Pull out your spinnerbait box and scan the array. What colors dominate? If you're like most anglers, you keep buying white and chartreuse models and some with a combination of the two colors, and perhaps a mix of chrome and gold blades in various blade styles.
Choosing the proper color should not be a matter of whim or past success. There's a reason manufacturers continue to offer a far broader color array than most anglers carry.
Spinnerbaits don't duplicate natural forage, but instead create a moving aura that hits the hot buttons of bass and other gamefish. Those hot buttons are the innate trigger mechanisms that tell a fish that something's edible and vulnerable.
To create the most appropriate aura, many variables enter the decision process when choosing colors, sizes, and blade configurations. Water color, sky conditions (cloudy or clear), effective fishing depth, typical prey, and cover type should be considered. Spinnerbait manufacturers offer many lure patterns proven deadly on bass. But they rue the fact that too few anglers take this opportunity, instead stocking their boxes only with variations of white and chartreuse.
The Van Dam Philosophy
Over the past decade, bass champion Kevin Van Dam has demonstrated his prowess with spinnerbaits, outfishing the best bass anglers in the world time after time. Observers often note that Van Dam fishes slowly, but in rapid fashion. He precisely executes each cast and retrieve, feeling the bait move at all times. Yet he covers water at an incredible clip, somehow seining out any bass willing to bite. Not surprising that his lure of choice often is a spinnerbait.
"I grew up fishing a spinnerbait in clear lakes in Michigan," Van Dam says, "and on the tournament trail, I've found how well spinnerbaits work in the dingiest water we visit. Spinnerbaits can work anywhere and any time of day or season, provided you select your lure carefully."
Van Dam focuses primarily on three selection criteria. The first factor is water clarity; second, light and sky conditions and surface chop; and third, dominant forage in the body of water. He recommends: "Take all three into consideration when taking out a spinnerbait first thing in the morning. Often you can plan the first and third factors ahead of time, but you have to get on the water to determine sky conditions and light factors.
"I like to watch spinnerbaits from underwater; it aids in understanding the way they attract fish," he says. "In clear, calm water, the surface looks silvery, like a mirror. Light-color spinnerbaits blend with the surface when seen from below, the angle that bass generally see the lure. I try to fish spinnerbaits above the fish about 95 percent of the time.
"A key to spinnerbait fishing is disguising the lure, masking its true identity and instead giving it the aura of a live preyfish. The blades provide flash for attraction, but bass attack the head and skirt. That's why spinnerbaits hook fish well—they bite from behind the hook, as on a jig.
"For spinnerbait fishing, though, optimum conditions are low light with some chop. These conditions break up the light, reduce light penetration, and seem to encourage bass to feed more actively. You can't beat a spinnerbait in those conditions. In clear water, bass can be caught on almost any color, but in my experience, you'll catch more and bigger fish with natural colors in the skirt and head, and metallic or painted blades.
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"In clear water, consider a translucent look to the lure, like actual shad, shiners, silversides, or other baitfish. Strike King, for example, offers five different shades of spinnerbait with a basic shad appearance.
"In clear water, I also pay attention to the head design and color. The blades become a blur and the skirt wavers, but the head stays still, with just a bit of vibration from the arm above. I feel that bass focus on the head, so the more lifelike, the better. Eyes are important, and even small details like gill slits and red highlights can draw extra strikes. Attention to detail is most important in clear water, as you'd guess.
"In clear water, metallic blades sometimes give off too much flash. In the northern states, sometimes you'll start catching lots of pike but few good-size bass. I take a waterproof marker and color the outside of the blade, the reflective side, green or blue. This still offers flash, but it's muted. The color will stay on for a couple hours.
"In ideal spinnerbait conditions on a clear lake, I often fish white willow-leaf blades on a fast retrieve. Flash from metallic blades is reduced under cloudy conditions, and the painted blades give the lure greater visibility. Visibility is important because under these conditions, fish see a bait and attack it from a good distance. But from below, the lure is still somewhat disguised because the sky looks whitish when it's cloudy, and wave action breaks up the profile, too.
"Vegetation also helps disguise a spinnerbait and make it look edible. That's one reason spinnerbaits work so well over weedy flats. Another favorite of mine for a dark day is a double willowleaf model with one blade painted white and one chartreuse.
"In stained water, I go to two extremes," Van Dam continues. "Chartreuse contrasts with most backgrounds, and its fluorescent characteristics help bass home in on it. But black also works in dark water.
