Does Fly Color Matter?
A scientific look at how trout and bass perceive reds, blues, and greens
On an early June afternoon, a veteran fly fisher wades into an upland river where blue-colored damselflies thrive, and where the females of this species frequently dip into the water to release their eggs. This wily individual knows this summertime afternoon ritual, and has tied on a Size 8 blue popper. He plans to drift and twitch it through a series of riffle.
Several hours later, he has caught a dozen quality smallmouths on his blue popper, and he congratulates himself on his knowledge of his local stream’s damselflies. He is absolutely certain that the time he devoted to painting his poppers the same cerulean hue was time well spent.
A hundred miles away, and hundreds of feet higher in elevation, a fly fisher wades her local trout stream. From seining minnows, she has noted that they flaunt red colors on certain areas of their anatomy, and she has spent many hours at her vise making sure that the red strands on her streamers are all anatomically correct versions of the creek’s major minnow species.
Thunderstorms have slammed the stream in recent days, and it is quite discolored. Nevertheless, she ties on one of her streamers (with perfectly placed streaks of red) and over the next two hours, she catches a dozen jumbo rainbows by drifting her minnow imitations through deep, dark pools. She congratulates herself on her success, and is absolutely certain that the time she spent at her vise weaving in the crimson strands of her streamers was a key to her success.
Except . . . bass can’t see the color blue at all, and the color red loses much of its vibrancy in deep, stained water. For years now when I give seminars, the most often asked question is, “What is your favorite fly color?” But for years now, I have experienced doubts about the importance of color and have announced those qualms to my audiences. The consistent reaction has ranged from polite disbelief to outright scorn.
So I contacted an expert on trout and bass behavior and senses, Dr. Keith Jones, who is a researcher and scientist for Berkley/Pure Fishing. Jones has done a lot of research on what triggers black bass and trout and how they react differently to a variety of stimuli and environmental factors. But these two gamefish do have some similarities, says Jones.
First, both rely primarily on three triggers, which are about equal in their ability to elicit strikes. Those triggers are prey shape, size, and movement. Coming in fourth—a distant fourth, says Dr. Jones—for both bass and trout is color. The color trigger is more important to trout, and therefore to trout fishermen who fish near the surface where there is often plenty of light.
“Trout have pigments that enable them to see the red/green/blue part of the color spectrum,” he says. “I don’t know if they can see the color green like we do, but in the clear, shallow water that trout often live in (and given the fact that they have better color vision than bass) it is likely that trout can discern a broader range of colors than bass, and that they can discern what those colors are. If trout or bass are in deeper water, some of the colors will filter out. Red, for example, would likely appear as black or gray in deep water.
Bass have only red/green pigments and thus can’t see the color of blue at all, Jones said. After he made that statement, I told him that some of the most popular generic flies for smallmouths in my part of Virginia are called Shenandoah blue poppers, which sport a beautiful blue finish. Jones laughed at that, saying that a bass “might be able to tell the difference between a light and a dark blue, but even that is doubtful. Basically anything that is a shade of blue or black looks black or gray to a bass.”
I then had to ask Dr. Jones why fly fishers, whether we are seeking trout or bass, have such trouble understanding the relative lack of importance of fly color. His reply was that we humans try to make sense of the underwater world based on what we see, not what the fish perceive.
“We humans see things that exist in air,” he says. “A red fire truck is going to look the same to us whether it is 20 feet away or 200 yards away. Air causes very little color change over distance. That is not the case in water, especially with bass that often live in deep, murky water. In deeper water, the decreasing light tends to filter out the true color of a fly. In other words, a red fly on the surface of a bass or trout stream is not going to appear red 30 feet down.”
Dr. Jones says a color that contrasts with its background or the bottom might be more appealing to a bass and especially a trout. Even then, color is not nearly as important as the three major triggers: shape, size, and movement.
For a closer examination of a trout’s senses, pick up a copy of Jason Randall’s Trout Sense: A Fly Fisher’s Guide to What Trout See, Hear, & Smell (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2014).
So if fly color is not all that important for trout and especially not for bass, how should we use color when we purchase or tie flies? Jones says that we should first strive to “enhance the contrast” of a fly. Primarily, that means that a fly standing out from its background will increase the chances that it will be seen by a trout or bass as a consumable living creature. If the fly is somewhat camouflaged, a fish might not see it at all.
"The bottom line is that fisherman shouln't be focused on color."
“There are some instances when color could play a secondary role in determining whether a trout or bass hits a fly,” says Jones. “A fish may learn to look for a certain visual image, such as those of a local crayfish or minnow, when it feeds. A certain color pattern could make an image signature, so to speak, to help a fish identify a creature as prey.
