Do fish see color, are fish color blind >
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Updated Feb. 21, 2009
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On the right Brownsville Marina near Bremerton, WA. A favorite place to fish from the dock.

Do Fish See Colors?

A collaborative effort By Galen and Lynn Mills
Copyright 2004 Mills Enterprises. All rights reserved

According to an article
published by Mepps ®  fish do not have an innate desire for any particular color. However, some colors under various water and light conditions are more easily seen, which makes color a critical factor for some migrating fish, like Shad or Salmon, have eye receptors readily adapted to see green in the ocean and red during spawning, but will strike spinners and lures of any color if they can be seen. So color can and often is a prime mechanism for determining how spinners and lures will contrast with their background. In other words, color can make spinners and lures easily seen, or can camouflage the same spinners and lures making them invisible to fish.
Puget Sound Brownsville Marina.
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Which strike zone would you rather fish in?
 So, which strike zone would you rather fish in?


From the Brownsville dock you can fish for Salmon, bottom fish or jig for Squid.


Another function of color on any spinner or lure is to give degrees of brightness. As a fishes metabolism changes with water temperature, spinner and lure brightness becomes critical in attracting fish. Bright lures for cold sluggish fish and toned down lures for fully active fish. During a recent research project, observations gave credence to the idea that brightness may be just as important or maybe more so than color.

Looking Nort toward agaate Passage.

Looking north from Illahee State Park in Bremerton, WA. Bainbridge Island is on the right and the Kitsap Peninsula is on the left. These are prime waters for Salmon trolling.
Illahee State Park in Bremerton, WA

The floating dock at Illahee is another place local angler like to fish from. It is protected by a break water and is accessible via the walk way on the right of the picture.  In the background is Bainbridge Island

    Projecting a red laser into several tropical fish tanks, we found the aggressive fish like the sharks immediately attacked the laser dot trying to eat it. Slower fish, such as angle fish, showed luke warm interest and also tried to eat the dot but were not as aggressive and their efforts were not as sustained as was the sharks aggressive behavior. Switching colors and projecting a green laser onto the bottom of several tanks, the results were exactly the same. All of the fish made some effort to eat the red and green dots and there was no observable preference for one color over the other. Preliminary conclusion is that visibility is vital regardless of color. It is probably much like moving a laser dot or like pulling a string across the floor in front of a playful cat. The cat does not care if it smells or tastes like a mouse. It is visible and it moves! And that is all it takes to trigger a response in a cat or a fish.

Using the same experiment on native Salmon Fry in a natural setting gave exactly the same results. These fish had never seen a laser dot before and certainly nothing as brilliantly bright as the red and green laser colors. Yet because they could see it, it was the right size and it moved they went after it. From the foregoing experiment it would appear that visibility and movement trigger a reaction in fish. Unfamiliarity didn't seem to deter their curiosity in the least. As a fish gets closer to the target other senses presumably kick in such as smell or taste, vibration, and in some cases electrical sensory input.

So here is your rule of thumb. Present the fish you are going after with the right size lure, make sure it is visible against the ambient background colors and present the right movement. You may also want to consider adding scent to your lure giving the fish one more reason to take it.

The size of each spinner or lure is critical. If you are serious about that big lunker, using a lure that looks like a good meal is important. If the lure is too small, it takes more energy to catch it than it is worth. Many fishermen conclude that fish will eat a meal that is up to half its length, and no smaller than one eighth its length. So if you are after a 40 inch fish, using a lure that is no bigger than 20 inches, and no smaller 5 inches is a good rule of thumb.

Many fish do have the ability to see color. Those that do see color have cones in their eyes. Cones are needed for color perception and at least two cones that are sensitive to two different colors. People with normal sight have three types of cones. One that is sensitive to red, one to green and the other is sensitive to blue. The three kinds of cones in our eyes and the number we have enables us to discern over 300,000 shades of color.

What about fish? Is color important? Earlier, we concluded that visibility is of prime importance. Color often is the critical factor in making a fishes meal visible.