"Most stained water is brown, green, or reddish. Black still contrasts. Of course, I work with blade types, too, under those conditions. I choose Colorado blades for their thump and vibration, saving willowleafs for clearer conditions. And slower retrieves work better in stained water, giving bass more time to locate a source of vibration and hints of color. In clear water, faster retrieves are better.
"The final factor is dominant preyfish, and I consider three basic categories. Most preyfish are similar, with silver, some green and blue, and a touch of yellow, including shad, shiners, alewives, and others. Sunfish species, primarily bluegill, greens, pumpkinseed, and shellcracker, can be important prey, along with yellow perch.
"Spinnerbaits with a mix of blue, green, and chartreuse in the skirt imitate sunfish well. For perch, green with a bit of black and a touch of red and white works. For crayfish, browns and greens are good, as well as reds and oranges. These colors give a general crawfish pattern, though I still retrieve the lure so it's above the bass, not a natural crawfish position, of course. But those colors still can be the best choice in spring and fall when bass rely on crawfish."
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Contrast Can be Key
In-Fisherman contributor Ralph Manns is an avid angler as well as a fishery scientist who has devoted much thought and study to the vision of black bass. "Two key factors are whether a lure can be seen, and then whether it looks edible and catchable," he says. "Bass can be selective, hitting only lures with the same colors or flash of the currently targeted prey. Usually this color fixation occurs only when bass have found an abundant prey supply and are feeding competitively.
"Visibility depends to a large degree on background color. Is the lure above the bass, under them, or at the same level? Is the background dark rock, green vegetation, or blue sky? A dark lure on a dark bottom or a green bait in vegetation is camouflaged and natural in appearance, but may go unseen. Solid colors like bubble gum or chartreuse that are interesting in silhouette may look phony on the bottom. But over a dark bottom, a bass may, for example, notice and approach a pumpkinseed-color spinnerbait with a chartreuse trailer.
"That sort of partial camouflage creates a lure that's hard to define but easy for bass to find because the trace of chartreuse contrasts and adds visibility. Two-tone spinnerbaits work well when fished near bottom, while those fished well above the fish would best mimic silvery baitfish.
"The cone cells that give bass color vision have maximum sensitivity to blue-green and red-orange. Red against green water or a vegetation background creates high visual contrast. Other pairs of colors that each stimulate different eye cells, like blue and yellow or green and orange, make lures easier for bass to detect.
"Red may be attractive by imitating blood and injury. In brown or silty water, however, where red to yellow light is predominant, red-orange and brown lures reflect available light and may be the most visible color.
"Red light is absorbed rapidly in the top few feet of water, regardless of water color. Green light penetrates deepest in green water. And in clear and deep water, every light frequency but blue is absent. All other colors tend to darken with increasing depth. In the depths, blue lures reflect light while reds are dark."
Other Color Considerations
Texas anglers have long relied on red Rat-L-Traps and other vibrating baits in spring. At this time, rising water levels have made the water murky and have left dense beds of hydrilla and coontail several feet below the surface. Anglers fish red lures above the grass, barely ticking it, to entice a strike from below. Perhaps red in contrast against green vegetation, as Ralph Manns mentioned, contributes to red's effectiveness.
Innovative anglers have found red-hued spinnerbaits equally effective and more snag-free. Rick Collis, veteran guide on Lake Fork, fishes a Johnson spinnerbait with a red head and chartreuse skirt almost exclusively in spring when the water's dingy. "Red is just a killer color at that time, maybe because bass are eating a lot of crawdads," he notes. Adding chartreuse gives an extra attractor in low visibility conditions.
"Bass feed heavily during the prespawn, and any help you can give them in finding a lure helps. That's why I use Colorado blades, to give off more vibration to let fish know something's out there."
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Copper blades have long been recognized for their effectiveness in stained water. Some top anglers also have discovered the magic of black spinnerbaits. "It's the diametric opposite of the world's best selling color, so maybe that tells you something right there," Ralph Manns says. "When I lived in Austin, Texas, and fished with a bass club there," Manns recalls, "one of the perennial top finishers relied almost entirely on a black spinnerbait, particularly during the first hours after sunrise, a time when I'd generally do well with an all-black Norman Deep Little N. I picked up on the spinnerbait, but after a few successful years with it, the entire bass club started fishing black spinnerbaits, and it became much harder to win with that presentation."
Black spinnerbaits have special appeal both in the moderately stained waters of central Texas and in the clear natural lakes of the Northeast and Midwest. It takes a little coaxing to fish a black spinnerbait, after relying on chartreuse and white for so long. But those first few bites go a long way toward creating confidence in a lure. Black works particularly well for me in spring and fall, but those are the best spinnerbait seasons in this region.
