Cracking the Colour Code

This time round I am going to state some of my views on lure colours. I know that this subject has been covered previously in Pike and Predators, so I hope what follows covers some new ground. All I can speak from is my own experience, and unlike some writers I don't make things up to support my theories, rather I fit the theory around the facts.

First of all, let's get the eye thing cleared up. It sounds great that prominent eye spots should attract a pike's attention and provide it with a target on the lure body. This certainly sounds like it makes sense, and if you are anything like me you will have succumbed to this theory at some time and painted or stuck large eyes on to many of your lures. Baits adorned in this way definitely look to me like they should catch more fish. Unfortunately lures that have small eye spots, one eye missing, or no eyes at all also catch fish. I for one can not discern any difference in catch rate between any of these lures.

Simple but effective home paint jobs.

Many, many surface lures have eyes that are visible to the angler - on top of the lure - but invisible to the pike. Two of the all time classic musky jerkbaits, the Suick Thriller and the Eddie bait have tiny eye spots, or none at all (the Eddie). Both have caught thousands of fish - that is how they became classics.

Spoons are one of the oldest lure types around, and along with spinners, very few examples have any eye spots to be seen. Same goes for most soft plastic lures, and all these are excellent producers of pike. So why do these lures work so well? The answer is simple. It is the action that catches them. In all cases it is what a lure does, and where it is presented, that has the most bearing on its success. Most of my spinnerbaits have plain black heads with no eye spots, no matter what colour the skirts and blades are. These lures even carry on catching when the paint has worn off the lead-head! Yet commercial spinnerbait manufacturers set great store by the paint jobs - two-tone, glitter, flashy eyes - on their lures. It is the blade configurations and colours, and the skirt colours that determines if a spinnerbait will catch or not. Even then this is not too critical.

I read somewhere that the only colours required for spinnerbait skirts for black bass are white, yellow and black, and I think there is some merit in this for pike, too. Most of mine have white or white and red skirts, a few more have black and red skirts, some have yellow or yellow and green skirts and a few have orange ones. The bulk of my takes come to the white and black based patterns. Maybe because I use them most often, but I like to think that I use them most because they work best! They definitely produce under a wide range of conditions. I generally use the white skirts in clear water/bright light and low light or coloured water conditions. The black skirts get used in clear water/bright light and clear water/low light.

Read most musky experts on bucktail fishing and they say that all you need to throw is black. But there are loads of bucktails on the market in loads of colour combinations. The truth about lure patterns is that most are designed to catch the anglers.

The way I see it is that having a whole mess of lure patterns to choose from gives the manufacturer a greater chance to sell more lures. If they only market three patterns, each individual angler will only buy three of any one lure. Give him a choice of ten patterns and he will probably buy at least five. I have a Bagley's catalogue that shows 144 patterns! Making lure patterns attractive to anglers is what it is all about. This is why they put eyes on lures, and fine details, and scale finishes, and throat flashes, and.., the list goes on.

Three ways to limit yourself to three catching colours for each lure.

I know that Gord Burton will jump down my throat (forgive the pun) but I reckon he is wasting his time putting red gill and throat flashes on his plugs. I have been down that road and remain unconvinced that small splashes of colour make a scrap of difference. I guess that what this kind of tinkering does is give the angler confidence, and that is what it is all about. I used to add throat flashes of fluo orange, but now spray the entire belly of a lure as I think this will make more impact on the pike. Just to contradict myself here, my most successful Fire Tiger Grandma originally had an orange belly, but it has now worn off - the lure works just as well as ever it did! 

I have one pattern that I devised which I intended to make pike strike at the head of a lure. Working on the theory that hot orange can trigger strikes and act as a target. The pattern (which I call Cartoon Perch), is simple - fluo yellow body, fluo orange head and bold black hoops. It is a souped up 'jailbird' pattern favoured on Believers by musky trollers (see In-Fisherman videos). You could also say it is a simplified Fire Tiger. Either way it is highly visible, and it has worked for me on a range of lures that I have repainted this way. However, I have no proof that I wouldn't be just as successful using a plain fluo yellow plug.

There is no doubt, though, that fine detail on plugs plays no important part in their effectiveness. Stripes are worthy of mention, and like a lot of lure anglers I rate them quite highly as worthwhile additions to a lure's pattern. My thinking is that they make the lure stand out, making it more visible to the pike. I read somewhere that striped objects are more easily discerned at a distance than plain coloured ones. To my way of thinking, stripes on lures also serve to break up the lure's hard profile and make it look a little more natural. A minor point maybe, as lures do not have to imitate food to provoke strikes. To this end I prefer bold stripes rather than the fine ones used on 'Tiger' patterns. When I repaint a lure in the basic Fire Tiger colours the stripes are often simple affairs, or just black bands or blotches ~ closer to what some catalogues list as Hot Perch.

Whether you have spots or stripes on a lure is irrelevant, so long as there are patches of contrasting colour the visual effect is the same. A pattern that I like is an overall fluo green with random black blotches (I think I pinched this from a Bob Mehsikomer video). The only thing I can think it might imitate is a radioactive frog! Not many of them about but this pattern works on jerkbaits and crankbaits. It also works without the blotches, so where that leaves me I don't know. What I do know is that fluo green as a base colour is overlooked by many.

When I look back to the 'way out' colour schemes of pre-fluorescent days the red head was the king of the hill - to which my Cartoon Perch pays due homage. I have a feeling, though, that a plain white lure might do just as well. It is certainly something I intend trying out. Plain yellow plugs work, so why not white ones?

Pike are attracted primarily to lures by their actions. The overall colour of a lure can also help provoke and target strikes by making the lure visible to the pike. This is why fluorescent colours are often recommended for low light levels and murky water (same thing really), and dark colours for topwater lures to provide a crisp silhouette. The contradiction here, from my experience, is that bright colours can work for surface lures in bright sunlight, and black is quite good in coloured water! I know that this goes against the theory, but I have caught pike on these colours under these conditions.

I am frequently asked which patterns to select for which conditions, as if there is a set of rules to play by. Certainly there are guidelines, but they are just that. Standard theory suggests that in clear water, with bright sunlight, natural patterns are the ones to try first. A good starting point, I agree, but it doesn't always pay off. By all means start out with a lure that fits the standard theories. But if that doesn't work switch to something completely different.

The only way to determine what patterns are going to work on the day is to ring the changes until something positive happens. The strange thing is that what seems to be a completely 'wrong' pattern will score at times. In all situations I would stress that lure presentation is far more important than lure colour. So don't get bogged down in trying to choose the right colour.

When the LAS had a match on the River Crossens back in 1993 I was asked at the draw which lure was going to be the winner. Confidently I predicted that the six inch Grandma would do the business. Then I was asked which colour was the one to go for. I had been doing well on the Fire Tiger that summer, but equally confidently stated that any pattern would do. For once in my life I got it right and actually came first with two pike for 14lb 8oz - one fish took a Silver Prism Granny, the other one in Black Perch! Same water, same day, same conditions, same lure action but different patterns.

First get the location of the pike sorted out, then choose lures to fish where they are, next get the action of the lure right and finally work out the colour that is going to work best. This is my order of priority when deciding what lure to clip on my trace. Don't get bogged down in the fine details of lure selection, look at the broader picture first.

(This article first appeared in Pike and Predators)