April 27, 2020
There was a time when friends and I went cuckoo for crankbait colors. Each time a new Shad Rap, Hot ‘N Tot or ThunderStick color appeared on the pegs, we couldn’t help ourselves. Fish took cracks at most of these patterns, even the wildly colored, obnoxious ones. I suspect much of the lures’ appeal stemmed from their proven, dead-on shape, action, and vibration. But other factors being equal, color can become the trump card, often the best way to separate yourself from the pack.
Scott Stecher, owner of Reef Runner Fishing Lures, knows the quirky, persnickety nature of the walleye lure consumer. “One man’s bargain bin is another man’s goldmine,” he says. “But other than the classics, many hot colors eventually fade into oblivion.
“I remember when a Texas Red Reef Runner Ripstick won an early Professional Walleye Trail tournament—a muddy-water event on the Great Lakes,” he says. “Post-tournament hype spurred a big demand and we sold a ton of Texas Red Ripsticks.
“Eventually, demand faded and we discontinued it. Oh boy, did we get phone calls. Some fishermen pleaded with us to put the color back in the lineup, which we finally did. In the end, a grand total of six people bought 100 Texas Red baits. When we retired the color for good, we still got calls from fishermen who never forgave us. So goes the crankbait biz.”
About 40 years ago, one of the original extreme crankbait colors came to pass. I recall the first time I fished firetiger-pattern Bomber Model As and Long As in the early 1980s. They produced many good catches and still work wonderfully, especially in the darker waters of my stretch of the Upper Mississippi River. Anglers speculate that firetiger’s effectiveness is due to its green-chartreuse-orange combination, which in any water condition at least one of those colors should prove to be the right one—one of them being highly visible to walleyes. I subscribe to this school of thought, given that walleyes are most sensitive to shades of red/orange followed by green. The pattern’s success might also be due to its black, perch-like markings, particularly the black vertical bars on lures like Rapala’s Shad Rap and Husky Jerk.
A second-generation crazy pattern, “clown,” combines a bright red head with a chartreuse back and white or silver belly. Rapala offered early versions of this pattern in several lures, perhaps based on old-school Heddon baits in the classic red head, white body pattern—maybe the first true crazy color. Years later, companies have enhanced or altered original versions, including Rapala’s Glass Pink Clown or Reef Runner’s Cranberry Crusher.
Color Palettes in Perspective
In my early years as a walleye guide, I logged every fish catch and the lures they ate. After so much success with a single crankbait color, it didn’t take a written record to figure out the best bait: a bright orange, crayfish-pattern #5 Shad Rap. The Crawdad pattern has endured in Rapala’s lineup to this day, one of 46 colors in the current Shad Rap color palette.
Back then, we didn’t have nearly so many colors from which to choose. Anything orange felt like a radical departure from traditional dark back/white belly baits of the time. Today, it’s a different story. Roughly half of any lure’s color patterns don’t imitate anything in nature.
Companies like Reef Runner offer an array of creative color options. The original Reef Runner—one of the most productive Great Lakes walleye baits ever made—comes in no fewer than 75 colors. Stecher, who’s ridden the edge of trending crankbait patterns, has pioneered patterns like Eriedescent, forerunner of what folks now more commonly call Purpledescent.
“Eriedescent might be the most important color pattern in the last decade,” Stecher says, who acquired Reef Runner—originally a small weight-forward-spinner company—from his friend James Feltman in 1988. “Out of the water it doesn’t seem to imitate anything in nature, but under water, it’s a different story. We devised Eriedescent by scooping up minnows and examining their scale and body colors, which shift in different light conditions and when exposed to light at different angles. We noted multiple colors, including yellows, purples, chromes, and greens.
“It’s been a phenomenon on the Great Lakes, but has now become a mainstay in lakes and reservoirs across the country. Every crankbait company now makes their own version,” he says.
At Reef Runner headquarters on Lake Erie’s Marblehead Peninsula, Stecher maintains a well-worn lure painting booth. He’s constantly experimenting, looking at lures and fish under water, always working toward the next hot pattern. Local charter captains like Lake Erie guide Captain Ross Robertson often stop by the shop to offer suggestions and refinements and occasionally ask for a quirky color.
“When we look at lures under water, regardless of color combinations, fluorescents or holographics, I like to see a blink,” Stecher says. “I call it a ‘light switch.’ It’s that on-and-off, usually dark-to-light blinking you see when the lure shimmies or swims. Whether a lure is blinking at you from red to green or black to white, that’s the yin and yang that seems to trigger more fish than a solid color.
