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Steelhead And That Color Thing

Steelhead And That Color Thing

Trails are slick, dangerous ribbons of hard ice, packed into place by the passage of deer throughout the winter. Snow is deep where the sun can't reach it, but mostly gone from south-facing slopes. Crows caw at our passage — a  cacophonous interruption in the silent wood. We follow the top of a long ridge on our way to a pool I call the Conifer Cathedral.

Towering white pines, stands of balsam, and a patch of giant cedars guard the pool. Nobody there. Nights have been frigid, keeping the water cold. Huge, thick ice shelves remain, tossed against the banks like discarded train cars, vestiges of a harsh winter. They act like enormous ice cubes. Temperatures have reached 40°F several days during the week. The resulting snow melt also kept the river cold — somewhere in the mid 30°F range. Though some fall-run fish may yet remain to assault the gravel, most spring-run steelhead sit in the larger pools in these conditions, waiting for a small jump in temperature to trigger the resumption of migration (unless day length intervenes, but that's grist for another post).

Mary and I shuffled to our usual stations and looked at the water: Up slightly from average, and moderately cloudy. Using a custom float made by a friend in Wisconsin (Tim Rumlow), I selected a taupe leadhead from my selection of TC Tackle Steelhead Jigs (406/683-5485). Taupe is a flesh color and an earth tone. It would hide in the slightly cloudy water, letting steelhead and resident browns focus on the bait. I selected a 1/64-ounce jig because, regardless of conditions, each river seems to have its own optimum jig sizes and weights that work  best. In the Midwest, those sizes range from 1/64- up to 1/8-ounce in most cases. In my experience, the bulk of our steelhead in smaller rivers demand 1/64-ounce jigs and, depending on ambient clarity and current speed, 1/32-ounce jigs work well most of the time on larger rivers, while 1/24-ounce jigs rule when the water rises a bit and, when rivers get high and cloudy, 1/16-, 3/32- and, sometimes, 1/8-ounce jigs produce better. Very seldom will a 1/4-ounce jig excel, even though that's a popular size out West.

Nothing on taupe. So I switched to a more visible orange-yellow swirl pattern that worked so well on this river in similar conditions in the past. Nothing. Noticed stoneflies crawling all over the ice and snow on the banks, so I matched them for size and switched to a stonefly nymph, but despaired that trout wouldn't be able to see it. So I tried a  TC Tackle Stonefly Jig tipped with two waxworms and had the same result. Tried a pink plastic worm. Ditto.

Mary was going through similar experiments of her own. We fished our way through three pools, experimenting to the point that we both began running low on our favorite fluorocarbon leader material (on this river, in these conditions, Raven 5.8-pound) with one small brown trout to our credit. "Water temperatures like these represent winter conditions," I said. "In winter, the best bites often occur during the middle of the day, so maybe that's it."

As if by way of affirmation, Mary snapped her 12-foot St. Croix float rod into a big, thrashing arc. Turned out to be a small "precocious" steelhead of about 3 pounds, but one with an important story to tell. "Bit a bright, chartreuse spawn bag," she announced. Hmm. Looked back at the water. As the sun climbed and the air temperatures grew warmer, creeks were obviously rising with snowmelt, because the water was getting cloudier. And higher.

I switched to a bright chartreuse jig — still 1/64 ounce — painted with CS Coatings powder and, two drifts later hooked the fish in the photo up top. Mary switched to the same size TC Tackle Steelhead Jig in the same color and neither of us looked back. In the next few hours, we banked 7 more really nice fish, lost 4 or 5 others, and popped at least 10 of those smaller precocious units and 4 more brown trout — all amazingly fun to catch in open water after hovering over ice holes in portable shelters all winter.

Did the fish just turn on at midday, as they so often do in winter? Or did we dance around with the wrong colors and baits all morning? Probably a little of both, but you might want to postpone drawing final conclusions before hearing the remainder of the testimony. As visibility shrinks below two feet, most experts on the vision of fish and most of the better steelheaders I know opine that contrasting colors are more visible, thereby resulting in more strikes. In clear water, I counter with the opinion that what fish can see best isn't always the best thing to use. In very clear water,  especially around spooky or pressured fish, I believe in hiding the package — up to a point. But, in cloudy water, I concur: Contrasting colors generally seem to produce better results than jigs matched with baits of the same color.

Most of our fish were hooked with bright orange or bright apricot spawn netting on those chartreuse jigs. While chartreuse-on-chartreuse did work, it seemed to take much longer to hook up. And while pink-on-chartreuse is a good contrast that often works, neither of us hooked a single fish when using pink spawn bags. Yellow netting produced similar results, and when I tried a yellow jig flecked with tiny metal flake, I hooked nothing even when contrasting it with orange or apricot. Yellow being so similar to chartreuse, I was mildly surprised when, after switching back to chartreuse, I hooked 4 fish in the same run.

Experiments like these are never conclusive of anything, by themselves. But many years of similar experiments tell me that the most important thing we did to catch more fish the other day was switching to chartreuse jigs contrasted with bright orange Redwing Tackle netting material.

My experiments with color began over thirty years ago, when a friend outfished me badly using pink Redwing float beads in chartreuse netting. I had pink netting and I had chartreuse netting. The fish simply couldn't be that picky. Could they? The next day I had pink beads in chartreuse netting and we each caught an equal number of fish. I also had chartreuse beads in pink netting which caught nothing. Coincidence? Steelhead there — on Michigan's Rogue River — continued to respond best to that same combination for months, and continued to mostly reject every other possible combination of pink and chartreuse jigs, netting, and float beads. One thing was certain: None of the other combinations could outproduce my friend's original mix of pink beads and chartreuse netting — not for a day, an afternoon, and not for a single hour — even when water levels and clarity changed.


I've seen similar results to similar experiments hundreds of times, and I've experienced dozens of days where color made almost no difference at all (color always makes some difference, one way or another) — none of which is scientifically conclusive. But science can't solve this puzzle. It involves the psychology of fish — which is all but impossible to examine — along with a list of parameters so long (shades, conditions, degrees of clarity, changing light levels, water color, etc.) as to daunt even the most modern and computerized team of ocular and behavioral scientists on earth.

But, when scientists did experiment with rainbow trout and color in a certain laboratory, they found that all of the fish choose similar colors of salmon eggs drifting by and the colors they rejected were the same as well. And, when background colors changed, egg-color preferences changed along with it.

Just saying. I've seen enough, over the past three decades, to suggest that steelhead can be extremely — excessively — anal about color, prompting me to carry not just every primary color, but jigs painted and polished in every shade of every primary color. Which, I realize, sounds like I'm the one being anal.

I see the point. I carry at least 14 shades of pink jigs and 6 shades of pink plastics and, with my vest on, I look like I weigh about 300 pounds (I weigh 215). But if you think pink is just pink to steel, I think you need to rethink pink.

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