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Soft Plastic Color Compendium
So Many Colors, So Little Time!

By Russ Bassdozer

The biggest challenge we face as anglers is whenever we walk into any tackle store to buy lures. We are faced with infinite choices of colors. Do I need to BUY this color? Do I need to TRY this color on MY lake? Is it all just a big trick to get us to unzip our wallets? Not in my opinion. I truly believe that color does matter. I can recall too many times when the trick to unzip fish lips was the color pattern on a bait.

Plan A: Divide all colors into six food groups

We can reduce the complexity of color choice by putting almost all lure colors into one of several broad "food groups":

1) Predominantly white or white-bellied lures

2) Predominantly black lures, including black/blue, black/red, and other primarily black combos

3) Browns and greens, including pumpkin, watermelon, avocado, rootbeer, cinnamon, brown/orange, pumpkin/chartreuse, and other brownish-green  combos

4) Neutral, subtle, muted lures, ranging from a Smoky Joe pattern on a crankbait, a translucent smoke-colored soft plastic bait, a transparent plastic topwater, etc.

5) Flash colors, including of course jigging spoons, spinnerbait blades, chrome-sided crankbaits or those with metallic inserts, or soft plastic baits that are clear translucent and laced with heavy doses of metal flakes in the soft plastic. Clear w/silver, clear w/gold, clear w/gold & silver, plus other translucent tones with sparkly metal flakes.

6) Bold colors, the most familiar of which are hot chartreuse, fire tiger, and bubblegum.

What's left? I put all natural baitfish-colored lures (those with a dorsal color and mostly white or silver sides) into either the predominantly white or the flash category. Sure, there are be a few color patterns that do not fit neatly into one of the above about solid purples, blues and reds...where would you place them in the categories above? But these are infrequent exceptions...the majority of lure colors fall into one of the above genres.

If I do not know what fish want, then I will deliberately cycle through these six " food groups", trying lures from each of the six color groups until something clicks with the fish. That is, I'll try a predominantly white lure, a predominantly black lure, something brown/green, a neutral-colored lure, a flash lure and then a bold color in rotation. Doesn't matter to me if it is day, night, twilight, sunny, cloudy, calm or rough water, clear water or dirty water, deep or shallow. Doesn't matter one bit...I think the fish can pretty much see and sense all colors of all lures 24 hours a day, seven days a week, spring, summer, winter or fall. So, the problem to me is not that they cannot see it, but that they are not biting it. Often, I know there are fish in front of me and I can see them actively feeding. I just want them to hit something, anything...and it can be remarkably unpredictable. You have to discover by trial and error what will trigger the "bite".

Micro-tuning. On the other hand, once you do find what color triggers them, then it can become pretty predictable AFTER that. In fact, you may be able to really hone in on them and start micro-tuning into subtle color distinctions. An example of micro-tuning is this - let's say you've cycled through the six food groups and bold chartreuse is the hot ticket. Now, you can attempt to micro-tune into the very best chartreuse color from within that group. Yamamoto offers four translucent, screaming bright CHARTREUSE with different concoctions of sparkly metal flakes and "peppers". Now chartreuse is good for rambunctious smallies always, and for pre-spawn and pre-winter largemouth in cool water. Why do they want that BOLD-colored chartreuse? Cause the bass themselves are being BOLD and aggressive? Or the chartreuse grubs just look like glowing green suckers waiting to be eaten. Some people go so far as to say that the chartreuse triggers an impression of immature panfish (sunfish and perch), which are an important component of some local food chains. Personally, I really don't care or try to figure some things out sometimes. I don't know why they hit the bold chartreuse so well at times...nor do I really care as long as they hit it! What I do though, is to micro-tune by trying several varieties of chartreuse. Being translucent, he pepper and metal flakes tinge or taint the plastic so that different color metal flakes produce different colors of the plastic of the grub bodies. For instance, Yamamoto's 156 is chartreuse with a few shakes of black pepper and nothing else! This gives the 156 a definite "taint" that I can only describe as a bit more "solid", "bolder" and "greener" than the metallic taints you find in 015 or 181, but not as green as the 169. That's micro-tuning for you, and you need a few bags of closely-related colors to do it!

Plan B: Divide all colors into preyfish or crayfish

This is a more natural approach, because it tends to filter out colors that we normally don't expect to be found in nature. The obvious assumption is that bass divide their diets between preyfish and crayfish, so why not divide your soft plastic color patterns into two series that mimic the natural colors of preyfish and crayfish?

