Colors For Steelhead
December 15, 2011
Mighty McTrout twisted into odd contortionist shapes to block my view. "McTrout," I demanded, "I know you switched colors because you've caught the last five steelhead in a row. And you're not that much better than I am. Usually. C'mon McTrout. Give it up." Sheepishly he showed me his pink jig and I went about happily sharing the hot bite with him for the rest of the afternoon, tit for tat.
Steelhead are color-conscious to the extreme. I've watched them refuse a silver-green spoon while every fish in the river ripped a silver-blue spoon. That went on for weeks. They ignore every color but silver-blue, then they eat the green one and ignore everything else for reasons that cannot be explained by water levels or other stream conditions. The next year, with precisely the same water levels, they went bananas for a brown-trout-colored spoon and never hit a blue or green version all year. What changed? Nothing we could detect with the human eye.
Steelhead live 4 to 7 years, sometimes a little longer. Most of that time is spent out in the ocean or in one of the Great Lakes. They enter rivers once, sometimes twice, to spawn. Most of the steelhead we cast to are making their first spawning run. How can they be conditioned to a color that was hot last year? Sometimes they keep biting the same color patterns for an entire season, no matter what becomes of water levels and water clarity. I've caught many steelhead multiple times on the same color.
It really gets evil when the "hot" color changes on an hourly basis. A fisherman doesn't have time to analyze the water for sediment, meter the light coming from the sky, or make a relative water-clarity analysis. What we need to understand is how the eyes of a steelhead work, and what they can or can't see once they enter the river. What we need is a little taste of science, and a river full of intuition.
What We Know
Color itself is determined by absorption and reflection of light. If something is red, it reflects light from the red portion of the spectrum and absorbs the rest. White is the absence of all color, reflecting the entire spectrum, while black absorbs all colors and reflects nothing (which is why black clothing is hot and white clothing cool on a sunny day). The factors that affect color visibility underwater are: (1) particulates in the water (the amount and type of organic matter suspended actually determines the color of the water itself); (2) depth; (3) distance; (4) weather; and (5) amplitude of light.
In the clearest possible water, the amount of light that penetrates to 150 feet is about half of what's available at the surface. In lakes slightly to deeply clouded or stained, available light is halved at 3 to 25 feet. As light passes through water, certain parts of the spectrum are filtered out. Red light has the longest wavelength, and violet light, at the other end of the spectrum, has the shortest. But it's the amount and type of particulate matter suspended in the water that determines which portion of the spectrum penetrates best. Blue light penetrates best in clear water. The more organic sediments introduced, the more likely that green or red light penetrates best.
Before delving too deeply into matters concerning depth, remember we're talking about steelhead in rivers. How deep can they get? No more than 10 feet in most cases, and they usually prefer to hold in water shallower than that. Give a steelhead 3 feet of depth with broken water overhead and it feels right at home anywhere on the planet (except the Niagara, the Columbia, the Skeena—OK, back off). But a steelhead watching laterally from a distance of 20 feet sees a lure as one color, then sees it as a different color when it approaches to within 3 feet. This is due to "color shift" caused by the intervening molecules of water and particulates that filter light at a distance.
Then we arrive at the morass of available light, which gradually decreases from noon to sunset. During this process, colors can change hue underwater. Just before sunset, available light is about one-tenth the brightness of midday, and many colors turn gray for a steelhead. The point at which this happens comes earlier in cloudy water. Just after sunset, available light is a thousandth of what it was during the day. Steelhead can't see normal colors at all at that point.
The makeup of the eye determines which colors can be seen. "Almost all animals have the same essential cells, rods and cones, in their eyes for picking up light," says Ralph Manns, fisheries biologist and In-Fisherman's most prolific correspondent on the vision of fish. "Trout are known for their visual acuity. Some animals can't see color while others, like trout, can. While the overall equipment is the same, color reception varies." Where a human sees blaze orange, a deer—in theory—sees some dull shade of bronze, because color reception differs. A steelhead has different color receptors, too, and can (theoretically) see light from the ultraviolet and infrared portions of the spectrum that are invisible to humans.
By dissecting the eyes of various fish species, analyzing contents chemically, and viewing cells with microscopes, scientists observe subtle differences. With the right proteins, rods and cones convert incoming light to a nervous signal the brain can translate into color separation. (Some animals, like dogs, have no such proteins and see everything in black, white, and gray.) Rods and cones contain light-absorbing pigments called opsins, and that's where most of the differences exist. Opsins are basically proteins. According to Dr. Keith Jones, author of Knowing Bass, "the sensitivity spectrum of any specific opsin depends on its protein structure and on the form of retinene it holds." Analysis of these proteins provides clues regarding which colors fish can see. "Each type of fish has its own unique opsins. The kind found in bass are different from those found in walleyes, trout, or any other gamefish."