“But keep in mind that fish don’t have emotional attachments to a certain color like humans do. We shouldn’t be so focused on what color our flies should be. Again, though, trout are more likely to be color focused than a black bass, only in the sense that trout can see a broader spectrum of colors.”
Matters become even more confusing and harder to quantify when water is stained from runoff or precipitation or is tea-colored from tannin or green from algae. For example, for the latter situation, most colors “are taken out” says Jones, and all a bass or trout can see are shades of green and yellow. Perhaps that’s why the color chartreuse works so well in dirty, discolored water.
In fact, when fishing in dirty water, the late great Lefty Kreh used to say: “If it ain’t chartreuse, then it ain’t no use.”
I asked two of the best fly fishers I know, Josh Williams and Britt Stoudenmire, for their opinions on color.
“My experience is that color is most important in heavily pressured tailwaters where the trout are under a lot of pressure,” said Williams, who operates Dead Drift Outfitters in Botetourt County, Virginia. “In May and June especially, you’d better believe I’ll have a fly on that matches the color and size of the Sulphur hatch.
“I’m least concerned with color on native brook trout streams where presentation is the most important thing. The ability to wade quietly is just as important.”
Stoudenmire, who owns the New River Outdoor Company in Giles County, Virginia, guides for smallmouth bass.
“I feel size and shape of a fly, the profile, is more important than the color,” he says. “To me, color is a confidence thing, and I have more confidence matching the hatch than using off colors.”
Stoudenmire is well-known for catching trophy smallmouths during what he calls “bug season,” that period from late July through August when cicadas (Tibicen canicularis) become active.
“Green and black are their dominant colors with lighter hues of gray and white on their underbelly,” he says. “I prefer an emerald bug with hues of black on top and white on the bottom to all other colors, but will also tie and fish white, black, blue, and yellow bugs depending on water clarity and sun intensity. A fly tied on a size 2 or size 4 hook matches their body size perfectly, which is usually around 1¼ inches long and half their length wide.”
To test their color philosophies and my research, I went fishing with each of them in July. Josh, his wife Lisa, and I traveled to a small Virginia trout stream that contains both stocked and wild rainbows and browns. On the way, Josh and Lisa flipped a coin to determine who would first match the hatch with their flies. Josh won the toss.
Upon arrival, we overturned rocks, checked spider webs, and determined that caddis appeared to be the dominant hatch. Josh opted to tie on a #16 Elk-hair Caddis. Lisa lost the coin toss, so in the name of science, fished with an Elk-hair Caddis with a fluorescent orange head. I was the “control” part of the experiment, so I used a #10 Josh’s Hopper with a fluorescent orange head that was decidedly opposite in color to the light green grasshoppers prevalent around the stream.
At the end of our first 90 minutes, Josh had caught two fair-sized rainbows while matching the hatch. His wife received no strikes. The couple then switched rods, and Josh caught two more trout, this time on the fluorescent orange pattern. Again, Lisa blanked. I had two strikes on my gaudy grasshopper but missed both of them. What did our experiment prove?
“It proved that Josh is a better fly fisher than I am,” laughed Lisa, “but we already knew that.”
And how about my not catching any trout on the fluorescent orange hopper?
“You had the strikes, but your reflexes look a little slow to me,” teased Josh.
Four days later, I joined Britt Stoudenmire for an excursion on the New River. It was the beginning of cicada season on the New, which means that the biggest mossybacks feed along shaded banks during the heat of the day. Prime time to toss a bug, says Britt, is between 10 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. By coincidence, we both came armed with 9-foot, 8-weight G.Loomis rods; and by our rules of engagement, we each could only choose one fly for the entire outing. Stoudenmire selected a size 2 emerald green pattern to perfectly match the hatch, while the contrarian in me made me use a size 4 blue Britt’s Ug Bug. Blue is a color that no cicada on the river flaunts, and a hue that bass can’t distinguish anyway.
With guide Colin Whitaker manning the oars, we launched promptly at 10 A.M. and agreed that we would cease fishing at 3:15 and count only smallmouths that measured 15 inches or better. We would also count the number of 15-inch and better bass that we “moved,” but where we lost or missed the strike.
As much as Stoudenmire and I tried to control our experiment, several variables have always stood out in the two dozen or so times we have fished together. He can regularly cast about a yard or so farther than I can, and he’s more accurate. Overall, he’s a better fly fisher than I am, and at 10:30, that quickly became evident as Stoudenmire dropped his fly tight to a shoreline boulder and two minutes later landed a beautiful 20-inch smallmouth.