Preyfish. In most places, adult bass tend to be piscivorous - fish eaters. They'll pursue whatever is the most plentiful and easily attainable prey fish (or free-swimming fish-like critters such as leeches and pollywogs).

I tend to use worms, tubes and single tail grubs as lures that imitate preyfish. I fish them horizontally, often casting far and swimming them back steadily like I have some kind of live baitfish out there on the end of my line. To bass, the skinny shape (often tapered at the head and tail too) and glide-along motion of a smoothly swimming worm, tube or single tail grub may just be all the recognition that's needed to trigger the notion that it's a live preyfish. Most preyfish are about 4 inches long, skinny, and essentially "do nothing" most of the day but float and slowly move along rather uneventfully. Unless bothered by a predator. Then they hide. But mostly, they just glide along on hardly-noticeable flicks of their tails that propel them forward in a rather straight direction. Many preyfish undersides are either clear like glass and/or reflective like mirrors, thereby letting bass glimpse the full length but not necessarily the full girth and shape of a minnow. Sounds like a worm, tube or single tail grubs to me! Skinny native shoreline minnows, or "rough" minnows, often have more subdued, natural hues than the more pelagic shiners and shads which are more metallic, and the perch, sunnies and other panfish fry, which have warmer colors (chartreuses, oranges, etc.) in their color patterns.

  • Open water pelagics: (shiners, shads, herring, alewives, silversides, etc.). Some bodies of water have LOTS of pelagics. In such waters, bass focus lots of their time and activity around these pelagics. In some highly pelagic waters, for example, it may become unproductive to fish shoreline cover at night because bass are exclusively focusing on eating mid-lake pelagics by day. Pelagics can move up and down the water column. You can find them just under the surface at times, or suspended in the open water column, or just above the thermocline. Fish accordingly. For colors, think translucents, whites, and sparkly stuff like Yamamoto's smoke w/silver (135). Translucents and smokes with metal flakes send out “glimmers” and take on overtones like gold, silver, copper radiating from within their bodies. Sunlight gives them a living, vibrant sheen. Use whole or make partial white/smoke combos. Make a club sandwich of two silver flake colors, blue pearl w/silver (031) and smoke w/black & silver (177). Break the two grubs in half with your thumbnail. Thread one head half on the jig hook, followed by the other tail half, and join them with a little shot of super glue. What the smoke/silver half gives you is contrast against the white/silver half. Contrast is an important thing in a lure.
  • Cover-oriented species: (yellow perch, sunfish, crappies). The predominant preyfish biomass and therefore bass diet in other waters may be plenty of juvenile panfish that highly outnumber pelagics. Many farm ponds are good examples of panfish-centric food chains. Bass will orient their diets and feeding habits to intercept these young panfish. I use stuff with a splash of orange/chartreuse and green/black/blue flecks when they're after young-of-year panfish fry or boldly-colored cover-oriented minnows.  Color patterns like fire tiger jig skirts can also represent yellow perch and sunfish patterns. These gaudy patterns provide increased visibility in thick cover where panfish live, in stained water, or for highly active fish in spring and fall, particularly pre-spawn.
  • Bottom-oriented species: (juvenile cats, chubs, sculpins, darters, leeches, tadpoles, etc.). There are some lakes up north where leeches are a prominent part of the prey biomass, and I know some small ponds that get filled to the brim with pollywogs come spring! Bass are adaptable and opportunistic. They will focus in on bottom species at places and times of plentiful groundfish as fodder. I use bottom-colored stuff (blacks, browns, greens) to imitate groundfish.

Crayfish. The most important item in the adult bass diet is usually preyfish. The SECOND most important item in an adult bass diet is often crayfish - where they exist - and that's practically everywhere. Unbeknownst to most anglers, many bodies of water are infested with crayfish. But unless you start overturning underwater rocks or pulling up water weeds, you may rarely see them. They change their colors to blend in perfectly, and they usually hide in the bottom by day. Even if caught out in the open, they can scoot backwards so quickly that the human eye can hardly follow them! Although we may not glimpse crays from day to day, if you know crays exist in a body of water, then it is safe to assume they can be a plentiful food source for bass there. Therefore, it is in our best interest to know as much as we can about colors and lures that mimic crawfish. 

I tend to use spider grubs on fiberguard jig heads to imitate crayfish - or I use plain double tail grub bodies as trailers on silicone-skirted jigs. I use them as "dropbaits" expecting to get hit as the lure falls to the bottom, as it is shaken/stirred in cover, or on a heavy-headed lift/drop/bang in deeper water - always right on bottom. In extremely thick cover where spider or skirted jigs would just get stuck (or not even penetrate), I resort to Texas rigs with the Yamamoto lifelike craw imitations (3 & 3S).

