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Do Fish See Color

by Big Y Fly Co.

Do Fish See in Color?
Fish  do indeed perceive color. Every fly fisher knows that or ought to know  that. Like humans, the retina of a fish have rods and cones. Cones are  used in the day and rods at night. Color vision evolved to help fish  identify potential food. In the environment of the fish, the background  will either be the bottom, the water itself, or if looking up for food  it could be the sky. The bottom is normally tannish olive to green.  When looking across the water, the background appears pale silver blue.  But if the water is off color due to algae or high water one must take  that into consideration as well. Skylight becomes more important at  dusk and dawn when it contains more reds.                                                             

Thus for opportunistically  feeding game fish, flies with bright or contrasting colors and/or a lot  of flash will make them stand out against the above mentioned  backgrounds. The Mickey Finn, tied with yellow and red, and a silver body is one of the most effective attractor patterns.  As for dry fly attractors, the Royal Wulff is still hard to beat, with its red and peacock body  and white wings. Black flies, because of their strong silhouette also  are easy for fish to spot. Let’s not forget patterns that contain  strands of flashabou or other tinsel that reflect light when stripped  or while drifting through the current are easy for fish to spot.

The fly fisherman also must  remember that color behaves differently in water that it does when seen  in the air. Water is denser, and the colors are diffused quicker.  Cloudy days where there is less overall light will offer less  visibility, and colors will disappear quicker in the depths of the  water. And the clarity of water obviously greatly effects this as well.  This is important in fly selection because certain colors travel  farther in low light than others. Red is the first color to disappear,  usually at about 15 feet in clear water, followed by orange and then  yellow. Blues and greens are visible to the fish as long as there is  light. Yet silver and white will be brighter.

So while the Mickey Finn is  obviously a great choice as an attractor fly, it would not be as good a  choice in murky water or if fished deep. A better attractor might be a  white Woolly Bugger or White Marabou Muddler.

Color is also important to  remember when matching the hatch. Since fish use vision as the deciding  factor to strike, one’s offering must be the correct color. However,  very small differences in hue seem to not be much of a factor as most  insects will vary slightly in color as well. But if the intensity of  color the artificial fly has can be a factor. If the artificial is more  intense than the natural it is more likely to catch fish. Why this  seems to work is somewhat a mystery. It is understood that fish see  deeper into the ultraviolet range than humans, so perhaps they are just  seeing something we don’t. It could also be due to the effect water has  on colors. Perhaps we’ll never know, but like many things in fishing,  why something works is not as important as just knowing that it does  work.

While color is probably not  the most important factor in a fish striking a fly. The above  considerations are nevertheless a good thing to have in the back of  your fly fishing mind.

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm a true believer that fish do see color. Sometime just making a little change can make a difference which is one reason I always use 2 colors or more on any baits I may use.. I do believe that when the water gets muddy though we can throw the color theory out the window only colors being lite and dark with dark being the emphases on muddy water. I've fished water so muddy at about 3 or 4 inches you can no longer see your lure. I think at that time is mandatory to be using a dark bait and make all the noise it possibly can with it. I think at that time they are using there lateral line to locate pray. So they have at least 3 ways of locating their pray that being sight and sound and one we don't think of much especially in the fly fishing community that is smell. That's another whole can of worms and if you ask some fly fisherman who are real purest that's not even in the equation. I have seen a few flies with rattles tied in them for the sound issue but with our small Bluegill flies I don't think that's something we can do. So I guess for the sound issue it would be the fly smacking the waters surface. In the muddy water is there anything such as to much noise just being a beginner I don't have an answer nor could I make an educated guess but I am sure some noise would be a plus in muddy water conditions. Sorry if I babbled but I'm thinking the color issue is important but at all time they can not see colors only light and dark and knowing  there is much more to it than color.

DICK I think you are right on the money here!!!!!!! One thing you did mention of particular interest to me was the noise of the lure hitting the water,AGREE WHOLE HEARTEDLY WITH THAT ALSO!!!!!!! Sir Jeffrey , either through conversations or posts on here mentioned as much . THe reason he liked some of my flies is the very light weight and how they hit the water when he's using his long tele. rods he favors. It's lots more natural than say a big ole musky bobber hitting the water !!!!!!! I also think that color is so very important that a subtle change can make all the difference in the world.  I don't know what color gills see but one color I believe is an absolute is a little subtle touch of red. My reasoning is simple, when a fish or bait bleeds it bleeds red. Don't know what color they see it as only that it is different than all other colors . Very few things in nature are Red and what's the color of blood, gills, blood in spawn? RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRED...................

