By Peter B Wright
How important is the color of a lure to a billfish, a tuna, or any other large pelagic game fish?
For fish, especially those living in shallow water or staying near the surface, color vision can be hugely important for many species, including everything from small bait fish to giant marlin and tuna.
Consider mahi-mahi, almost certainly they would never have developed their outstanding coloration if they were not also gifted with color vision. This is a major part of what makes them, and all those gorgeous little tropical fish often collected and found in glass tanks and aquariums, so special.
Because all species of fish need to be able to recognize members of their own species, in order to reproduce successfully (and maintain breeding stocks for a healthy population), color vision is a valuable asset for many fish when selecting a mate. For example, it does not help to maintain a healthy stock, of either species, if a male yellowfin tuna gets amorous with a female big eye tuna, or vice versa. Color and or color patterns can allow a fish to recognize its own species even though the body shapes and sizes of the different species are very similar!
In the example of the two tuna, it is possible that a sperm and an egg might actually join and develop into what would then be a “hybrid” tuna but not a member of either species of parent. Unfortunately, that sole tuna would almost certainly be sterile and unable to breed with any other tuna, even possibly another hybrid tuna if one could ever be found.
This is the exact way of life for mules (created when a horse and a donkey mate). Mules are sterile and cannot reproduce.
Also, color vision can be important to predators in recognizing prey species. When anglers use small, slow-moving plugs or fly type lures, they are often designed to look as much like a specific insect or a tiny fish as possible. This is not necessary when trolling at relatively high speeds for large pelagic marine fish. Unfortunately, very few recreational anglers, captains or crews keep accurate long-term records capable of determining the effect of changes even pertaining to a single variable like color. For this reason, much of our accepted information may, in fact, not be true because it has never been fully tested.
In Kona, Hawaii when Jeff Fay and I owned our charter boat Humdinger, I did keep such records on one group of fish, small tuna. Any species of tuna were our live bait of choice for marlin. Some tuna will work better than others for live baiting marlin. In addition, I have never seen a tuna eat a member of its own species.
By eliminating all variables except color while using small lures to catch small tuna for live bait, I was able to determine that tuna of most species did not give a damn what the color of a small trolling lure was, as long as it was the right size and moving at the right speed!
This statement may provoke a lot of disagreement and dispute from some very good skippers! However, if anyone can provide good statistical evidence to the contrary, I would love to learn of it and gladly change my mind. I do not have as much solid proof from test results on larger billfish and tuna, but I no longer worry about how the color of my high-speed lures affect the fish I am trying to catch!
I do, however, think about flash a lot and I like shiny lures very much!
Metal spoon lures are tried and true producers for countless species of fish but metal spoons do not do as well catching billfish.
Towing a daisy chain of hookless drone spoons as a teaser, allowed me to fish where I could not afford to tow natural baits because of the swarms of barracuda in The Pocket off Chub Key in the Bahamas. I won my very first tournament as a captain by using what is now commonly referred to as pitch baiting off drone spoons.
Depth and water clarity make a huge difference in what color. In the deep, dark, depths where broadbill swordfish spend a lot of their time, there is no color and almost no light remaining!
In fact, all light, of any color or combination of colors except blue, would have been attenuated or washed out from any light source, including light reflected from a silver-colored fish just over thirty feet away.
Even a human being with excellent color vision will see my bright red swimsuit fade to grey, then black, as I slowly move away from him or her in a swimming pool. This is something I show to many of my crews and clients, usually with a cocktail in hand.
Looking at my bright red swimsuit through 30 or more feet of water (even if it’s the cleanest water ever), will show there is no red to be seen. It has all been washed out and my red suit can only be seen as dark grey or black. So much for using red-headed jigs that can only look black to fish deeper than 30 feet down…but don’t try telling that to the majority of your fishing buddies, show them.
Blue is the last color to be wiped out or attenuated. In fact, long liners have told me that the most productive light sticks for nighttime swordfishing are in the blue and green parts of the color spectrum.
Contrary to what the reader may be thinking, I really like lures with red heads but it’s not because I think marlin care about the color of the lure. I like red-headed lures because I still have good color vision and I can clearly see a red-headed lure, even one on a long outrigger in the “shotgun” position, from my location in the tuna tower.
When I am seriously seeking billfish or tuna, I live in the tower. I have full electronics in the tower and I always wear polarized sunglasses!
I can see the red head of a lure quite easily over 100 yards away because there are only a few inches of water between me and the lure. Most of the distance between the lure and me is only air which does not erase red.
The longer it takes me to see a lure, the less likely I am to give my team the few seconds of advance notice they can use before a strike to increase our capture rate. In other words, if I’m spending too much time finding our lure, we’re more likely to get an unexpected crash strike! That is why I like red-headed lures! I can find them quickly and easily, which makes us more efficient at finding and catching fish. To date, I have found no difference in strikes due to color when fast trolling with lures for marlin.
Tuna are different! Both the size and color of the lures can make a difference. Some of my good friends and I try to “match the hatch” by copying the size and color of prey species we have recently seen in the area. More on that next time! So use red- you can see it better.