No matter which colors a fish or human is capable of seeing, the color of the background alters its appearance. Steelhead either see your bait against the bright, frosty glare of the surface or against some background object. The brightness of the surface is determined by wind, weather, depth, and time of day. The color of a background object is determined, in part, by its own natural color as affected by the color of the water and by color shifts caused by intervening distances.
In his book, Trout Biology, biologist W. B. Willers relates how rainbow trout situated in a stream setting were offered various colored salmon eggs against various colored backgrounds. In natural lighting (measured at 330-380 foot candles) against a pale greenish-blue background, trout chose blue eggs over all others, followed by red, black, orange, brown, yellow, and green, in that order. However, with a red background, trout chose yellow eggs over all others, and with a yellow background, they showed a decided preference for red eggs. Every time the background color changed, the color preference changed. So, which color looks most "natural" to a steelhead depends on the background color it's being viewed against.
"Trout can see the same colors we can, plus infrared and ultraviolet," wrote vision specialist Dr. Don Quick in the April 1997 issue of Walleye In-Sider. "Infrared light penetrates freshwater, but ultraviolet is almost absent, except at the surface. Trout often feed at the surface, so perhaps they're able to use their ultraviolet vision to identify insects," which would be important for steelhead fry, parr, and smolts, and less important, it would seem, for adults. But infrared is visible to steelhead at all portions of the water column they use in rivers. Quick warns: "Which objects reflect infrared is unknown. We also don't know which baits may have infrared coloring, because humans can't see it."
Then we have the enigma posed by Ralph Manns: "There's no way of knowing that another person is seeing what you're seeing. We identify a color as a child, we're told it's blue, and we agree to call it blue the rest of our lives, but there is no scientific method for determining if the color you call blue is the same as the color I call blue."
But . . . when the steelhead of a certain river bite spawn bags tied with chartreuse netting and chartreuse beads more frequently than any other color for eight highly skilled, highly intuitive, highly experimental anglers over the course of a decade (River X), something tells me they're all seeing the same thing. (Mommy didn't tell little smolty which color chartreuse was, now, did she?)
Much has been written about the color-selection process for steelhead. In my opinion, steelhead exhibit extreme color consciousness compared to bass, panfish, pike, and other popular gamefish. The most common advice has always been to use bright, fluorescent colors in high, dark, or cloudy water and to use subtle colors in low, clear water. This is good advice, but falls somewhat short of being great advice.
In his book, Color Guide to Steelhead Drift Fishing, Bill Herzog writes more about matching the size and aggressiveness of the bait to water levels and water clarity than about pure color selection. And well he should. But he also writes that, "when rivers drop from brown/white green to dark green, with 111/2 feet of visibility, colors should be bright," and that "yarn colors should contrast with drift-bobber colors." This is meant for the West Coast crowd, since Great Lakes steelheaders use far fewer drift bobbers (Spin-N-Glos, and Cheaters) and the rivers are rarely (but sometimes) green—most being lightly to heavily stained with tannic acid from swamp-landheadwaters. Most other rivers in the Great Lakes region are brown.
Herzog suggests snelling chartreuse yarn to a hook below a hot-pink drift bobber, or hot pink yarn below a black drift bobber (the list goes on to include other combinations as well). With the presentation coming at the fish hook first, the yarn will contrast and stand out against the drift bobber.
"When steelhead rivers have that 'dialed in' green look that every angler drools over," Herzog continues, " visibility will be 2 1/2 to 4 feet. Due to increased light penetration in the water, a wider variance of colors will work most efficiently." He adds, however, that colors need not be so bright, and that his favorite shade is an "old-style nail-polish pink" Okie Drifter.
Without a doubt, "nail-polish pink" is going to be less visible than bright fluorescent pink or neon chartreuse in those conditions. Dr. Colin Kageyama, in his book What Fish See (which is primarily concerned with what steelhead and trout can see), provides a somewhat different take and seems to suggest that what fish see best is always the best choice. He goes into great detail about selecting colors that contrast with background colors in various lighting and water-color conditions. He has chapters and segments devoted to every lure type, including spinners, drift bobbers, crankbaits, yarn, even cures and dyes—applying them to his "See Best" system (which has been adopted by Mepps for a line of spinners). The very name of the system implies that what steelhead can "see best" works best. He does indicate that, at times, enough is too much—such as the overly bright flash of silver-plated blades actually spooking steelhead in extremely clear water. (For these fine resource books by Herzog and Kageyama, contact Amato Publications at 800/541-9498.)