Agreed I think red brings out the killer instinct of the fish wanting that easy meal of that injured fish. When possible I''m hoping to incorporate the red when ever possible because I feel so strong about it.

Yup I'm trying to put a little splash of red on almost all my recent ties now with either sssssssssssmall amount of 2 strand red yarn , or marker......

Great topic, but confusing, I watched an episode of in-fisherman with Doug Stange and a biologist who insisted fish did not see color and have read articles as far back as I can remember on the importance of color. Few years ago everyone was switching to red hooks and many are still pushing them while many companies have quit making red hooks since fisherman did not see any difference in amount of strikes and stopped buying red hooks. Then throw in Cajun Red fishing line whose main selling point is that red is the first color filtered underwater so it is virtually invisible and fish don't see your line. So leaving out every other color the so called experts don't even agree on red. Use red to attract fish use red to be invisible to fish. Like just about everything else in fishing I guess we go with our gut and use what we are comfortable with using.

there is no truer defination on this subject!  rick you explained it perfectly!  also in consideration;; crankbaits; jigs; plastic baits of all types come in different colors;; made by manufactures that have gone thru extensive study .  how many times have we; used one color;; and no results;; changed  to a different color;; and slayed them!!

Ditto!

I believe that they do, especially in shallower water. I nearly always lead off with a red, or a red/black jig. And while I will change colors to suit the fish, I do tend to favor red.

You know I use to believe that also. But think about it your catching fish and all of a sudden they turn off. So you change up the color and again the bite picks up ( this is another topic all together as to why) and I do have some thoughts on that . For many years people thought that fish don't see color and some still believe that and I'll be the first to say I've never seen through a fishes eyes so I really don't know what they see but so many times a color change up changes everything. Why I don't know but I have to assume that the change in the color had something to do with it so if a fish can't see color why. Some people say that different color give off different shadows and to this I feel there is some merit to only because when we fish muddy waters we choose our dark baits not that they can see the color but the shadow  the darker the bait the darker the shadow and this has worked for me for many years.

That most fish are endowed with the biology to see color is well known. Depth and water are the factors that determine how well they see the color that is before them.

Thanks David for your input. It is a fact that in our minds fish may see color and personally I believe that to be true. I also know that light presentation through the water column changes the colors. You may be fishing a nice sunny day and catch fish and a cloud may block the sun and you see your bite quit. That's because your bait has changed color to the fish and may no longer be visible just because of the suns rays and light penetration has changed at the depth your fishing. It don't take much to change your presentation even the angle of the sun. There is so much to it and a very interesting topic to say the least.

Thanks, Dick. You have it spot on.

Ages ago, when I was a new member at BBG, one of my first questions was about color and lure selection. I got all sorts of responses, of course, which started me down the rabbit hole. In time I learned there is far more data available about bass and their color perception, than there is about sunfish. That is where the money is, of course, so the bulk of the research into fish vision has been applied to bass. It is a serendipitous stroke for us that the two fish are in the same family and see essentially the same in the spectrum. So what works for the one, also applies to the other.

In time, I think I found some common ground and here are the results. There is nothing but a lot of research (and some actual fishing) to back up these selections, so make of them what you will.

The Essential Lure Colors

Black

White

Chartreuse

Orange/yellow (red, brown)

Blue/green

You can mix and match to your hearts content, of course. Pink is fun, for example. "Electric Chicken," if nothing else, offers some laughs. And on some days, the fish are like Chuck Norris - they decide what they like. But these "categories" cover the practical palette in so far as the eyes of fish are concerned.

NOTE: Most of this range applies only in fairly clear and shallow water, too. Let either the turbidity (muddiness) or the depth (or both) increase and most of it goes out the window.

If you wish to go even further into whittling down the colors, I'd suggest you get down to the first three and perhaps, yellow.

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