At noon, I countered with a 16-incher. As the temperature rose and the fish crowded the banks even more, Stoudenmire caught a 19-inch and a 15-inch bass, moved a mammoth 22-incher and missed a 20. Meanwhile, I missed three 15-inch smallies, two of them on consecutive casts. Finally at 3:08 and with the takeout in sight, I landed our heaviest smallmouth of the day—19¾ inches and just under 4 pounds.
Despite my catching the heaviest fish of the day, Stoudenmire clearly outfished me. Was it because of his superior fishing abilities, or him correctly matching the hatch? The answer to that likely depends on where you stand on the importance of color. I’ll continue to believe that skill and what Dr. Jones calls the three major triggers (shape, size, and movement) are the prime reasons fish strike.
And I am absolutely certain that when I say that color is relatively unimportant, fly fishers will continue to angrily walk out of my seminars (as happened recently) or send me irate e-mails when this story appears. Let the inbox fill up.
What They Say About Color
Fly fishers across the country chime in on the importance of fly color
Dr. Henry Kanemoto is a radiologist and avid fly fisher from Wausau, Wisconsin:
“Color is a variable, and matching or not matching color is a conscious choice fly fishers must make,” he says. “The crucial point for me is the answer to two questions. The first is ‘Are there ever negative consequences to not matching color, yes or no?’ The second question is ‘Are there ever negative consequences to matching the color, yes or no?’ The answer the first question is ‘yes’ and the answer to the second question is ‘no.’”
Kanemoto says another example of where color is very important is a Sherry Spinner tied with faint orange or reddish wings. When fished at sunset, these flies outperform flies with regular spinner wings. The reddish/orange light of the sunset colors the fly and wings with an orange/reddish glow, and fishing a fly of this wing color enhances the reddish color of the artificial. This color seems to be a trigger for spinner falls at sunset, and the Sherry Spinner will outfish a traditional spinner.
“My view is that color is the least important of the four main properties of size, shape, behavior, and color; and that only during selective feeding do those properties become important,” he concludes. “But during selective feeding, I believe a fly that is close to the actual color or at least the degree of color saturation will perform best. By color saturation I mean that if you cannot get a fly that is the color of the natural, get another color that matches the degree of color saturation.”
Jim Garrison lives in Gunnison, Colorado and is a trout guide for Dragonfly Anglers:
Over the years I have found that presentation and seeing the take are far more important than the color of the fly,” he says.
Guide Jeff Carmichael (flyfishingwithJeff.com) primarily fishes for smallmouth:
“I tie a simple crayfish pattern in lots of colors, and frankly besides winter—when yellow really works the best—I catch fish with any color,” says the Spencer, Indiana fly fisher. “It’s how I fish these flies that makes a difference. I fish with a few other guys—same stream and same day—and without sounding too full
of myself, I outcatch them seven or eight to one and do it all the time.
“Their casting and retrieves are just not good enough—most importantly they don’t get the fly into the ‘kill zone’ and keep it there long enough. I also fish about 40 days a year in Missouri for smallies and trout and see the same thing. Fly fishers spend way too much time changing flies over and over. All the while I’m catching fish.”
Ray Kucharski is an outdoor columnist from Waterville Valley, New Hampshire:
“I have come to the conclusion that the action of the fly is far more important than the color of the fly,” he says. “I believe a fish will eat a mouse or a frog not because it’s brown or green but because it’s the way a mouse or frog moves. Same goes for insects—fish eat them because of how they behave.
“I have witnessed trout jumping two feet out of the water to catch flying dragonflies. I can’t believe color has much to do with it. Action, shape, and size are the prime criteria fish use to decide what to hit.
Anthony Hipps is a fly tier from Lexington, North Carolina:
“Both trout and bass eyes contain rods and cones that enable them to see and distinguish colors,” he says. “The physical factors that are constantly changing during our day on the water, no matter the season, are the direction and intensity of sunlight.
“Because of the light transition, there are going to be different colors that are more and less visible to the fish under various sky and water conditions. For those reasons, I believe color can make a difference in success of catching fish. I have seen it make a huge difference on some days in my own fishing.”
On the other hand, Hipps says that confidence inspires one to stay with a fly longer and fish it better with more patience. A well-fished fly of the wrong color will outcatch the right colored fly fished wrong.
Ed Quigley is author of Fly Fishing Advice from an Old Timer:
“I believe that if I tied a purple grasshopper, I could catch a trout on it.”
*Author/photographer Bruce Ingram has been an outdoor writer for more than 35 years. When he’s not in front of a computer, he enjoys fishing, hunting, birding, or any other excuse to be outside. He is the author of several books including New River Guide: Paddling and Fishing in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia (Secant Publishing, 2014).