Do Fish See Colour?

Pink often works well for snapper!

Bright pink is a consistent performer, but the reason for this is not obvious.

As the light changes, so should lure colours.

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There is one aspect of fishing that everyone has a theory about.

This theory can be based on scientific research or may be a myth passed down through the generations. It plays a part in all aspects of fishing, whether in fresh or salt water, using light tackle or big game gear; specifically, do fish see colour – and if so, do they see it as we do?

No doubt you will now be thinking of your favourite lures or flies, and probably have your own theory as to which colours are best. And who am I to argue? After all, if it works for you, then it must be right.

So, rather than get into debate about which colour is best, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ways that colour affects fishing.

Line colour

The line we spool our reels with is, in some cases, the part of our tackle most visible to fish. Consequently, it’s available in just about every colour of the spectrum.

So why do manufacturers make so many different colours? There are some simple answers based on good, sound reasoning – but why they should choose some other colours is a matter of conjecture!

Firstly, most coloured fishing lines, whether clear, green, blue or red, are made that way so they are difficult for fish to see – an attempt at providing low visibility. This makes perfect sense when fishing in conditions where it is easy for fish to see the line. Obviously, the colour that most closely matches the hue of the water will blend in the best.

But why is this important when, in most situations, we use a trace? Trace colour is probably more important than line colour. Having seen trace line underwater, the least visible seems to be those that are dull and clear coloured, whereas lines with a shiny gloss finish tend to sparkle like Christmas decorations.

So in reality line colour and, more importantly, trace colour, do matter, especially in clear, placid conditions, where fish have plenty of time to inspect baits or lures. However, in conditions where visibility is low and fish have to find baits and lures by vibration, line colour is less important.

Some lines are coloured in fluorescent yellows and blues, and were developed so anglers and boat skippers can see where the line is and where the fish is heading. This helps with manoeuvring the boat and indicates what angle the rod should be held at. This is particularly useful for those who like trolling, as it’s important to know where the line (and a hooked fish) is at all times.

Many light-tackle anglers also like high-visibility lines, as they make line control much easier. However, in situations where fish have plenty of time to inspect a bait or lure, the lines’ brightness can put them off, so using a decent length of low-visibility trace is advisable.

Hook colour

Is it the vivid colours that attract fish or the flash?
Is it the vivid colours that attract fish or the flash?

Early hook coatings were primarily a guard against corrosion and had nothing to do with camouflage; nowadays hooks come in just about any colour. But how can we judge if one colour is better or worse than another for catching fish?

Again, it is impossible to come up with a clear answer. Obviously there will be anecdotal evidence that suggests specific colours are less visible at certain depths, because as they sink down through the water column they change colour to the human eye. But humans don’t see the same way as fish. In fact, not all fish see the same way as each other.

Even so, there are opportunities. When baiting up a big hunk of skipjack (‘bonito’) with a red hook, the hook blends in. So if you are an angler who likes a stealthy approach, try different colours to make the hook less obvious.

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On the other side of the argument, I have taken timid biters like trevally on a bare hook, simply because the one I used was very flashy in the water. Consequently, I believe hook colour is a matter of personal taste.

Different shades of grey

Trout fishermen know how important colour can be.?
Trout fishermen know how important colour can be.?

As anglers we spend a lot of time trying to camouflage our offerings and make them look as natural as possible, only to put them on a brightly coloured flasher rig or a rig with luminous beads/tubing at the end. Without doubt some of the terminal tackle we use stands out like a neon light, and there is also no doubt that highly coloured beads and flashers really attract fish at times.

But are they attracted to the colour, or is it the glow or flash that attracts them? If we believe the scientific research, fish see very differently to humans, and different fish see in different ways. Some fish see in a grey-scale world, differentiating between different hues without colour, while others see colour at certain angles and planes, dependent on the way their optics are set up. So we must assume all fish see colour, hues, flash and light, but possibly in a different way than we imagine; it might just be different shades of grey.

Lure colour

It is interesting that some colour combinations are universally successful.
Some colour combo's are universally successful.

How important is lure colour? This could be debated for years without a consensus. Many lure-fishing specialists reckon that size, shape and silhouette are far more important than colour. However, there is general agreement that ‘matching the hatch’ can play a big part in angling success, and colour tends to assume an important part in this.

From my own personal experience there have been times when a certain colour has out-performed another. In many cases this will be a colour unlike that of any bait fish. A good example of this is bright pink. For some reason it’s a very productive colour. Does pink give off a hue that says ‘eat me’?

Another example is some of the technicolor combinations that we see in soft-plastic lures. Have you ever seen a green, red and black fish? Then there is the fact that certain colour combinations are productive in a wide variety of lures and flies.

Colourful beads seem to work in murky water.

Green and yellow, black and purple, pearl with red-head, blue and white, and black and gold are some examples.

So what’s the answer? Yes, colour is important, but keep in mind that colour preferences change from day to day, based on food sources or sea and light conditions. Trial and error is still required, but whichever colour you choose, fish it with confidence.


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 This article is reproduced with permission of
New Zealand Fishing News

2009 - by Adam Clancey
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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