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Cracking the Steelhead Color Code

New data have amended what we know about why steelhead choose one color jig, lure, or egg over another.

Cracking the Steelhead Color Code

Sometimes steelhead are extremely selective—reacting to one color over all others. 

Bright sun. Slight breeze. Warm, sunny, October afternoon. Too many people around on days like that, so we parked ourselves in a good pool at daybreak and stayed put. But we worked it for over an hour without a take.

We kept changing jig colors and I finally elected taupe—the most boring color in the box­—in this case sort of tan with a hint of pink. Waxworms added, I pitched it to midstream. And the float dove on the first drift. After landing the fish, the float was ripped under on the next drift.

Fighting a second steelie, I directed my partner Mary to a jig box in my vest. “Open it up,” I said. I pointed to a jig. “Tie that on.”

“This? You’re kidding.” I shook my head. She tied it on. And her float disappeared during the next drift. Resting the pool for a bit after each steelhead, we took six more from that pool.


Were the fish there all along, refusing every other color but taupe? Steelhead do migrate, after all. Could have suddenly moved in. But changing pools during a bright, calm day in clear water? I rather doubt it. And that wasn’t the first time we observed steelhead being very picky about color.


Where can a taupe jig be purchased? I doubt it can. It was a 1/64-ounce custom-made TC Tackle jig painted with Taupe Drawer, color #920 in the Pure Ice nail polish lineup. Not to discourage anyone, but go to Walgreens and it might be possible to find 6 or 7 shades of taupe. Go to a department store and there could be 5 or 6 completely different shades of that color. Pink? Dozens, maybe hundreds of variations exist. And steelhead love pink.

Will steelhead really pick one shade of pink over every other? Might sound ridiculous, but I believe they do. Sometimes. Some days steelhead will strike a variety of colors. But sometimes they are extremely selective—reacting to one color over all others.

Most of the time, steelhead respond to a few different colors based on conditions, but genetics seems to play a role, too. Rivers with naturally reproducing steelhead have shown a decided preference for one specific color year after year in my experience. No scientific research supports that notion, but a half century of observation and journal entries might have some small amount of merit.

Science does reveal that bluefin tuna have very poor color perception, while steelhead see color better than we do. Since bluefin spend a lot of time deeper than 100 feet, color perception is probably less important, and the ability to see silhouettes high above them more important, for survival. Steelhead spend most of their lives much closer to the surface, even while out to sea. Color perception becomes an advantage for fish that feed selectively, as trout often do.




Steelhead are color-conscious to the extreme. New data, observations, and techniques have amended what we knew about how steelhead see the world and why they sometimes choose one color or shade over another.

The Physiology

The eyes of steelhead are similar to human eyes in some ways and very different in others. Both human and steelhead eyes have an iris, a retina, and a lens. A human iris dilates or constricts like the aperture of a camera to regulate light levels reaching the retina. The iris of a steelhead is fixed—it’s the retina that regulates light levels.

Both have rods and cones, providing color vision, detail, contrast, and night vision—but young steelhead parr have cones that allow them to see ultraviolet light. Humans don’t. And neither do adult trout, according to recent research by Dr. Iñigo Novales Flamarique. Humans have more cones for seeing green while steelhead have more cones for picking up blue.

Recommended


Pink yarn jig attached with fishing line to a BloodDot Bead
Contrast colors when visibility is less than 2 feet—here a homemade yarn jig painted glow-pink with Pro-Tec beneath a chartreuse BloodDot Bead.

The factors that affect color visibility under water for steelhead 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. Steelhead see color very well in clear water, especially on bright days. In cloudy water and on dark days, color perception is compromised.

Depth plays a role, too. At 10 feet down in average clarity, red disappears—filtered out because the wavelength is long—while blue, with its shorter wavelength, remains true. Finally—fishing pressure comes into play. Aggressive colors like chartreuse, glow, and fluorescent orange can actually spook highly pressured fish in clear water, yet might be essential in cloudy water even where fish are worked over really hard.

Then we arrive at the morass of available light, which gradually increases to noon then decreases 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 and on cloudy days. 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 (glow being abnormal).

All the above factors can be used to help select colors. Before choosing, look at water clarity, the sky, and fishing pressure. Start with bright colors on dark days and in stained or cloudy water. Start with dull or flat colors on bright days. When fishing pressure is high, select colors the fish have never seen. That’s where nail polish comes in.

“Bright” is somewhat relative. Just because hot pink seems bright to us, it might be subtle for a steelhead—especially one at the bottom of a 6- to 10-foot pool—even in very clear water. Pink disappears at about the same depth red does.

