A Question of Muskie Bait Color

News & Tips: A Question of Muskie Bait Color

Muskie lures of various colorsOne thing you learn very early on when you live “Up North” is that winter gives you plenty of time to ponder and reflect on things you might not normally spend much time thinking about (and I am certainly not immune). 

For instance: What effect does lure color have on fish – muskies, in particular? 

Well, in all my long winter nights of mulling over this issue, as well as more than a few hundred hours of on-the-water experience, I’d have to say that color does matter to muskies and other fishes … but only sometimes.

The vast majority of anglers have been there: You come in contact with the smiley tackle rep or lure manufacturer at an off-season sport-show-type event, eager to offer the full low-down on their product’s history, as well as the long list of benefits, unsolicited or otherwise, whether you really want to hear it or not. Because the story is long, and in most cases there are better things to do with your time than to endure the bulk of this info, you agree to buy one. 

Or, you may just see a lure that looks good to you in a store or online, and you decide – of your own free will – to buy one. 

Your troubles have just begun really, because now you must decide which color.

Pete Maina, the lure buyer, may decide that two color patterns are sufficient. Pete Maina, the tackle manufacturer says: “You need ‘em all; we’ve got a color for every situation, and believe me, there’s lots of situations out there!” 

There’s some truth to what both Pete Mainas have to say. While there are definitely times when color makes little or no difference and they actually out-number days where color makes a significant difference there are, without a doubt, situations in muskie fishing where color makes a huge difference. They are rare, but I’ve seen a few scenarios that bordered on unbelievable where it made all the difference.

A stark case was noted quite some time ago, when I had my own lure company. That really made me ponder and pay attention. Long story short, I had two regular clients, and both were quite capable in casting and retrieving jerkbaits. Each had purchased three colors of the same bait, and the muskies were going absolutely wild on it ... but only on one color. 

One fellow started with a bright red color, and that was the one the fish wanted, period. 

The other guy tried a variety of other colors and got follows, but no takers. 

We had enough action that morning to say that there was sufficient participation (muskies) to draw certain conclusions (six caught; several missed). All strikes came on red. White, yellow, orange, black and whatever else we had, drew some looks, but no strikes. Bottom line: If it wasn’t for the bright red bait, a tremendous day of catching never would have been.

I’ve noted similar patterns in recent years; days on which enough fish were involved to draw definite conclusions. There was one afternoon not long ago that a red-French-bladed in-line bucktail with black hair ruled for three hours; no other spinner, or any other lure-type tried, would promote any kind of response. Later, it simply stopped working, and other stuff took over.

The old “all you need is a black bucktail” or “all I throw is black” just doesn’t cut it sometimes. There will certainly be fish caught by the stubborn individual that sticks by single colors or lure-types, but often their “holy grail” will produce nothing, while a different presentation could score. The good news is, in sticking with one lure or color, they’ll never know otherwise. Not knowing can be a peaceful existence (what you don’t know, doesn’t hurt much).

Sort It Out

Where to start? There are a lot of factors to consider. And look out if you’re the type that likes to proclaim knowledge of the “hot” or “right” color for the situation. This info is better kept to yourself, since lure color in muskie fishing is similar to discussions involving the best football team or worse yet, the best brand of truck or snowmobile to own. Exercise caution. Improper handling of the “color” discussion can result in some brutal intellectual skirmishes and bruised egos. Extreme cases involving lure sabotage (re-painting proven lures) have been recorded.

Another reason to keep it to yourself is that it often takes a lot of time to figure it out. And on those days when the fish are picky, it should be privileged information. In reality, it’s really just trial and error, but there are a few starting points to consider. 

The number one point being: There are no rules, but the old “match the hatch” rule we’ve been hearing for years definitely has merit. Especially in situations where it is “known” that heavy concentrations of a particular forage type is present.

Many of us have experienced scenarios where color patterns that couldn’t possibly be construed for anything natural will score, but if predators are really tuned-in to a forage type (easy, binge-type feeding), matching can be important. Let’s say we’re dealing with the cisco/tulibee spawn, or panfish spawn or we just know that there are high concentrations of a certain forage species in an area (for whatever reason, electronics, viewing other anglers, etc.). When there are big numbers of the same color type in forage, it can be important to match it. It’s the reason that a “perch” pattern is a consistent producer anywhere.

So, matching forage that currently offers an easy meal scenario for muskies is realistically the only thing that actually makes sense when it comes to color selection. So, what about fluorescents and super-bright stuff? None of it really makes sense, since some of the wilder stuff like pink, orange and chartreuse is definitely beyond the realm of nature. 

But, we really don’t know how a muskie sees these colors. All I know is that I’ve learned to rule out nothing, and lure color is no exception. It must have something to do with contrast. Realistically though, the “why” holds little merit; figuring out what color they’re eating has substantial merit.

Beyond sensibility, about all we can do is experiment. The classic rules are a good place to start: in clear water, natural colors; in darker waters, fluorescent/bright colors. 