Kageyama sells a See Best kit consisting of six optical filters and lights designed to reveal which colors or combinations of colors fish can see at long and short distances. Instructions say to place a lure or bait you intend to use on a bright background on a bright day or a dark background on a cloudy day, and use a filter that matches water color (blue for clear water, green for green water and brown for muddy water), to eventually determine "which lures are the brightest and most visible? These would be your first choice." (See Best Systems are available for $59.95 at 800/361-3668.)
With spinners and plugs, knowing which colors steelhead see best are helpful, because steelhead will sometimes (but rarely) move 20 feet in streams to take such aggressive presentations. Color shifts come into play. Color choice is more problematic when using hardware for steelhead than it is with bait, because bait (roe, nightcrawlers, mayfly nymphs, maggots, waxworms, crayfish) is going to appear natural against any background unless you add dye (which I never do). With bait and many types of lures, the color a steelhead can see best is not always the best choice. Herzog and I agree about toning down both the aggression and color of any presentation when the water clears, with this disclaimer: When all else fails, try the bright color.
Herzog said that using contrasting colors to make one stand out is seldom advisable under optimum conditions. "Even great science can't replace on-the-river experience for an angler," Herzog says. "Science can tell us what steelhead can see best, but sometimes what they prefer is something totally different. Contrast is better suited to a limited-attraction radius, but don't exceed the attraction threshold. Chartreuse is highly visible in low, clear water, but it's too much. Exciting fish is a positive, but exciting them too much becomes a negative."
The "attraction threshold" Herzog refers to is the point at which lures stop attracting and start spooking. Steelhead don't care about eating much once they enter rivers. Steelhead can show a decided preference for one color one day and hit other colors better the next—on the same river at the same level, under the same kind of sky. Then there's River X, where it doesn't matter if it's sunny, the water is high or low, if it's morning, noon, or evening, because steelhead always respond best to the same color, day in, day out, for years. Everywhere else, in my experience, changing conditions tend to demand color changes.
My system for dealing with color hasn't changed much in 30 years. I prepare for everything, even on River X (because I've been fishing River X for 30 years and I can remember other colors besides chartreuse working). With spawn, for instance, I tie spawn bags in a variety of colors, sometimes matching colors (peach netting with peach float beads, for instance) and sometimes contrasting them (chartreuse beads in pink netting, for example). Even when I'm float fishing (drifting bags under a stream float), I use at least one colored styrofoam bead, placed in the center of the square of netting first, with the eggs on top. That places the float bead right in the center, like an "eye," contrasting with the natural color of the eggs within the colored netting. Fly-fishing with egg patterns long ago taught me that an "eyed" fly almost always outproduces a single-colored yarn egg. The contrast of the eye with the main color is the key, and contrasting the main color with the background color is secondary. Bags with at least one float bead often outfish bags with no float beads, even in the lowest, clearest water possible.
This takes into account the fact that I won't know all the backgrounds steelhead will observe the bait against, and that steelhead rarely react to a subtle bait or fly until it approaches within a few feet, where colors, under most circumstances, remain true or become silhouettes. So many variables exist that no other system can simplify it as well for me. As Dr. Kageyama points out in his book, steelhead can see and feed up or down with a field of vision that covers about 300 degrees, and their color-vision sensitivity differs in different directions. Trying to predict what colors they see at any given moment becomes extremely problematic.
Light intensity can change over and over again within an hour's time, and often does as direct sunlight passes in and out of cloud banks. If the sun is out for hours and suddenly goes behind a cloud bank, color doesn't matter as much. You're going to get bit if you're in the right spot with the right bait, if any steelhead are in front of you at all. Same thing happens on cloudy days that suddenly clear up. Something about sudden light-intensity changes turns steelhead on.
Discussions regarding color selections for steelhead are potentially endless. Don't get lost in it. On the other hand, patterning fish with color is critical, making it a big mistake to head for the river thinking you know what color is going to work. You might be right—but it's still a mistake. Every day is different. If a certain color has been working well over the past few days or weeks, by all means use it. But don't exclude other colors and don't be afraid to experiment at the drop of a hat.
