Choosing The Best Crankbait Colors For Walleye

By on December 29, 2015
Holding up a Lake Erie walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

We’ve all heard some version of the old adage that “Fishermen buy lures, not fish,” referring to the fact that lures are painted and packaged to attract us to buy them, not strictly to appeal to fish when the lure is actually in the water. That being said, with the varieties of colors and finishes available on many of our favorite lures, what colors do you need to buy to catch more fish? I’m going to focus on crankbait colors for walleye, as that’s where most of my personal experience comes from, but many of the principles will apply to all freshwater species.

First and foremost, I will start by pointing out that I personally believe lure color alone is not the most important ingredient to catching more fish. While important, it is not my first concern when starting out a day of fishing. You still need to locate the most and biggest fish, regardless of what you are fishing for, and then determine how deep they are in the water column and what they want to eat. Assuming that you’ve already done that, now it’s time to pick some lure colors.

Being a troller, I generally have four to six lures in the water which gives me the flexibility to play around with different colors and patterns. We all have go-to colors based on past experience, but I always try to be open-minded and adapt to each day’s conditions. On Lake Erie, there are lots of variables that potentially impact what the best color of the day might be. In many cases, the water and weather conditions very well might be more important than simply worrying about what the fish prefer. I believe that most anglers are too superficial when considering lure color, and they don’t understand how many factors will determine how colors look at depth and how that can change from day to day.

In a best-case scenario, you will be fishing in relatively clear water with a reasonable amount of sunlight penetration and your lures might look somewhat similar to what they look like out of the water. That’s rarely the case. On Lake Erie, we have lots of different water colors and clarities, not to mention variable sunlight and wave conditions. We all have to keep in mind that increasing stain or color in the water will start to cut down how far the sunlight can penetrate. As you lose light penetration, you also lose color wavelengths, and all of a sudden things start looking very different. One of the most important acronyms to remember when out on the water is one that most of us probably learned in middle school, ROY-G-BIV. The colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) are also the same order that colors start disappearing as you increase water depth. The general rule in freshwater systems is that red and orange quickly get eliminated, generally in the top 15 to 20 feet of water or less. Yellow and green will persist to around 50 to 60 feet of water in best-case scenarios, and blue through violet will penetrate over 100 feet in clear water. There is plenty of information available online relative to color penetration in water, and Google will find plenty of reading material if you want to read more about the science behind it. Think about your favorite lure colors and how deep you fish them, and now think about how different they might look if clarity or light limit color penetration.

Holding up a Lake Erie walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Holding up a Lake Erie walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Red colors on lures can lead to lots of debates. Many lures have red, and in most cases the head or gill area are red to mimic red gills on baitfish, but how can red be effective if red is the first color to disappear? In my mind, I have always justified that prey fish obviously have red gills, as their blood flows through the gills, and whatever red blood looks like at depth is probably the same as red on a lure at depth, even if it is simply a shade of gray, it should be a similar shade of gray as red blood at depth.

Personally, I usually use bright-colored lures with reds, oranges and pinks from 5 to 20 feet down in the water column, as I assume this is where those colors will be most effective. I have also noticed that many times on Lake Erie when the best bite is 20 to 40 feet down that lures with variations of purple tend to out-fish other colors. This completely makes sense for two reasons. The obvious connection is that purples penetrate the farthest and the fish most likely still see some shade of purple when other colors start getting eliminated. The second best explanation is that many Lake Erie prey fish have purple somewhere on their body. Have you ever looked at white perch, white bass and even yellow perch throats? If you flip them upside down and look at them in the sun, you will see an almost iridescent purple color under their chin and gills. It’s surprising how many fish have purple on the underside of their head. Other popular baitfish, especially shad and to a lesser extent smelt and shiners, will have some purple on their backs. If you hold them in the sun and move them around, you will see almost a rainbow of colors on their shiny side and back, and purple is one of the colors that shows up.

The take-home lesson is that I believe that sight predators such as walleye are more likely to eat what they see. When you are deciding what color lures to use, think about what the fish sees in the conditions that they are in. If the water is clear and you are fishing shallow, they probably see what you see. If you are fishing deep and the water is stained or it’s cloudy with big waves, colors start disappearing quickly as you get deeper. When you combine these factors with a little bit of knowledge about local baitfish, you can start putting together a good plan to figure out what color the fish want. When the colors that you think should work don’t, try others that might be effective in the conditions that you’re fishing in.

Top image: Holding up a Lake Erie walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

About Travis Hartman

FishSens pro Travis Hartman is a two-time WBSA Lake Erie Walleye Trail points champion and 2015 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship qualifier. He has 21 top 10 finishes and is also a licensed charter captain.

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