Here are some interesting facts about fish. Catfish have no cones. They posses only rods, which gives them the ability to see bright light as white and the absence of light as black and everything in between as varying shades of gray. Though blind to color catfish have amazing sight. On a moon less cloudy night they can see what we could only see under a crystal clear sky and a full moon. Along with their extremely sensitive night vision Catfish have extraordinary taste/smell. So as most Cat fishers know, good stink bait and a glowing light source next to the bait offers the best chance of landing that big Channel Cat. The color of the glowing bait enhancer is of little consequence to the Catfish. However, color is still very important for increasing the strike zone even though the Catfish is colorblind.

Some colors penetrate dark and murky waters better than others. Catfish see shades very well and a yellow or florescent lure may show up better than a blue or brown lure. Remember that in clear water blue and green light penetrate best and in turbid or muddy waters the warmer colors are better. Glowing bait enhancers do not depend on ambient light for the fish to see it. Choosing the right glowing color will depend upon the water conditions stated above. Generally, a green glow enhancer creates the largest strike zone. However, other glowing colors will be important in creating distinction and visibility against the ambient background. Because glowing bait enhancers provide their own light, the importance of water conditions and available light is greatly diminished.

Most predatory fish have cones that allow them to distinguish colors. Some even have four to five different cones. Incredibly, this means they can see colors we cannot even imagine. Reasons for this increased ability to see a whole new range of colors is still an issue for marine biologists and scientists. It may help identify food or it may have something to do with mating. The jury is still out on this.

We know that some fish see into the ultraviolet range, which is invisible to us. Again, what this invisible light lets them see we don't know but here are some tantalizing clues. Now let's get down and personal.

While fishing the Weber River in Utah, we saw something intriguing. Fishing was slow so like all good fishermen, we began to experiment. Mepps spinners, that had been "hot as a firecracker" a few weeks ago, weren't getting results. So we started digging around the bank for some bait. We found only small night crawlers and in a pool of water there were some marine worms that looked for all intents and purposes like the small night crawlers. The coloring was nearly identical and the size the same. Throwing a small night crawler into the pool brought small fish immediately. They came from all directions and attacked the crawler in a "free for all feeding frenzy". Then tossing one of the marine worms into the water, nothing happened! None of the fish showed any interest in the marine worm even though it wiggled and wriggled just like the night crawler. We threw in another night crawler and it was again attacked vigorously. We tried another marine worm and not a single fish even turned in its direction. They totally ignored the marine worms.

The smell couldn't be the triggering mechanism since the attack on the night crawler came almost instantaneously from all directions including upstream. Smell could not have traveled that far, that fast, and certainly not upstream. The attacks came faster than the smell could have dispersed in the water and the fish that were upstream from any smell responded just as fast and in some cases faster than the downstream fish did. Venturing an opinion, we believe the fish were seeing two differently colored worms. To our eyes they were the same color but because of increased cones in some fishes eyes, we believe the small trout saw colors they liked in the night crawlers and they saw colors they didn't like in the marine worms.

Another incident helps to support the idea that some fish see colors we can't see. While fishing a small stream near Pony, Montana we witnessed something that many fishermen have seen. Creeping up to the bank of a small brook, a nice juicy night crawler was sent drifting downstream into a nice hole and from our hiding place we watched an Eastern Brooke Trout dart out, grab the lead sinker and run with it. It was as good a strike as any except the fish had the sinker instead of the night crawler. This has happened over and over again and in our experiences we have seen it many times. Even in salt water here in Washington's Puget Sound. We tried silver colored lures but in many cases they still preferred the oxidized sinkers. There seems to be something about the color of oxidized lead that many types of fish seem to like. Could the fish be seeing the oxidized lead as a brilliant, vibrant color that we are unable to see?

If so it baits the question: are there natural baits that is mimicked by the color of lead sinkers? Here is a chance for some enterprising inventor to create a pigment that attracts fish like the oxidized lead, but hopefully not lead.

In conclusion, color does make a difference even if the fish are not fussy about the color of their food or are color-blind. Visibility is the key. Keep in mind though, that all fish are color-blind at night because the color cones retract and the rods extend for more acute black and white night vision, making a glowing bait enhancer important for increasing the strike zone.

Good luck and keep the inside of your waders dry!




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