A system is necessary to be efficient. For instance, stained water makes silver look like copper. Silver-sided baitfish look copperish or bronze in stained water. So the first metal bait (spinner or spoon) out of my vest will be copper (cloudy day) or bronze (bright day). But, if fish are rolling and not biting, my next choice—a coffee-colored blade—blends with the overall water color; and the next choice—fluorescent green, pink, or chartreuse over black on a gold blade— contrasts with water color. Color needs to be played with constantly until steelhead bite consistently.
Consistency is critical because some goofy color-blind fish will hit the wrong color and lead you astray. To bank 20 instead of 2, pay strict attention to color and apply it systematically.
As this article hits the newsstands, streams will be in the grip of winter. In green water, "Jim Bradbury recommends his orange/yellow, yellow, and chartreuse jigs for winter steelhead," Kageyama writes. "In testing the Bradbury jigs, yellow and chartreuse exhibited the least amount of deep-water color shift. I would agree that these are his three brightest deep-water colors and make reasonable choices for green winter steelhead water." But Kageyama goes on to suggest that different materials test differently underwater, and that one company's "yellow" may not look yellow at all when viewed through one of his See Best filters. So, how are you going to know yellow is yellow if I tell you to fish it in winter (unless, of course, you shell out $59.95 and buy the See Best system?).
With the exception of a few big rivers, the best wintering holes in the Midwest are rarely "deep." Most of my winter steelhead come from 2 to 4 1/2 feet of water. Wintering steelhead at 31°F to 34°F seek a straight, even flow where the gradient of the stream levels out, slowing the current. They like the sun on their back and seldom bury themselves under 15 feet of water or cover in extreme cold. And they tend not to chase. A jig under a float (the best thing to use most of the winter) has to hit them on the nose. They often fail to respond at all until the jig is quite close. So the color of the thing as it slowly approaches within a foot or two in the low, cold flows of winter remains fairly true. Color shifts don't exist to any appreciable degree in 3 feet of water at a distance of two or three feet. Stay natural.
Salmon eggs begin as translucent in some shade ranging from fairly bright orange to pink, but sometimes appear yellow or even pale lime to us. After tumbling downriver a few hundred to a few thousand yards, free-drifting eggs turn white and opaque. Along the way, the color changes. Knowing which shade steelhead will key on ahead of time when free-drifting eggs are available isn't possible. Colors like apricot, Oregon cheese, peach, pale orange, and white work best in clear water wherever I've fished steelhead anywhere on the continent, probably because they appear natural to a steelhead at close range.
But fluorescent colors can work under the same conditions. A fluorescent color is one that gives off a wavelength longer than the one it receives, and it tends to appear as that color from longer distances underwater, and may begin to elicit a response from a longer distance. Few things in nature do that. Pale eggs, waxworms, and live nymphs are as natural in hue as colors can be for steelhead—but that hardly guarantees a bite. Determining which color is hot on any given day requires experimentation.
Experiments won't work without an efficient starting point. If the water is low and clear in the Midwest (as it normally is in winter), starting at daybreak, begin with a chartreuse or glow spawn bag, a pair of waxworms, or a live wiggler (mayfly nymph) on a chartreuse or glow jig. Within the half hour, if it's sunny, switch to a plain lead jig and a peach spawn bag, nymph, or waxworm. If it's cloudy, try natural (not fluorescent) orange in clear water, pink in brown water, and stay with chartreuse in stained water. With plastics, start with a subdued color like peach, shrimp, or natural orange. Using bright, fluorescent chartreuse baits or plastics under a bright sun in a low, clear stream usually fails, probably because they become too bright—too visible.
But highlighting the central point is the fact that bright fluorescent colors can be the best choice under those same conditions. We're not dealing with automatons. Steelhead are living creatures, albeit with with small brains. But those brains are better at decision making than any computer on earth. They make choices every time you swing something past them, and sometimes their decisions are based on emotive responses. The best spinner fishermen I know use relatively huge #6 silver-plate blades in winter to, as they put it, "wake fish up" when the water is colder than 35°F and force some kind of emotive response. So if you go to a low, clear river in winter without any bright colors, your chances of success drop by a few percentage points.
Fascinating topic, but it all boils down to paying dues and being prepared. A splash of yarn, a plastic egg, or a piece of plastic worm can be added quickly to any presentation to change the color or add contrast. And sometimes the best color is the color nobody else is using, especially on rivers that endure more than a fair share of angling pressure.