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 many fish, including everything from small bait fish to giant marlin and tuna, color vision can be hugely important.
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 part of what makes them, and other tropical fish often found in tanks and aquariums, so special.
Because all fish must recognize members of their species in order to reproduce successfully, color vision is a valuable asset. For example, if a yellowfin tuna mates with a big eye tuna, the stock of both species will deteriorate. Color patterns allow a fish to recognize its species even when the shapes and sizes of different species are similar!
In the previous example, the tunas’ sperm and egg might join and develop into a “hybrid” tuna. Unfortunately, that hybrid tuna would almost certainly be unable to breed with any other tuna, even possibly another hybrid tuna.
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. Small, slow-moving plugs or fly-type lures are often designed to look like a specific insect or tiny fish. 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 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 statistical evidence to the contrary, I would gladly consider changing 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 is visible. In the dark depths where broadbill swordfish spend much of their time, there is no color and almost no light!
In fact, all light, of any color or combination of colors except blue, would have been attenuated or washed out from any light source. That includes the 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 gray, 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.
Seen through 30 or more feet of water, even perfectly clean water, my red swimsuit shows no red at all. It has all been washed out, and my red suit appears only as dark gray 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 disappear or diminish. 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 you may think, I like red-headed lures, but not because I think marlin care about the color. 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. 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.
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