By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
One of the most interesting artifacts in the main lodge of Monument Bay Lodge on Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle involves a huge, ancient, mounted musky. While the musky is certainly a giant, it’s not the fish mount that I find so interesting but the lure hanging in its mouth — a silver-bladed black bucktail of uncertain manufacture that looks as old as the mount. It’s probably the one that tricked the musky.
It’s a well-known fact that the muskies of the Angle like silver-over-black bucktails. “I guess they liked them back then, too,” I quipped when I first noticed the bait hanging from the mount.
As I continued to fish the Angle and racked up good musky catches, silver-and-black stood out as the best color among bucktails. Sure, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that I throw that color combination most often, but who am I to argue with success? The pinnacle occurred when my son, Brant, and I caught 49 1/2- and 50 1/2-inch muskies on the same silver-and-black Mepps Musky Marabou just 10 days apart while fishing the Angle in 2003.
Silver and black has always been a great musky color combination in many waters, but I attributed this color idiosyncrasy to the similarity of a bucktail’s blade’s size and color to the silvery baitfish that can be found by the millions in the Angle. Just a case of matching the hatch, I figured.
Now, I think I’ve found the real answer.
Last January I toured the factory of Sheldon’s, Inc., in Antigo, Wisconsin. Sheldon’s is the manufacturer of the Mepps line of spinners and bucktails, and during the tour CEO Mike Sheldon happened to mention what his company calls Mepps Color Technology. The thought of a lure manufacturer actually studying color — beyond what colors sell best — and how fish see it, stopped me cold. “Wait a minute. Has anybody applied this to musky fishing?” I asked.
While Mepps Color Technology does not explain why muskies feed heavily one day and have lockjaw the next, it goes a long way toward explaining what they may actually see. Considering that muskies are sight feeders, this possibly explains why some colors are better than others in certain water and sky conditions.
Mepps Color Technology
Colors become popular because they catch fish. In the musky world, fire tiger, perch, sucker, silver-and-black, etc., are mainstays for any lure company. However, they must instill confidence in the angler — meaning they are purchased in sufficient quantities — to remain in the manufacturer’s catalog. Almost any manufacturer who has been at it for any length of time can name certain colors they once offered that produced muskies but didn’t sell, and thus were eventually phased out of the lineup.
Musky Hunter Editor Emeritus Joe Bucher addressed this matter in his article, “A Question of Color,” in the April/May 2001 issue of Musky Hunter magazine. “ ... some of the best fish-catching colors I’ve ever designed for my own lure company were poor sellers,” Joe confided.
Says Sheldon: “Most fishermen use a particular color because it has worked for them in the past. That’s a pretty good reason, but it doesn’t mean that [particular] color will always produce the best for you.”
Mepps Color Technology is based on the research of Dr. Colin Kageyama, OD, author of Seeing Through The Eyes of a Fish. His system utilizes lure color, water temperature and light conditions to give the fisherman maximum control of any fishing situation. Kageyama’s research was used to develop Mepps’ See Best lures, which were originally marketed for steelhead and salmon in the rivers of the Northwest.
Scientists who have studied muskies’ eyes have found they have rods, which are sensitive to illumination, and cones, which allow them to see color. “Dr. Kageyama feels that fish can pretty much see color as we see color,” said Sheldon.
Kageyama’s studies are based on how water colors filter incoming light. Much like camera filters or sunglass lenses, water acts as a “lens” for fish. “If an object appears red to your eyes, it’s because the light rays on the red end of the spectrum have hit that object and are reflected back to your eyes,” said Sheldon. “If there is no red light hitting the object, it cannot reflect red back to you.”
Rarely will a color underwater appear the same as above water. Pay attention to the colors of lures and fish in the underwater videography of any television fishing show or fishing video. You’ll note that colors are extremely muted, but of all colors, black stands out the most — ever notice how pronounced the black horizontal stripe is on a largemouth bass filmed by an underwater camera?
Mepps breaks down water color to three hues — blue, green and red. Blue is considered the color of clear water and it “filters out red, so red lures become almost black and white in blue water,” said Sheldon. Lakes that have a summer algae growth are considered to have “green” water, which also heavily filters out red. Finally, reddish-brown water filters out red light rays quickly and completely. This water color is prevalent in lakes or rivers that drain from swampy or boggy areas and have tannic acid in the water. Reservoirs (“flowages” to us Wisconsinites) that flood swamps have similar water color.”
The deeper the water, or the farther from the lure that a fish may be, the stronger the filtering effect. “A fish is normally some distance away from the lure so it’s looking through a column of water that again is a colored filter, when it sees a lure,” Sheldon said. “As a musky follows and approaches a lure it is actually reducing the effect of that filter so the appearance of the lure changes. Then the musky turns away because the prey it saw at a distance has actually changed when it got up close.
“For example, hot orange at a distance in green or blue water is going to appear dark. Pretty brown or almost black. As a fish races closer,” Sheldon continued, “especially in shallow water, that brown lure changes to hot orange. It would make sense that the fish may flair away under those conditions. Since you know the fish is in the area, a change to a brown or dark lure may be in order since that’s what originally drew interest.”
