Seeing Scarlet

July 2012 Feature Dan Armitage

The best fisherman I know tweaks most of his fishing lures right out of the box, doctoring-up the baits before they even make it into his boat, let alone the water. He's a part-time fishing guide, and Doug Dingey uses crankbaits quite a bit because they consistently produce for him and his clients on a variety of fish, from trout and salmon to bass, walleye, perch, pike and panfish and even catfish, on a variety of waters, from rivers and streams to ponds, natural lakes and massive man-made reservoirs.  

Other than making sure the lures run straight, dive to the depth advertised and wiggle true when retrieved, one of the most common tweaks Dingey makes to most of his crankbaits is the addition of the color red. Usually, he'll add a slash or two of bright red to the "gill" areas of the minnow-imitating baits, using bright scarlet-colored fingernail polish. Other times, he'll replace the factory bronze treble hooks with red-hued ones. The angler adds red to his lures-and not just crankbaits-because he believes the color simulates blood or a wound and that predatory gamefish he hopes to attract and hook are more likely to try to eat a baitfish that is injured.

"It makes sense that just like on the plains of the Serengeti where lions single out the old, young or injured-or anywhere else predators seek prey-that predatory gamefish would do the same," says Dingey. "Wounded baitfish are easier to chase down and catch, and the predator fish does not have to expend as much energy to catch its meal. I believe it's an innate trait among all predators-to take the weakest individuals out of the natural system to maintain its overall health.

"Not only that, but I believe that fish learn from experiences, and if a bass, for example, finds that wounded minnows are slower and easier to catch, it will begin to target those that show signs of injury-such as the color red-or actions you can impart to a lure to mimic a wounded fish, such as slowly letting it drop after a spurt of action. Watch a dying minnow sometime, and you'll see what I mean."  

Shark Attack

Another avid angler I know prefers to catch pike over all other species, and he developed a novel way to lure them to his baits after watching a TV documentary about sharks. The film crew used furry, harbor seal-like "puppets" dragged behind a boat to attract the sharks within range of their cameras and to document their attacks on the fake seals. They found that the sharks targeted the faux seals that displayed a white patch on the underside, which simulated a wound revealing the fat beneath a breach in the protective belly fur. Not only did the sharks in the film prefer to attack the seal teasers displaying a white "wound" patch, my friend noted, but actually directed their biting attacks wherever the white patch was placed along the fake seal's body.

Captain Charlie turned off the TV, headed for his basement tackle workshop and started tweaking his pike lures to mimic injured fish. After plenty of trial and error and several pike safaris to test his theories, Charlie found that by removing the forward factory treble on his favorite multi-hook jerk baits, and replacing it with a red treble dressed with feathers, fur or rubber skirting to simulate an injury to the throat or gills, his pike take soared. He found that red worked well for the hook dressing, but so did colors that matched the hue of the lure's body. Charlie believes it is the appearance of slashed skin and exposed organ tissue where it shouldn't be, as much as the color that attracts the pike to his doctored baits.

Seeing Red?

In fact, tests on bass have shown that fish struck baits painted white, black or one of the primary colors at about the same rate, actually showing a bit less of an inclination toward lure painted orange or red. However, the best strike responses came with two-tone lures, with black over silver a clear favorite.

According to Dr. Keith Jones, the Pure Fishing expert on sensory systems of fish, we know that bass have optimal color appreciation for red, and to a lesser degree green, which means they can detect minor differences in those colors better than they can others. That's because bass have red and green optical pigments, or cones, for color vision. Other fish species, such as carp, have four cones for color vision: red, green, blue and ultraviolet. Others, primarily bottom feeders, have just one, and are believed to be incapable of detecting color. Humans have three: red, green and blue.

Jones said that while bass see red well, there is no research that shows any special attraction to it. He claims that bass' brains are not equipped with the neurological processes to put together the blood-is-red-and-bleeding-fish-are-vulnerable argument.  

That said, Jones claims that bass are highly capable of learning, and that it's theoretically possible that a fish can learn to associate red-or any other color-with a positive feeding experience.

That means that fish can also learn from negative experiences-such as from the consequences of attacking a few "meals" fitted with bronze-colored hooks. The same baits sporting red hooks may not deter the fish, and explain why red hooks may appear to be more productive-at least until the fish are conditioned to the perils of being attracted to scarlet.     

Sounds Like A Line

As for red fishing line, when it was first introduced the line was said to virtually "disappear" in the water because red wavelengths are the first to be filtered out under water. While that's true, "filtering" isn't the same as "eliminating." As the red line sinks it becomes gray and eventually black in the absence of light-just like any other colored line. However, when fishing in water stained by tannin or red clay, the red lines may offer a less-visible advantage simply by being better camouflaged than lines of other colors. The same holds true for using green-tinted lines in weedy or algal-stained waters.  

However popular, it appears that studies show that the color red offers few advantages to anglers. But you can't tell any of that to the fishermen who are hooked on the notion that crimson rules. They will rattle off a tirade of friends' fishing tales and first-hand experiences that will have you seeing red in no time.   

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