"Black contrasts with nearly all background colors," Manns notes, "so it's visible to fish that are hunting. At night, black spinnerbaits worked above the fish contrast with the sky, which is comparatively light due to stars, the moon, and city lights.
"Spinnerbaits generally work best fished above the level of the bass, but if you're slow-rolling along the bottom, bass may target the lure from above. In that case, a light contrasting color should enhance bites. Skirts with a little chartreuse or light blue work well. Two-tone baits, with black and a lighter color, excel at night."
Around the time bass spawn, spinnerbaits with a general bluegill appearance work well throughout the largemouth's range. Barbara Cooke-Stevenson, veteran guide on Lake Fork and Lake Cooper in Texas, keeps one tied on during that period, so much so that her clients have dubbed it "Barbara's Special."
"It's the one Johnsons' makes that combines chartreuse, lime green, and orange; they call it firetiger, but it really resembles a bream," she says. "Bluegills swarm around the bass beds, and the largemouths take after them with a fury. They really crush this color during spring."
Alan McGuckin, Public Relations Manager for Outdoor Innovations, makers of the Terminator, comments on color from the business side. "We follow the advice of our pro staff and do a lot of field testing to determine skirt, blade, and head combinations that make a lure effective.
"We offer a wide selection, but it seems that too many anglers want to buy only basic chartreuse, white, or combinations of chartreuse-white. We've had to remove some of our best colors from our spinnerbait selection. Our gizzard shad color, which included gold, silver, and black, was a killer, but it didn't sell well.
"Arkansas bass pro Rob Kilby designed the blue shad, with a SilaChrome blue skirt matched with two nickel blades. That bait is deadly in clear water, but the blue didn't interest anglers as much as it interested bass." One of my favorite Terminator colors for northern lakes was shellcracker, with a touch of strawberry, blue, and chartreuse. Its sunfish appearance is a killer around vegetation, but it too is only available in a slip-on skirt, a great feature offered by companies like Outdoor Innovations and Northland Tackle. "I hope your article educates anglers in the need for different colors," McGuckin adds.
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Skirts Plus, the maker of the silicone roll-up skirts for both those companies, also offers their Nature Scale Kit. With the simple tool provided, you can create your own skirts, matching colors of preyfish or adding highlights that may increase bites under various conditions.
For versatility in blade choice, Terminator and Secret Weapon Lures offer special designs. Terminator's Jimmy Houston Speed Bead Series incorporates a small silicone bead on the wire frame that lets you swap the rear blade, and the Quik Clevis lets you change the front blade, too. Secret Weapon spinnerbaits feature a flexible arm with a snap at the end for changing blades, and an alternative color is packed with each spinnerbait for tinkering at home or in the boat.
For the ultimate in realism, check Millennium Lures, offering spinnerbaits with photo finishes of preyfish on the head and blades. According to company president Don Frey, images are dipped in rubberized clearcoat to provide a long-lasting finish to their special bent-blade willowleaf spinnerbaits.
Cliff Liddy of Persuader American Lures of California notes that western anglers seem more willing to break the mold when it comes to largemouth spinnerbait color. His company offers blades with powder painted blades and heads, a process by which colors are electrostatically applied, which is more costly than painting but gives a more translucent look.
"Our chartreuse-blue combination has been a fast seller for several years," Liddy reports. "We sell loads of them in Arkansas and Missouri, suggesting that many avid anglers are seeking new blade combinations but are having a hard time finding them among local manufacturers. Our new rainbow trout model has found huge demand out west."
Frank Johnson, president of Johnson's Jigs and Spinnerbaits of Quitman, Texas, notes another fact: Bass bite the spinnerbait you have tied on, not the one in the tackle box. "I've seen anglers catch fish on the most outlandish color combinations, then they try to find more like them, or else they call and ask us to make one like that.
"We offer a large array of colors that match many water conditions and common types of bass prey, but standard colors offer economic benefits to lure companies. Price discounts are associated with large purchases of standard colors, which result in larger profit margins for retailers. We get input both from the retailers who want the basics and from avid anglers seeking unique stuff."
Overall, a trend to more lifelike spinnerbait skirts has occurred, matching them to traditional gold and silver blades. Stanley Jigs now offers primarily nature-based skirt combinations. "We see great demand for these new natural colors," says company founder Lonnie Stanley. "Our Super Scales colors such as rainbow trout, peach perch, baby bass, crappie, Cajun crawfish, and sun perch have been successful, both for retailers and for anglers."
*Kevin VanDam, Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a brilliant angler and bass fishing champion.