What colors imitate crayfish? Crayfish, like many other species of crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles and insects, bury under the mud in to hibernate for the winter, emerging again in early spring. They seem to darken up before going into the mud. I've seen craws look exactly like color patterns black w/blue (Yamamoto's 021) and black w/red (051) in early winter. Both those colors are also great when the craws emerge from the mud in early spring. I wouldn't worry about when they start moving about because it is pretty early in the season. These "mud bugs" will usually be out and about before you and I begin fishing! Later in the season, when they're blackish brown, try the watermelon w/black & red (208). When crayfish are greenish brown with orange spots, use smoke rootbeer w/green & copper (236).

Crayfish bodies have light-sensitive cells called chromatophores that automatically adjust the mix of colors that the cells "expose" to the outside world, thereby allowing the crayfish to automatically match its color to wherever it spends most of its time. Their PRIMARY colors are shades of black, brown, green, or grey. On their pincers, their backs and lower fringes of the carapace, they have distinctive SECONDARY color accents, various traces such as blue, red, orange, white, yellow, or amber.

Just like the crayfish automatically matches its colors to its location, you should match your imitation craw colors to whatever color closely approximates the water color, the vegetation color, the bottom and cover color of the area you are currently fishing. Try picking a translucent  color that matches the unique color of a particular weed bed, mud bar or crayfish-infested rock pile. As a translucent lure crawls in and out of underwater shadows and climbs up or down in depth, the translucence allows it to mimic the color of its background better.

As a rule, think darker. Crayfish usually spend most of their time hidden under something or buried into the bottom by day. Of course, they love living under rocks, under logs, or under anything else that can serve them as a hidey-hole. They will form colonies of burrows in hard clay bottoms, and pile up their diggings by the entrances to their burrows. They usually come out to forage under darkness of night. For example, in dark or dingy water, I like a black jig skirt with a tomato w/black (Yamamoto's 155) trailer for contrast. You can use a black laundry marker to spot and mottle the back of the 155, but leave the belly tomato. When fishing tannin-stained waters or over reddish-brown mud or clay bottoms, you can try a jig 'n pig with a pumpkin-orange skirt and a translucent pumpkin double tail trailer such as root beer w/gold (149), pumpkin w/black & gold (216), or the recently discontinued amber honey/copper flake (182). if you can still get some of these 182s, do so. You won't be sorry.

Summer softshells are delectable! Like most crustaceans, crayfish can molt during any month when their metabolisms are high and whenever they need some growing room inside of their shells. This molting season usually is the few months from late spring through late summer. A soft shell crayfish often takes on a pale smoky, almost milky translucent color with white, orange and powder blue accents. The accents start out drab, turn quite brilliant as the shell hardens, and then fade out as the hard shell reverts to the prevailing bottom color. Bass find softshells to be delectable, and I think this molting pattern can be imitated with a smoke w/black & copper (163) or clear w/bronze (200). I make my own "tri-tone fiberguard" jigs using equal parts of clear, blue, and orange fibers to further trigger a "soft craw" resemblance to the bass!

Plan C: Summer shades of greens and browns.

Here is a phenomena that I have observed in my own fishing for many years now. When the days are at their longest, translucent brown and brownish-green lures are at their best for bass in shallow cover. I start relying on darker-colored watermelon w/black & red (208) in late spring. I phase into lighter-colored translucent pumpkin w/black & gold flake (216) and root beer w/gold (149) by mid-summer, followed by more greenish colors (watermelons, avocados) during late summer.

Doesn't matter what model of plastic either. It applies equally to hula grubs, single tail grubs, worms, crawdads, lizards, Ikas, and double tail jig trailers.

This "brown bait" pattern is reliable for me year after year. Several possible reasons for it may include:

1) Days are longer now. There is more daylight, causing underwater critters to lighten up their colorations from dark blacks and browns to paler shades that are better matched by translucent plastic tones like pumpkins and watermelons.

2) Any lingering effects of spring rains and run-off have ended now. This leads to lighter-colored waters with better visibility, therefore less need for dark, contrasting lures

3) It's a veritable "green scene" right now. All the aquatic veggies are vibrantly colored and in full and continued growth. Therefore, most critters that hide in the water weeds should take on a greener hue now than at any other time of the year.

Anytime you are fishing in shorts and a tee, try it yourself and you'll see it can be a mean green scene.