Five different color jig heads
TC Tackle 1/32-ounce jigs sport nail-polish colors steelhead rarely if ever see—peach, mauve, taupe, bubblegum, and metallic green—a positive advantage with pressured fish.

At the other end of the spectrum—cloudy water— glow colors are effective. Phosphorescent paints illuminate surrounding particulates in the water, literally putting a spotlight on the jig. Anytime visibility is less than 2 feet, glow is a good place to start.

Water color affects how steelhead see your lure. It filters the light, enhancing some colors and modifying the spectrum of colors. In blue water, red becomes brown. In rivers that are slightly brown or stained, chartreuse or yellow really pop.

In deep brown water, over the years, I’ve had the most success with lime green or green glow, probably because green wavelengths extend farther than other colors in that water color. In green water, chartreuse and yellow take on different shades of yellow-green while green itself is accentuated.

To know if steelhead are really responding to chartreuse, use a fluorescent version in green water. In crystal clear water, the only thing limiting how steelhead see color is depth. Red and orange filter out first, followed by violet and yellow, then the greens and blues. In all but the deepest, cloudiest rivers, green and blue are visible throughout the water column.

In cloudy water, contrasting two colors tends to be more effective than using a homogeneous color for steelhead—an observation made by many guides and respected anglers. Contrasting fluorescent or glow versions of orange with chartreuse, pink with white, and other bright combinations is key. These days, I do it by threading a bright bead on the line above a yarn jig of contrasting color.

Creating Color

Heavy pressure can be a tough condition to deal with, but it can be combated with color. When pressure is high and the water is low and clear—the toughest conditions of all— show steelhead subtle colors they’ve never seen. That’s when nail polish comes into play.

Nobody can go to the tackle shop or go online and find mauve jigs. Or that shade of orange I call peach. Or taupe, or various shades of pink. Most companies offer jigs in one shade of pink only, and it looks pretty similar to everyone else’s shade of pink. Hard to walk past a nail-polish display without seeing a new shade of pink. And once you start using polish, it’s even harder to walk past without buying something.

Paint jigs using the brush in the bottle. Put on one coat, then wait 24 hours to apply a second coat. Wait another day to paint on a clear hardener like Sally Hansen’s Hard As Nails. That way the color will last through more encounters with rocks and steelhead teeth without chipping. Finish coating jigs at least 24 hours before putting them in a jig box and they won’t adhere to each other when touching.

With glow and fluorescent powder paints, use a small candle to heat jigs. Don’t hold them in the flame much longer than 10 seconds per side. Swish the heated jig through the powder—don’t dip. Reheat, higher over the flame, for a couple minutes, rotating constantly, then hang on a rack to cool. Apply Sally Hansen’s hardener and allow to dry overnight.

Many have said they believe the smell of nail polish puts steelhead off. Not true. I always apply scent to cover negative cues like L-serine—an amino acid we all have on our skin that really does put steelhead off. But scent wears off and steelhead still bite when the color is right.

Eight different colored and patterned egg beads
These Cleardrift Clear Soft Beads have color but allow light to pass through—a big advantage in low, clear water.

Jigs are opaque and there’s nothing to be done about it. Beads—probably the most popular baits for steelhead today—offer the option of translucency, another critical factor when the water is low and clear. Light passing through a color can be a deadly trigger when things are tough. And beads are commercially available in thousands more shades than jigs.

Michigan guide Steve Martinez (Indigo Guide Service) recently told me “everybody wants to use floats and beads now. It’s rare to get requests for anything else. Casting crankbaits used to be one of the most popular techniques, but not anymore. Now it’s primarily floats and beads.”

For most of the past decade I would have agreed. Beads consistently banked more steel than my bait-fishing partners. But in the past few seasons, on the rivers I fish, baited jigs have outfished my bead selection almost every day out. I still try beads most days and I’m sure they’ll make a comeback, but for now it’s back to the nail-polish department.

Steelhead vision is extremely acute. They are visual predators with exceptional color perception and they use that to their advantage. Use that knowledge to your advantage by showing them colors they’ve never seen.

The most important thing about color is keeping track. Each river has a color code to crack. The code is written in water color, conditions, genetics, and depth. Steelhead can be maddeningly fussy about color. Keeping a journal and looking over data collected over the years makes color selection much easier. It at least provides a place to start.

*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been fishing for steelhead and telling others about how best to understand and catch them for most of his life. He’s an exceptional multispecies angler and was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2019.

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