discriminating than bass, bluegills, perch, crappies, and many other fish. Those fish, you see, are adapted to doing all their "detailed visual work" during the day, when color is prominent. Their eyes also are filled with the type of cells (cones) that help determine minute color differences and details in color patterning.
Walleyes have far fewer cones in their retina. They can see the colors we mentioned earlier but probably don't discriminate between minute color variations that well. Intricate patterns probably aren't apparent to walleyes, although general patterns certainly are. Practically speaking, bass can note the difference between a clear plastic tube laced with red sparkle flakes and a clear tube with silver sparkle flakes. Walleyes probably see both lures as pretty much the same, although they may, in good sunlight, get a hint of color contrast.
On the other hand, walleyes have many more rods -- light-discriminating cells that work after dark to help see painted patterns on lures in shades of black and white. Rods don't allow detailed discrimination of patterns. Walleyes apparently can in dim light see general patterns well (much better than the other fish mentioned), but they still can't see fine detail in those patterns.
COLORS THAT PENETRATE WATER
Finally, we must also know a little about how different colors penetrate a column of water. In clear water, colors at the red end of the spectrum are quickly filtered and appear as black -- often within five feet of the surface. Blues and greens penetrate well in clear water. Walleyes, though, don't see blues that well; so the water probably has to be ultraclear before blues play a role for walleyes. Greens and chartreuses probably are the most overlooked color option for walleyes in clear waters. They penetrate well and walleyes also see them well. Most anglers reserve chartreuse for dingier water.
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Most walleyes in North America live in moderately clear water. Colors at the red-orange end of the spectrum penetrate quite well in those waters. Greens also penetrate well. So, in most waters walleyes inhabit, the colors they see well also penetrate well. Again, however, so far as we know, light must be present in order for walleyes to see color. And walleyes still probably don't discriminate color details the way other fish do. General color patterns are important. Minute detail is probably lost unless it's the right color or a contrasting color placed where it's obvious on a lure -- a large color spot or slash on a light background, for example.
One other note, here. Because of sun angles and light refraction through water and ice, sunset occurs about a half hour earlier below water than above. Likewise, sunrise occurs a half hour later below the ice. Walleyes have an extra hour of darkness. No wonder their eyes are so heavily packed with the type of cells (rods) that help them do well in dim light.
COLORS AND PATTERNS THAT WORK
So, we have to consider color and color patterning when light's present. Then, we must worry about the dark-light patterns projected by color patterning (the painting pattern) in dim light and after dark. Science seems to suggest, though, that only during the day in the early season, when ice offers a thin, clear covering over clearer waters, does light probably penetrate well enough for us to have to worry about any color details. Walleyes just don't discriminate subtle color differences that well except in perfect daylight. Even during the day, we mostly have to worry about general color patterns.
If all of this hurts your head and you don't want to hear much more, I'll tell you what I've found to work after tinkering with all this science out on the ice. At a minimum, play the two most fundamental color and pattern schemes, gold-minnow pattern and silver-minnow pattern, against each other on the waters you fish. The silver pattern is shadlike, minnowlike, alewifelike, and smeltlike. The gold pattern is bullheadlike, perchlike, and anything-else-like that has a darker color scheme. One or the other of these two patterns is enough like almost everything that swims to do a good general job almost anywhere.
Try playing these color schemes against each other, not just when you first begin the year, but off and on throughout the season, even when you switch spots on the same lake. Do this consistently for a season and you'll see that walleyes in some areas prefer one color scheme over the other. Not always, but often. Often, usually. Defining which of these two patterns is best can alone make a big difference in how many more walleyes you catch on an outing and, especially, over the course of the season. The right color is that important.
If that's all the farther you get, experimenting with color this season, you'll do fine. Still, it's easy to add at least one more color pattern to this modest plan. Most years in the lakes I fish most often, perch patterns are the most productive. The regular perch color scheme of the Jigging Rapala has, for example, been a consistent producer. It's a subtle color theme that relies on green, gold, and yellow, all colors walleyes see well, along with the black vertical slashes that are so distinct on perch.
Yes, I believe the slashes are an important part of the patterning. The science I've shared with you suggests that even in dim light, walleyes can see such markings, at least probably on larger lures like the #7 and #9 Rapala, the two most important lure sizes.
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The perch pattern that I've caught even more walleyes on the last few years is the Natural Perch (#07) Nils Master Jigging Shad. This is an almost perfect perch replica, shape and colorwise, the color a subtle orange with a slash of red on the chin, along with a darker back and the band markings. The nice thing about the Nils Master lineup is the option to toy with two other perch patterns, Green Perch (#84) and another pattern called Black Minnow (#165).
It is at this point that we begin to travel into areas that need further exploration. For those of us who fish waters where the basic perch pattern plays a key role, we might further play the three Nils Master patterns against other lures and patterns from other companies -- Jigging Rapala, Nils Master Jigger, Salmo Chubby Darter, Northland Mini Airplane Jig, and Storm Vertical Jigging Soft Minnow. You might get a feel for the comparative productivity of the perch patterns from these companies by sitting in a group over the course of several nights, just as I suggested with the silver-minnow versus gold-minnow patterns.
Glow patterns also enter the picture. Many anglers do well with them in some situations. I get a lot of good reports from anglers fishing on the Great Lakes and connecting waters. As one might imagine, they often do a job where walleyes spend a lot of time roaming vast distances in loose schools as they search for prey. Get over these fish and they go for the most obvious and aggressive presentations you drop below.
In other instances, it's best to tone it down a little, going with subtle glow. Most of the waters I fish most of the time are heavily fished much of the year. Glow isn't a vital factor on these waters; indeed, intense glow seems to repel walleyes. Then again, on a trip to a portion of Lake of the Woods two years ago, glow lures (subtle greens and reds) worked as well as more subtle offerings, but no better. So, you'll have to experiment. I particularly like the idea of just a bit of glow on a small jig coupled with a lively minnow set below a deadstick.