By Brian Marshall
Anglers fall into two camps; there are those who believe that color has little to do with the effectiveness of a bait, and there are those who believe that the right color makes all the difference in the world. Without apology, I fall squarely in the latter group. On far too many instances, I have watched several boats sit over fish holding structure, all using the same type of bait in different colors with only one catching fish. I have to make the assumption that color is a vital factor in "turning the fish on." Not the only factor, mind you, but a very important one nonetheless.
My approach has always been founded on a "natural" premise. To borrow a phrase from our fly-fishing comrades, I begin my color selection by "matching the hatch." The first step in this process is to determine the preferred prey species in a lake. Local fishermen are the best source for that information. People who have fished a particular body of water for years will often know the "never-fail" live bait; minnows, craws, frogs, leeches, worms - what is it the fish hit most often at that particular time of year? While you're bound to get several different answers, keep at it and you'll get a general consensus from those you speak with.
Take the top two bait species you heard about most often and then go hunting. The angler has to look at samples from the lake. Trap minnows (at several depths) do the same with craws, etc. Just what do the prey in that particular lake really look like? Once you know that, you can go to your tackle. Choose the color that most resembles the prey species, and then choose several other variations on that theme. As an example, let's say that your closest match to what you believe is the primary prey species is a pumpkin with black flake, you might then stay with pumpkin as your base color but add one with red flake, one with gold flake, one with green & black flake.
To round out your selection, add base color variants - a root beer with black flake and a cinnamon. The color variations are important simply because water color and light levels have a profound impact on how your bait appears under water. I know of several pros who have such a strong belief in this point that they have learned to scuba-dive so that they can descend to their chosen structure, look at the prey and 'match the hatch' down where the fish live! However, for those of us who don't carry an aqua-lung in the boat, it becomes a process of trial and error. To be blunt, we go fish'n' with our chosen baits!
Keep in mind that over the course of a day (or a tournament), the light levels will change and something like a sudden hard rain or a significant increase/decrease in water flow through a dam may alter the water clarity/color. Just because a variant doesn't work at 9:00 a.m., is not to say that it won't "turn-on" at high noon.
If a particular color choice begins to fail, change off; use your variations, and finally, experiment. I recall fishing a tournament in late September. My color selection had been based on white variants since the preferred prey species were craws with carapaces of dirty white, edged with pink. Halfway through the competition, the white variants began to become less effective and finally almost shut down. After racking my brain several times, it finally occurred to me that the pink edges might indicate the craws were on the verge of molting. I switched off to light pink (218) and the fishing picked up. But, when I hooked on a five-inch Fire Orange (155) grub, the fish went wild!
Are there colors that work every-where and every-when? Not that I've found, but there are colors that I believe work in a wider spectrum of lakes than others. Baits with a smoke base, for example, seem to have a high level of effectiveness, possibly due to the fact that many lakes contain a minnow prey with a smoky coloration.
While I have based the majority of my professional activity around the natural color selection method, I am forced to admit that my boat never hits the water without chartreuse variants in a locker. I can't come up with a rational reason why chartreuse should work, maybe the fish hit it cause it bugs the blazes out of them, but hit it they do. So, with or without a logical cause, chartreuse always rides with me!
Having said that, in competition or when guiding, I will very, very rarely ever fish a bait (or color) because I happen to like the look of it. When I'm fun fishing, fishing purely for the love of it on those fine summer afternoons, that's when I indulge in tossing the "weird and wonderfuls" that somehow seem to find their way into my tackle collection.
"Matching the hatch" has been one key to many days of successful fishing. I wish you equal success!