Included here would be trying high-vis baits on high-sky days and dark baits on dark days (based on the concept that they “contrast” more) … but according to who? I used to live by these supposed “rules.” Because of the fact that I lived by them, I continued to believe they were a very important part of the game plan, but for a while I never allowed a situation for them to be proven wrong.

Overall, I still feel they are good starting points for prioritizing things to try, but I’ve had countless cases since I opened my eyes that have shown me the exact opposite. 

I’m talking about classic windy, dark-day conditions on gin-clear water and muskies preferring the most obnoxious color you own over a natural color pattern.

But we do need to begin somewhere, so let’s just say that you have no previous knowledge of the water you are on, or any inside info. Simply start with what makes the most sense to you, be it “match the hatch” or general “clear water/ dark water” rules. Just as in lure choice itself, it certainly helps to have several folks in the boat fishing together, shortening the path to a color pattern.

Simply try different things, until something starts to come together. And it’s a guessing game, since there are many days where it makes no difference. It’s often all in the lure type, action and sound. But color preferences for bodies of water definitely exist, and the good news is, they generally don’t change as rapidly as the preferred lure type. Once a lake shows a tendency for a hot color, it may hold on all year could even follow the year after.

I’m sure it’s something we’ll never fully understand, but some colors just must show themselves better in certain water clarities and with different strains of fish ... who knows for sure? 

Possibly, a color pattern may change in short order though, via run-off, algae or high winds on soft shorelines; such things can alter water clarities dramatically.

Generally, the pattern can be taken further than just “X” color for “Y” lake. There may be a pattern to the season or water temperature range, but the most common has to do with sky conditions on a given day. If you really fish a water body a lot, taking the color scheme thing a step further by paying attention to light levels will allow you to be even more precise with your patterns.

For instance, on some of the lakes I fish frequently, I may have three different favorite colors for use with jerkbaits, depending on whether it’s dark, bright or in between. In reality, patterning a water body for color preference simply comes down to time on the water. You’ve got to be out there for hours and hours, trying different colors on different lure types, and simply paying close attention to potential patterns as they may emerge ... while always remembering that there are those days on which it makes no difference. 

Time is a must, but patterns eventually reveal themselves.

Be aware that while effectiveness of colors may be altered by substantial changes in water clarity, they can also change with regard to basic lure type and size. Just because a color seems to work well in a six-inch in-line spinner, don’t expect it to be dynamite on a 12-inch crankbait. It may be great on both. But it stands to reason that as we change lure type and/or substantially change size, the visibility or “attraction factor” may change as well. A color that works great on a small lure may simply be too much of a good thing on a big, flat-sided bait.

Yet another factor to consider is depth. Really, it’s just the light factor thing again, but a color that works great two feet down may not be as effective 20 feet down where it’s much darker. 

Trollers, and especially those who like to run deep baits, take note. A difference of 10 feet in running depth could mean a change in the preferred color.

One thing I’ve noticed, in simply talking with fellow fishing addicts, is that there is a much more noticeable contingent (higher percentage) of trollers who show strong faith in color being a deciding factor in success than that of casters. This may be because trollers rely on a much smaller number of lure types, of which they consistently experiment with colors (at least smart trollers do). Because fewer lure types are used, color patterns are easier to unravel.

Final Thoughts About Choosing a Muskie Bait Color

One other basic approach flies in the face of patterning, but can be effective. This involves striving to be different. This is something to look for on lakes that are receiving heavy pressure: Doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing may be the best choice. 

If a particular color has been a known producer for some time and there are many other anglers using it many of these released fish will have had bad experiences and would react better to something different.

Wild colors can be unbelievably effective at times ... years back, my good friend Doug Johnson, while not known for his artwork in painting, did a lot of experimenting with gaudy colors and believed in keeping some paint handy to alter colors, should he need to. Many of his creations weren’t pretty (in fact, most aren’t), but they work. Dick Pearson knows the value of color, too, and as a joke one time, he suggested I have painters do the most unbelievably gaudy paint jobs on a variety of our lures.

The painters’ imaginations were definitely at work. These baits were very bright and very ugly just what we wanted. Dick’s plan was, in knowing that during a trip on Lake of the Woods fishing together we’d eventually bump into Johnson, we’d set a visual trap of sorts. When we saw him, we would eliminate all other lures from view, scatter the “Easter collection” about the boat and affix one to each rod ... then make the final approach and chat.

Dick figured Johnson may go crazy in seeing this ... it wasn’t quite the reaction we’d hoped for, but his eyes sure roamed around the boat for a while before commenting. Anyway (there is a point to this), several of these colors that would surely collect decades of dust on the store shelf did catch some fish. “Different” can be a real good thing, and color is no exception. 

Note: If you have questions or comments on this or other articles of mine you may have read, contact me through the website The NextBite.   

by Pete Maina