The amount of daylight factors immensely in Mepps’ studies. In bright light, more light will transmit into the water and colors will carry deeper, but low light means colors will appear darker.
Because a fish’s perception of color changes rapidly based on the water color, daylight, the depth, and its distance from the lure, the key factor that comes from all of this is contrast — numerous contrasting colors usually result in one that fish can see. “This illustrates why fire tiger is such a popular and useful color,” Sheldon said.
The color “fire tiger” is generally considered to be shades of chartreuse with black accents and a blaze orange belly. Some lure manufacturers have called relatively similar color patterns “sunrise” or “flame.”
Color Technology and Musky Fishing
In printing this article, Musky Hunter took a risk that some might perceive it as an “advertorial” for Mepps. In reality, Mepps is perhaps the only lure manufacturer to have scientifically studied lure color and certainly the only one to publicize its research.
Rather than print Mepps’ photographs of lures under varying conditions — which only featured Mepps products — we photographed a variety of popular musky lures in a spectrum of popular colors to provide a ready guide of what may work best in varying water colors.
In the opening layout of this article is a photo of 14 popular musky lures in 14 different-but-popular color schemes. Fire tiger, perch, holoform, sucker, all-black, metallic prism, chrome, bumblebee, and yes, even silver-and-black, are pictured. This is how we see the lures under direct light and how we assume muskies can see colors under similar lighting conditions.
Let’s take a look at the lures viewed through blue “water,” with the color blue’s filtering effects. What stands out is fire tiger and black. Note how lures with contrast stand out the best. Blaze orange turns brown; metallic foil, chrome and white mimic the surrounding color (blue) and silver stands out somewhat. In clear (blue) water, this is likely how fish see our lures.
The color green heavily filters out red; note the similarities between the lures viewed through blue “water” and green. Again, fire tiger stands out, as does black. Red, as in the case of the copper/red bucktail at left becomes almost black. Curiously, blaze orange holds its own somewhat in green despite this filtering effect, as seen on the blade of the orange Giant Killer, the belly of the fire tiger Molly, and the nose of the hot perch Reef Hawg. Apparently the fluorescents in blaze orange carry through. And, even though the tail of the previously-mentioned Giant Killer is orange, there are no fluorescents used in the dye so the tail appears brown.
Professional photographers who work with black and white film use red filters to create stunning contrasts in their work, and the same can be said of the effect red water has on lure colors. Without question, contrast stands out on every lure. Note also how blaze orange becomes almost a pinkish-white.
All three water colors illustrate how important contrast is to the color of any lure you pick from your tackle box, and why fire tiger is so popular — not only does it catch the fisherman’s eye, but it’s sure to catch a musky’s eye.
The ultimate in color contrast is black and white, and a study such as this would certainly lead one to think that a black-and-white lure may be a great choice regardless of water color. Perhaps this is why my overall favorite bucktail tail color in the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods — with its stained water — has black and white tied in it.
With silver, metallic foil, chrome and glitter all mimicking the surrounding water and producing little contrast, their fish-catching abilities must come from their ability to reflect sunlight (flash) to predator fish. (It should be noted that the accompanying photographs were taken without flash.) With no sunlight to reflect on cloudy days, are “flashy” baits a good choice, or would it be better to pick one with high contrast?
Along these lines, I’ve discovered white-bladed bucktails to be better than silver when skies cloud up, and Sheldon wasn’t surprised when told about this observation. “Silver reflects light but seems to reflect the water color around it when a bright light isn’t shining on it. White may actually be more visible when the sky is cloudy,” he said.
This research does not explain idiosyncrasies — why certain colors are better on certain lakes. Here are three to mull over:
• Regardless of water color, anytime I’ve fished for unconditioned muskies — fish that don’t see many lures in a year’s time — chartreuse is usually the best lure choice. I’ve often said, “Dumb fish eat chartreuse.”
• The copper-and-red Mepps Magnum Musky Killer at left in the photo has a luminescent (glow-in-the-dark) Mr. Twister tailer attached. Though I’ve found this a deadly addition to any bucktail for daytime fishing — especially in windy conditions in stained (red) water — the tail almost disappears in the accompanying photos.
• Blaze orange has long been considered a go-to color in stained water by most musky fishermen, yet it almost becomes a pinkish-white in these tests.
Perhaps idiosyncrasies can be explained by rationalizing that perhaps muskies see colors in water somewhat differently than we do (though researchers disagree). After all, water is where they live and eating what they see is what they do. To argue the other side of this question, however, is that few fishermen will argue the effectiveness of contrast, whose visibility is strongly supported by these tests.
While studying popular lure colors in varying water colors explains a lot about what muskies can and cannot see, it doesn’t answer everything. Use these color charts to gauge your lure purchases and use, remember that light intensity will reduce or increase the filtering effect, and see how this affects your catches in the coming year. And if there’s one thing to remember, it’s contrast.
So what about the silver-over-black bucktail color pattern and the Northwest Angle? Both my son’s and my big muskies were caught under sunny skies, so certainly the bucktail’s silver blade was doing its job of providing flash. And, the all black tail provided lots of contrast — unknowingly, our color selection meshed perfectly with what Mepps’ research bears out.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter Magazine.