|By Jim Bortz, Contributing Writer
It doesn’t seem to matter where or when a discussion of lure color comes up between musky men and women. There’s always one who has to say, “Any color’s fine as long as it’s black.” It’s such a standard comment, it’s become cliché. If I had a nickel for every time I heard somebody say that ... well, I guess that’s a cliché too. I’ve heard it so much, I expect to hear it.
And it’s true enough. I mean, black is a consistent producer of muskies. According to the records of Muskies, Inc., more muskies have been caught on black lures than any other 10 colors or patterns combined. That fact alone can get a guy thinking when he starts sifting through his collection of hundreds of baits, looking for just the right one. As complicated as we try to make things at times, it’s a blatant and refreshing reminder that sometimes simple is better. Is there really something to black lures?
I recently spoke with Crash Mullins of Crash’s Landing on Cave Run Lake in Kentucky and he believes the color black may be overrated. “Do you know why there have been so many muskies caught on a black bucktail with a nickel blade? It’s because a lot of guys throw black bucktails with nickel blades. Don’t get me wrong. I think black is a great color, but I still think it catches so many fish because of its popularity with guys who fish for muskies,” he said.
Crash, like many musky anglers, fishes multiple colors and black is just another one to choose.
MEN IN BLACK
Crash’s statement carries an awful lot of merit. However, an almost cult-like subculture exists in the world of musky fishermen revolving around lures in basic black. These guys will fish with nothing else. Never would you find a lure in chartreuse or day-glow orange hidden in their boat. Most of these guys catch their share of muskies, too. At times I’m envious of the simplicity of it all. Never more would one need to worry about having the right color. With an all-knowing confidence, there would be absolute certainty black is the right color because black is always the right color. It would sure cut down on time wasted changing lures or blankly staring into a tackle box hoping for inspiration.
I had the chance to talk with an older gentleman one afternoon as we were launching our boats to fish a local lake. He told me stories and showed me photos of some of his recent musky catches on this reservoir. Soon we got to talking about lures and when the subject of color came up, he simply stated, “Son, there are only three colors worth a damn in musky fishing. And the first one is black.”
“What are the other two?” I stupidly asked.
“They’re black, too.”
Now I’m not as hard-core in my beliefs about black as some, but I have noticed my surface bait selection leans more and more in that direction every season. Creepers, TopRaiders and Z-180s all dressed in black. I have an old black Slammer Thunderhead that’s caught so many fish it looks like it’s been run over with a lawnmower.
I appreciate a good paint job on a lure as much as anybody. There are some real clever and creative folks out there making a living at this and I admire their work. A good “nine-dollar-bass” is truly a work of art and takes a considerable amount of time to paint. There are enough variations in perch and walleye colors on lures these days that very few of them actually resemble the baitfish after which the patterns were named — never mind that they’re real pretty. But what kind of a statement does it make when a guy digs a two-dollar can of black spray paint out of the bottom of his tackle box, covers the lure with one quick fast drying coat, flops it over the side of the boat, and immediately starts to catch fish on it?
I suppose it becomes the tackle industry’s joke on musky fishermen. While some lure manufacturers boast the availability of over 100 color combinations, could it be that black is all we really need? Yet we keep buying lures one after another dressed in shiny bright colors or “natural” patterns. And when a new color comes out, we just gotta have it.
I remember the first time I looked at the lures in Howard Wagner’s tackle box. The overwhelming majority of the lures inside were black. And while Howard owns a musky tackle shop, there were little more than 20 lures in the box. A few Believers, a handful of locally-made Pikies, and a couple of baits I really didn’t recognize. Every fourth or fifth lure might have been jailbird or perch as if just to add a contrasting splash of color here and there. Everything else was black. That is to say, they were black where the paint hadn’t been chewed off.
Did I mention that Howard catches a lot of big fish? He is one of the top musky anglers of the East. Just looking at the old trophy mounts on the walls of his shop and the photos in his albums is enough to convince a guy that black is not only a good color for numbers of fish, but really big fish too. Howard and his many friends toll a lot of different lures, but one thing is for sure, most are painting black.