“If you look at our color lineup, you also notice we like anything with dot patterns. Wonderbread is a classic example of this. Walleyes see colors in such a way that dots are perceived as eyes. So instead of one minnow profile, they may see a 3-D illusion of several minnows swimming together.”
Robertson, who’s guided on the Great Lakes for over two decades and won tournaments there, sees a connection between spoon manufacturers and new-wave crankbait colors. “The concept of creating a continuous series of new colors originated with Great Lakes spoon manufacturers like Silver Streak, Eppinger, and Michigan Stinger,” he says. “It was a competitive thing among charter captains. You wanted to stay ahead of the next guy, and often the best way to do it was to have the latest, greatest spoon color.
“In the 1980s, Storm Lures was one of the first companies to make custom crankbait colors for Great Lakes charter captains and anyone willing to order a gross,” he says. “Scott and Reef Runner took that philosophy to the next level, giving us cool colors like Monkey Puke, Cheap Sunglasses, and Trailer Trash Pink. As a constantly tinkering lure maker, he’s still willing to create custom colors for his best customers.”
Robertson says that crankbait color progressions from Reef Runner and other companies have evolved in response to the Great Lakes’ continuously clearing water, which has also shifted walleye feeding preferences. Moreover, water color changes within each year, depending on rainfall, wind, and algae.
Recent studies also suggest a decline in alewives, once the predominant forage among most Great Lakes predators. Walleyes increasingly eat more round gobies rather than alewives or other chromatic pelagic forage—a trend that started about a decade ago. It’s the reason Reef Runner recently unveiled its Ripshad 44 Mag—a loud-rattling shadbait that dives up to 25 feet. Patterns like Naked Perch pop under water as the bait shimmies at different speeds.
“In the early 2000s, gaudy, obnoxious colors like clown, Monkey Puke, and anything with big giant dots caught most of our fish,” Robertson says. “These garish patterns produced in dirtier water than we have today. From there, we went to purple and pink phases, as water started to clear. Purpledescent rose to prominence. Two years ago, we were crushing fish on transparent colors. Bare Naked pattern Reef Runners were hot and continue to be productive at times. In recent years, we’ve also had success with Cranberry Crusher—a bright pattern with a pink head and belly and a chartreuse to prismatic back and side. Pink Lemonade has also endured as an effective pattern.”
Crankbait Pattern Progressions
Robertson fishes at least six rods at a time and often starts the day with two rods rigged with snapweights and Ripsticks and two more flatlined with shallow Little Rippers or deep-diving Reef Runners. Starter colors include Pink Lemonade, Purple Demon, and some variation of chrome or chrome and blue, namely Blue Hawaiian. He’s also become a fan of Bandit’s Walleye Deep lures in similar chrome-blue patterns. “But no matter how hot it’s been, I never put out six chrome-blues to start the day,” he says. “Instead I start with two of each—maybe two Purple Demons, two Pink Lemonade, and two more Chrome Blue. Color preferences shift constantly. I’m always tweaking things, searching for the next player.”
Minnesota-based guide Tony Roach, who trolls the open basins of Mille Lacs and other Minnesota waters, works through a procession of bait types. Every day’s trolling spread begins and ends with a mix of lure colors. Most days, however, begin with at least a few lures from his “fish-catcher box,” an assembly of rag-tag baits riddled with tooth holes.
“Every year is a little different, too, as forage size and abundance are ever-changing. You’ve got to adjust your program accordingly. Usually, I kick off the early season with Husky Jerks and balsa Minnows. In early summer, I progress to balsa Shad Raps and then to Tail Dancers and Shad Dancers—higher-action lures. Shad Dancers have been working well lately, in Purpledescent and Blond Yellow Perch. Then, plastic Storm Smash Shads and Glass Shad Raps figure into the program as water temps and fish activity peak. Rapala’s assortment of lures and colors never leaves me without a trick up my sleeve.”
Crankbait whiz Keith Kavajecz believes that several colors can be in play in a single waterbody. “More and more I see where one group of fish prefer a certain color or pattern. Meanwhile, a separate group of fish might show a tendency toward something different. To me, walleyes don’t become conditioned to colors. But after we run through and catch a bunch of active fish from a school, we often have to adjust crankbait color when we hit a new group.
“In a spread of six rods, we always start with a few confidence colors,” he says. “We might also put out a couple local favorites and then a couple more experimental colors to test. From there, it’s an ongoing process of fine-tuning—sometimes as simple as adding a few dabs of orange or purple to an all-chrome bait.
Longtime tournament ace Chris Gilman also relies on magic markers and lure dips such as Spike-It. He finds that adding a splotch of green, gold, or purple to chrome baits can make a difference.