Plan D: Stick to My Top Ten List

No discussion of colors would be complete without a basic raw list of top colors. How Plan D works is that you can just try these top colors whenever you go fishing. No questions asked, no explanations given. You can click on the small images to see a bigger image of exactly how these colors look and  you can even order them online if you so desire. Try them, I think you will be pleased with the results!

Black 051
Cream White 036 yama036.jpg (1938 bytes)
Smoke 163
w/Black & Copper
yama163.jpg (1887 bytes) Smoke Rootbeer 236
w/Green & Copper
yama236.jpg (1773 bytes)
Clear 200
yama200.jpg (1879 bytes) Watermelon 208
w/Black & Red
yama208.jpg (1910 bytes)
Smoke 177
w/Black & Silver
yama177.jpg (1864 bytes) Amber Honey 182
yama182.jpg (1948 bytes)
Blue Pearl 031
yama031.jpg (1938 bytes) Pumpkin 216
w/Black & Gold
yama216.jpg (1938 bytes)

Plan E: Just Use Black, White and Smoke

Plan E is based on the simple yet powerful realization that all soft plastic colors are obviously dark, light or in between. To convince you (and me) of this, many times I have intentionally fished three in a boat with each person choosing to stick with black, white, or smoke single tail grubs and ribbontail worms for the entire outing. We did this in pristine waters, tannic-stained, pea soup, and downright dark and dirty waters. At certain times or spots, it seemed that one color was catching better. As one of the three guinea pigs in this experiment that spanned several years, I often wished to change colors - the other two individuals also! However, we stuck to it and as we moved around to different spots, another person's color would seem to score well for a while, then another. This kept up so that by the end of an outing, we all made good catches regardless of color. After repeating this experiment many times over many seasons, I felt that each of the three individuals was able to put together a winning presentation based on their own personal pattern for success each day. They could equally succeed with black, white or smoke grubs and worms in any area and under any conditions. This applies to any clarity and color of water ranging from crystal clear, tea or coffee brown, pea green, rain or shine, day or night. Therefore, persistence, presentation style and figuring out a productive pattern are far more significant than color when it comes to soft plastics such as single tail grubs and ribbontail worms.

Plan F: At Night. About Bleeders.

At Night. I do an awful lot of night fishing, and in additon to what you hear so much about black being a hot night color, you rarely hear that opaque flat white is as good or better than black at night! I use a lot of white hair jigs with white pork strips at night (plus white worms, spider grubs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits).

About Bleeders. I don't use many purple, motor oil or red plastics, but I am sure there are guys who do. Who knows? Maybe I should too? Only thing that holds me back is that the purple, motoroil and red families are all big color "bleeders" that will taint all your other baits no matter how hard you try to keep them separated. So, I tend to shy away from them because they bleed on my other baits, but that doesn't mean fish don't hammer them! A worm in the red shad color is one bleeder that I always carry however. It's a two tone with a black back and red belly. It's been a great bait for me. Chartreuse is also another big bleeder and one that I always carry for smallmouth in any season, and for largemouths in early spring and late fall. Some greens and browns also bleed, but you can usually mix these all together, and I always carry them like that.

So what's the moral of the story? How important is color?

Soft plastic lures make at least a few impressions that trigger a bass to think it is food (or at least alive).  Soft plastics have size, shape, silhouettes, motion, and water displacement that semi-fit the patterns of a preyfish or crayfish which are the predominant food items. However, this article was exclusively about color, so we have limited our comments here to just that.

Color is just one of many factors to selection of a lure. Sometimes it matters a lot, sometimes seemingly not at all. In any event, color DOES affect your success every day. On every trip, you must choose - either the right color(s) or the wrong ones. It remains a variable that you, as an angler, must consciously control. Fortunately, color decisions can easily be broken down into:

  • six basic categories,
  • natural preyfish or crayfish series,
  • limited to a top ten list,
  • constricted to black, white or smoke
  • plus some green/browns in summer
  • blacks and whites at night
  • and some bolds for aggressive fish

Those are my color plans. They all perfectly complement each other with no conflicts. They fit inside each other like a colorful crazy quilt of a jigsaw puzzle. For me, choosing colors has become a controllable process that I can systematically apply to better my success while out on the water. And if none of these things produce, then there is always the next plan. It's failsafe.

Plan G: Use whatever color you are using to outfish me!

The color codes used here are those of Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits. Yamamoto baits come in up to an astonishing 100 colors per model! Why so many? Because each and every color is somebody else's hot color!

Hope it helps you color your bassin' world.

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