Howard is the owner of the Fish Education Center in Fombell, Pennsylvania, and is probably best known for his uncanny ability to find big fish. He uses black lures probably 80 percent of the time he’s on the water. Here’s some of what Howard has to say about the color black:
“I first discovered black throwing jerkbaits back in 1978 on Chautauqua Lake in New York. It really worked well there. I was on that lake one day when it was so windy you could hardly stand up to cast. The guy I was with was throwing a strawberry-colored bait and I was throwing black. I got a 53 1/2-incher that day.
“Then I started throwing it on Canadian lakes with a lot of success. Before long, I was convinced that I could catch muskies anywhere on that black jerkbait.
“It wasn’t until years later that I started doing a lot of trolling with black lures. I caught a lot of big fish that way, too. Ten-inch Believers or any of the replicas of the old Creek Chub Pikies really work well. During that time I also found out that black works best if you keep it 15 feet or shallower.
“There have been days when some of the other colors like perch or sucker have put more fish in my boat than black, but when it was time to put the boat on the trailer, the guy who had stuck with black all day usually had the biggest fish. For some reason, big muskies really go for black lures. Over the years, most of my 50-inch muskies were caught on black.
“I’ve taken two muskies over 40 pounds speed trolling black lures. The biggest was 47 pounds. A lot of guys will tell you that big fish are lazy and prefer slow-moving baits. I haven’t found this to be the case. Both of these 40-pounders hit while I was trolling 10 mph.”
Oh yeah. I guess you could say Howard likes to go fast, but that’s a whole other story.
I’ve heard and participated in a lot of discussions about why black is such a universally effective musky-catching color. It seems to work just about anywhere. And while flavor-of-the-day colors may out-produce black on any given day on any given body of water, day in and day out, the most consistent seems to always be simple basic black.
It’s easy to see that black is going to give the best lure silhouette in most situations. Looking up at a lure moving overhead in the water column, even against the dark nighttime sky, black will create a clear and sharp silhouette. Put a slow, steady moving surface bait over an active musky at night and it’s dead meat.
Captain Larry Jones of Mostly Muskies Charters in Buffalo, New York, is another name associated with truly huge fish. This is what Larry has to say about the color black: “I really like black in very clear water. Casting a black Leo jerkbait around deep weed edges and over weed tops will produce fish throughout the summer on lakes with a lot of visibility. On the Niagara, it’s not uncommon to have 25 to 30 feet of visibility and this pattern really works. At night, casting these same areas with a black TopRaider or LeLure Creeper is about as much fun as you can have fishing. A black surface lure will show a well defined silhouette from below. It’s simply the easiest color for the fish to see in this situation.”
Even on the darkest nights, the sky is still not totally black. A steadily-moving black surface lure or high-riding black crankbait becomes an easy target for fish below to track.
FULL OF BULL ... HEADS
There is also a school of thought among those who care to consider such things saying black is so effective because of the musky’s affection for black bullheads. The spiny pectoral and dorsal fins of these fish don’t seem to bother the big toothy critters as much as one might think. They’re a relatively slow-moving target and can be found in rather large schools during most of the year. Big muskies seem to eat a lot of them where they’re available. In many areas of musky country, a young black bullhead is just that — black. The adults tend to be more of a dark gray or brown color, but those tasty little morsels under a foot long are about a black as anything gets in the world of the freshwater fish. It’s also worthy to note that a black Bull Dawg looks very much like a young bullhead in the water and may explain some of the wild success some folks have had using this lure.
The simple fact of the matter is — black works. For whatever reason, in the right place at the right time, your chances of connecting are much better than average when you snap something black on the end of your leader. While there are many factors in presentation that may, at times, be more important than color (i.e. speed, depth, lure size), the numbers can’t be ignored. Black lures catch muskies. It doesn’t matter whether you like to cast or troll, you could do a lot worse than hooking up something black and running it for the entire day.
Contributing Writer Jim Bortz lives in Mercer, Pennsylvania.