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Most anglers never consider that what looks good on the surface might look completely different underwater. Color changes underwater, and in some instances, changes dramatically.

By Chester Moore


WALK DOWN A LURE AISLE in any tackle store, and the first thing you will notice is the myriad colors available: blacks, whites, reds, blues, purples, greens, oranges, yellows and innumerable combinations thereof. The idea is to “match the hatch,” so to speak, and use colors to mimic what the fish are feeding on in nature, and at the same time use something that works with the water conditions in a given area.

What we perceive as color is light reflected from objects to our eyes. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum—energy or “radio” waves with frequencies that happen to be visible. Different substances reflect different frequencies, which our eyes and brains interpret as colors. If an object contains two or more substances that reflect different light frequencies, we see a mix of frequencies that present a mixed color, e.g. red and blue produce green.
Author Chester Moore prepares to dive with a lure "color board" to observe underwater color shift. Photo by L. Moore.

At Surface
10 Feet
 30 Feet
                                             60 Feet

Orange is the color with the next degree of change. It maintains color at 10 feet, but at 20 turns a rust color, at 40 switches to dark brown, and at 60 feet turns black.

Yellow comes in third with no changes at 10 and 20 feet, but a slight change to pale yellow at 40 feet and then white at 60 and beyond.

Green does not change until you hit the 60 feet level, where it turns into a pale green.

Blue, whose frequency is at the highest end of the spectrum, is least affected by water and shows little change except at the greatest depths. Because blue is a major component of green, the latter color also remains more true at greater depths. The next highest color frequency is ultraviolet, which is invisible to the human eye but believed visible by some animals.

Black objects, which are comprised of substances that reflect almost no light, and white objects, which reflect all visible light frequencies more or less equally, exhibit minimal color loss or shift at depth.

Neon colors remain truer at depth and in a variety of water clarities. Hot pink and neon green, two colors popular among bass anglers, still display vivid color at depths far beyond that at which an angler will deploy them. The reason is that ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the naked human eye, penetrates to extreme depths and causes neon colors to glow.

I have personally noticed this while scuba diving in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean. I have seen neon yellow and pink jump right out at me from other diver's suits, while their reds turned to brown and black. The first time it happened, I thought, maybe that's why neon lures work so great, but I did not put much thought into it until I started researching this article.

For years, I had wondered why colors that do not appear often in nature—if at all—are so effective for luring fish. I defy anyone to go into a freshwater reservoir and find a neon chartreuse-colored anything. Nonetheless, that color is highly effective on largemouth bass and other species, and much of it has to do with what a fish can see at various depths.

A Fish's Perspective

Like human eyes, those of a fish contain two types of cells, rods and cones. Cones are color receptors and, as such, function only when there is adequate light. Rods are for night vision. They do not translate colors, but detect light intensity, which our brains process as black and white.

An excellent report titled How to Select Lure Colors for Successful Fishing made for Wisconsin Sea Grant by author and researcher Linda Campbell details this explicitly: “Total light intensity is also important. On a cloudy day, colors will not penetrate as deep as they will on a sunny day. At dusk, as light intensity falls, reds are the first colors to go, followed by orange, yellow, green, and blue.

“As total light intensity decreases, the fish's eye switches to vision with rods, and the fish is no longer able to distinguish colors. After dark, anglers should choose between a light lure and dark one. At dawn, as light intensity increases and fish switch back to cone vision, the order is reversed, and blues, greens, yellows, oranges, and reds appear. At early dawn, some anglers are successful with a red plug near the surface. To fish striking from below, it shows up as a dark lure against the lightening sky. As the day gets lighter, red no longer works well, and anglers must experiment with more visible colors.”

Studies on salmon have shown that their feeding behavior depends on whether they are seeing with rods or cones. During the day, salmon use cones to give them information on the hues and shades of moving prey. When prey is first located, they are stalked and eaten head-first. From dusk to dark, rod vision takes over. Schools of prey fish break up and salmon assume a position below to see prey in contrast against the water surface, and then snap them up one by one.

This pattern matches that of many predatory species and illustrates how a fish's perception of color can make a huge difference in our ability to catch them. The key is using things fish can see against the background in which you find them. At depths where it is nearly dark, a white or silver lure would show up better than a blue or green lure against a blue-green background of water.

Using This Knowledge

Look back at your own fishing experiences and think about what worked in different situations and what did not. Very often, I have heard anglers declare certain colors better for clear water because the fish can see them better for whatever reason. Just because we think the lure will be easy to see underwater does not mean it will be easy for the fish to see. If you are fishing a red crankbait among brown trees and brush past 20 feet, the lure will appear brown and blend right in with the surroundings.

Think about what the commercial netters are doing and act in reverse. They are changing their net colors to be invisible to fish so they can catch more. (They make their living catching fish, which is why I believe it is always good to follow their lead.) Consider how colors change with depth, and feed the fish something they can see easily at target depth.

As noted, many factors go into how color appears underwater, and exactly what colors a fish might strike, but the basic principles are easy to remember—and they help us catch more fish.

My Underwater Color Observations

In preparation for this article, I took a board rigged with artificial lures of various colors and dove in a sandpit near my home. The idea was to get photos of the lures on the board at various depths, but the first experiment did not go well because of pitiful lighting conditions and poor weather.

Not all was lost, though. One thing I noticed was the luminescent and neon lures really jumped out. I have always been a big proponent of luminescent-colored lures for saltwater applications, and this gave me even more faith in them. Since many fish have vision quite like that of humans, this experiment gave me a unique perspective into exactly what fish are seeing at different depths.

Before I went under, I “charged” the neon and luminescent lures with my camera flash to give them some radiance. Anglers fishing piers frequently “light up” their glowing lures before casting out, and it seems to work.

When I went down to the bottom of the 30-foot pit, the neon and glow lures really stood out and gave off a shine. The shine faded after a bit, but I learned that if I want fish to see these lures, which I frequently use, I need to “charge them up.”

I plan to do more color experiments in the near future, and will share them in these pages later this year. A large portion of those experiments will involve glow and neon colors.