June 26, 2023
While Lake Erie typically gets credited as the birthplace of the custom-colored hardbait craze—with walleye anglers painting over existing crankbait colors/patterns in garages and workshops—Dan Quinn, Rapala’s Director of Field Promotions/R&D says it actually goes back farther than that.
“Custom colors all started with the Luhr-Jensen salmon guys in the Northwest,” Quinn said.
“You talk about being picky with minute color details; it’s unbelievable in the Pacific Northwest and the salmon world. If the bait’s got 3 pink dots instead of 5, they’ll swear it won’t get a bite. Meanwhile, they’re taking a piece of fish and tying it to the top of the lure and trolling in fast current for fish that have likely never been caught before,” he said. “I can’t personally speak to it, but as a group, they unanimously agree that certain colors and minute details make all the difference in the world. But hey, if it means having a fresh salmon on the grill, or not, I’m going to listen up and take notes. The interesting part of trolling is the ability to experiment with colors and have more of an argument that this color catches more fish than that color, versus a guy fishing new water and casting lures, trolling seems to level the playing field a bit more and maybe make it a bit more ‘scientific’ if you will.”
On the side that color truly matters, you have to give the salmon trollers credit because they’re fishing multiple lines at a time in the same scenario, at the same period of time, and learn what colors/patterns catch more fish after repeating the process ad nauseam.
“Bait color is a hard thing to understand. I think it changes so often that it’s difficult to say if these custom color schemes really work unless you’re fishing at that exact moment—whether that’s Bret Alexander trolling Super Shads on Green Bay or anglers fishing king salmon in Alaska or you’re trolling walleyes on Mille Lacs,” Quinn added.
So, following the birth of the custom-color craze with Northwestern salmon anglers, the notion spread to the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Erie’s basin-trolling walleye anglers dragging multiple hardbaits.
“The Great Lakes walleye custom color market has been going on for over 10 years at Rapala, and it’s grown every single year,” Quinn said.
“There are hundreds and thousands of custom-painted crankbaits out there—a lot of garage-shop stuff—with guys doing runs of a hundred baits. And now retail is buying Rapala baits at cost, they custom paint them, put them back in the box, slap a custom sticker on them, and charge 50%-70% more than a retail-ready Rapala. Big-box stores like Bass Pro and Cabela’s have also gotten into the game, too, with custom-painted Rapalas—and anglers are paying a lot of money for them.”
How do these specific color combinations, shades, and patterns emerge?
“I’m not sure how the custom paint crowd comes up with their colors and patterns, but what’s interesting is they keep evolving,” he said. “The hot color on Green Bay this year will be different from the what the hot color was last year. While I think a lot of these custom colors catch fish, I believe it comes down to confidence in a particular color and what you keep in the water longest.”
“But Rapala—like a lot of other bait manufacturers—has embraced the custom color craze. We started with a handful of colors in our trolling baits like the Deep Husky Jerk, Husky Jerk, Shad Rap, Glass Shad, and now we’ve extended them into Rippin’ Raps and ice fishing lures, too.”
At the end of the day, Quinn thinks that custom colors get anglers excited because they’re something new to try and fun to experiment with.
“Look at the Wonderbread craze. Now you can get just about any lure in Wonderbread. The fishing public went crazy for it. And it seems to catch fish, so there’s not much to argue.”
So, what will be the next Wonderbread?
Hard to tell, but Quinn said one custom color introduced by Rapala has outperformed every other by a long shot.
Its name? Juicy Lucy—just like the two-patty, cheese-stuffed hamburger of the same name first conceived at Minneapolis’ Matt’s Bar & Grill in the mid-1950s.
“Our new ice fishing Bull Spoon in golden-hued Juicy Lucy was lights-out catching fish everywhere we fished it last winter,” he said. “And that’s spread to our other open-water baits in the same color. There’s definitely something special to Juicy Lucy—like Wonderbread.”
Seems like discovering stand-out, fish-catching custom colors like a Wonderbread or Juicy Lucy comes down to lots of anglers experimenting with them in different regions of the country—and finding those regional and universal fish-catchers amongst the endless color variations now available.
“Not to pigeon-hole custom-color cranks to Lake Erie, there are a lot of walleye anglers fishing them everywhere—from Lake Michigan, to Mille Lacs, to the Dakotas, river systems, you-name-it,” he said. “And there’s a lot of crossover. Anglers talk and much is shared via social media. That’s how specific colors take off.”
That said, Quinn divulges that Rapala is “just getting started with custom colors” and they’ve “got loads of them in the pipeline.”
Quinn also noted that Rapala’s traditional approach to walleye bait colors typically started with a white bottom paired with an orange or red throat—a time-proven pattern that mimics most walleye forage.
“But there are exceptions to the tried-and-true,” Quinn said. “I have a friend who fishes walleyes on the Mississippi River a lot and insists we fish crankbaits with a pearlescent bottom. Based on the results fishing with him, I can’t argue. I don’t understand it. And most of our trolling was done at night. You wouldn’t think a pearlescent crankbait bottom would make a difference, but it has on numerous occasions.”
Northland Tackle On Custom Colors
Like Rapala, Northland Fishing Tackle has been in the walleye tackle game for decades upon decades. Talking with Northland Marketing Director, Mike Anselmo, we asked him about the color craze given their move into “limited edition” colors—besides offering dozens of other colors—in their Rumble Series hardbaits.
“There are two things come into play here. The first is confidence and the second is the forage base in the regional body of water,” Anselmo said. “For example, on the St. Croix River, walleye anglers really latched onto our Rumble cranks in Bubble Gum Tiger. Word got out that it was a fish-catcher and tackle pegs within a two-hour radius of the metro were wiped out of that color. Yellow Tiger also took off with St. Croix and Mississippi River walleye anglers.
“And in the western states, anglers went crazy Purple Tiger, clearing out all retail inventory. And the gold colors always produce on Lake of the Woods. It does seem to matter, but you also have to have confidence in what you’re fishing. If the forage base suggests chromes or golds, those typically produce; or, in stained water, much brighter colors like Bubble Gum Tiger routinely catch fish.”
Color Plus Forward-Facing Sonar
Now, with the advent of forward-facing sonar, you can actually watch real-time walleye response to bait colors on an LCD screen.
“So, you’ve got anglers throwing different colors with the same cadence and the evidence on the screen proves that one color stands out as you watch fish react on LiveScope, MEGA Live, or Active Target,” Quinn added.
“Talking with Adam Rasmussen and Tony Roach about the Rippin’ Rap bite on Green Bay, they say some days you can throw a purplescent bait into a pod of fish and get nothing, then throw a Juicy Lucy, and immediately catch a fish,” Quinn said.
“Other Green Bay guides like Bret Alexander and Kyle Tokarski swear by certain colors, too, typically any goby-matching pattern with a purple back. Why does a purple back matter? Who knows? But time on the water every day has to mean something—ultimately, that color does truly make a difference in the weird and ever-evolving world of walleye fishing.”
While it is typically bait cadence that makes all the difference between who catches and who doesn’t in the same boat, you have to really wonder about the validity of color choice if the same angler cycles through bait colors watching fish response on forward-facing sonar. Why does the same bait model, size, and cadence in one color draw a response when another doesn’t?
I guess the lesson here is to carry lots of colors—and rifle through them to get walleyes to bite. And if you’re lucky enough to have forward-facing sonar, then watch how walleyes react on the screen, eventually finding that one color that does the trick.