Along with his lifelong friend Gary Parsons, Kavajecz has helped Berkley design top-producing crankbaits, including his current favorite, the Flicker Shad Jointed. “The jointed Flicker Shad has a higher-pitched rattle that sets it apart and brings more fish to it than a lot of the lures we’ve fished,” Kavajecz says.
“We’re also fans of Berkley Flicker Minnows and the Digger, a short fat bass-style crank that shines on leadcore,” he says. “The Skinny Cutter is a topnotch jerkbait for pitching in shallow water.
“We when pick lure colors, we look first at available forage. Not so much the type of forage, but rather the abundance of different prey species. If walleyes are keying on perch, but perch aren’t abundant, we’ll probably choose a perch-pattern crankbait. But if the lake harbors an explosion of perch, shad, or another species, that’s when we go to gaudy colors—pink, purple, orange, chartreuse—to set our baits apart. You can’t compete with an abundant, natural baitfish population. But you can work around it by showing fish a different look.
“We use bright colors in dark, dirty water. But we’re just as likely to run certain gaudy colors in clearer water. In open-water situations, purple is still a winner. And red works everywhere there’s crayfish, like Lake of the Woods and Leech Lake. In the Dakotas and lakes with freshwater shrimp, red can be good, too. And red is always a good color for casting crankbaits, for whatever reason.
“The past season, one of our favorites has been Berkley’s Flicker Shad Jointed. People look at jointed baits as high-action, summer-only options, but we’ve found they’re also producers in spring and fall. Just slow down trolling speed to 1.2 to 1.4 mph.
“A color called Firetail Red Tail has been a revelation. It’s got a dark back and light tummy—classic baitfish pattern—but it’s also got a bright red tail. I hated it at first,” he says. “But it’s proven me wrong and has become a go-to color almost everywhere. Our current thinking is to sometimes add a dab of bright color—what we call a triggering area—to traditional-colored baits. You can also do it yourself with lure paint or a Sharpie.” Fish have responded exceptionally well to “spot” patterns, he says, which have spawned other new Berkley colors, like Firetail Hot Firetiger and Firetail Hot Perch.
For Robertson, the current hot player is chrome and variations thereof. “This past year, chrome patterns like Cheap Sunglasses are back in a big way,” he says. “Yesterday, we ran a handful of colors and caught all but two of our 35 fish on some type of chrome, Cheap Sunglasses or Chrome/Blue.”
Stecher adds an observation regarding classic “chrome” colors. “While these metallic chrome patterns sparkle when you look at them out of the water, lures painted with an outer chrome, metallic shell actually turn black below the surface. That might be what’s been triggering Ross’s walleyes.”
A UV Connection?
“The best way to maximize flash is to put a strip of chrome or plastic sparkle in the middle of a transparent plastic bait,” Stecher says. “Our Bare Naked or Eriely Naked patterns feature UV foil inserts that reflect light under water,” he adds. “We’ve found that it’s not necessary to add UV overlays on existing fluorescent colors.”While the available science tells us that walleyes can’t see UV light, anglers believe there’s something compelling about these colors that fluoresce under UV light. Sales of Rapala UV pattern baits, in particular, have been gradually increasing.
“For me, the whole UV thing started in winter,” Roach says. “We caught a ton of fish on UV pattern spoons through the ice those first few years. Once my confidence in UV was sky-high, I started experimenting with UV on crankbaits. The fish justified this move right away.
“In clear water, anglers think they need to go natural with crankbait color. But it’s amazing how many times Orange or Pink Tiger UV work in that clear water. Green UV is great around perch. In many cases, these loud UV colors are outfishing the traditional minnow and perch patterns by wide margins. Even in high sun, those purples, UVs, and bright fluorescents can be hero colors, whether I’m fishing a balsa bait, or later on when I’m fishing a more active Storm Smash Shad or Glass Shad Rap.”
According to walleye tournament veteran Chris Gilman, Rapala Scatter Raps have been hot baits. “On Lake of the Woods and other places with basin bites, Scatter Rap Shads and Tail Dancers remain kind of a hidden secret,” he says. “The lure wanders at random and looks like a minnow trying to escape. We’ve custom-painted a few of these with good success. But on many days, the original Clown pattern or UV Green gets crushed.”
If you’re prone to occasionally go a little cuckoo for crankbait colors, you’re in luck. Lure makers guarantee they’ll never stop applying fresh paint. It’s why we keep going back to the tackleshop—there’s always a possibility we’ll find a crazy new color walleyes haven’t seen before.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications. Guides: Captain Ross Robertson, bigwaterfishing.com; Tony Roach, roachsguideservice.com.