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Walleye bait color selection

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This is an excerpt from a book that I have written called: Contemporary Tactics for Walleyes in the central and eastern basins of Lake Erie that is at the publishers being reviewed right now. Anticipate a late fall date for release.

The most often discussed topics when anglers are discussing fishing are color and bait selection. Color selection is probably the single biggest variable that will affect your day on the water every time you are on the water. Color and bait selection are in my opinion the science behind the catch. Electronics, local knowledge and knowledge of the period will help you find the fish and where they are in the water column. The application of your knowledge of forage base in each of the periods and color relationships to water clarity, weather, the target depth of the fish, and the period and its related factors, will be what puts fish in the most fish in the box most of the time. Although there will be exceptions to the general rules that I will present, it is important to use these rules as a guide every time you are on the water. Once you have an understanding of how all of the factors affect size and color variation, you will become a significantly better angler no matter what style baits you intend to use.

Let’s first examine fish and their ability to detect color at depth. Most fish have a similar anatomical structure of the eye to humans. Most do have rods and cones and can detect variation in color as a result. Consequently, the biggest factor that affects a fish’s ability to see then becomes which portions of the light spectrum can penetrate the water to depth. As a general rule, I follow this basic breakdown as a basis for color selection in relation the depth the fish are holding. Hues from reds to oranges are best in the top portion of the water column or shallow water. Yellows and its related hues are best to about forty feet and greens below them to about 70 feet and blues and purples even deeper based on light penetration. This is a general rule and there will always be exceptions, but it is an excellent way to initialize the color selection process.

Muddy water can create very difficult fishing conditions. Muddy water can narrow an active walleye’s strike zone to literally inches. Muddy water is encountered most during the near shore and in some cases the mid-depth periods. During these two periods, the forage base tends to be smaller, comprised of young-of-the-year yellow perch, white perch, occasional sheephead, shad, and emerald shiners, and should be taken into account when choosing baits. In some cases, however, larger profile baits will produce with more regularity in muddy water because there is more bait for the walleye to focus on in the poor visibility. Size is a variable in muddy water that you need to play with until you find a working pattern. In muddy conditions, it is generally best to stick to extremely dark baits, including blacks, and deep purples or glow baits that will help add visibility to your offering and may extend the walleye’s narrowed strike zone out a few inches and result in more strikes. Deep reds, fluorescent oranges, and chartreuses can also be effective during muddy water periods. Muddy water means “low and slow†presentations so your baits should fit this style accordingly. In muddy conditions I like to go to crawler harnesses due to their ability to be fished at slower speeds and fish them in glow, black, and purples. The vibration emitted by the harness can also pay dividends in muddy water by adding another attraction characteristic that the walleyes can focus on in low visibility. The same holds true of crank baits. Crank baits can be effective at slow speeds and aggressive action baits can emit a vibration attraction quality as well. Many times in muddy conditions, it can pay dividends to bounce the bottom with deeper diving cranks that will attract walleyes to the intermittent contacts with the bottom. Most of the time, the weather conditions do not play as prominent a role in color selection because sunlight is not penetrating the water column deep enough to dictate a color preference.

Stained water or in many cases on the Great Lakes “green†water can result in some awesome fishing. This green water comes as a result of the turbidity of the water beginning to settle after a recent storm front or run off from a tributary. Green water is most often encountered during the near shore and early mid-depth periods. Green water can also be productive during the late offshore period when fish have begun their migration west and the shallower waters of the western extreme of the central basin encounter many of the same conditions that create this water during the spring. Stained water is more affected by weather conditions than muddy water, but not nearly as much as clear water. Green water offers a unique opportunity because the fish are still encountering a lower visibility environment, but offer larger strike zones because of the improved visibility. The lower visibility means that the fish tend not to be as boat conscious as in clear water so downriggers, Jet and Dipsy Diver presentations can all be extremely effective as opposed to the virtual need for planer board presentations when the water is clear during the near shore and in some cases mid-depth periods. In addition, the Dipsy Diver can also act as an attractor under stained clarities due to the turbulence it creates. Green water can effectively be fished with cranks, spoons, and harnesses. When green water exists during the near shore period, mini spoons and crank baits will excel. When green water is encountered during the mid-depth period, spoons in regular and mini as well as cranks and harnesses will all produce ample catches of walleyes. Color selection during stained water conditions will consist of bright color patterns and pronounced color contrast patterns. Two of the most effective colors that you will find during green water conditions are yellow and chartreuse. Contrasting patterns like Blueberry Muffin, Buffalo Bill, Eriedescent, and Fire Tiger and bright color patterns such as Mixed Veggies, Lemon Icicle, Pink Panties, and Mac and Cheese will all be productive patterns. The unifying characteristic of all the aforementioned baits is that they all contain chartreuse. On bright, sunny days during green water conditions, favor the bright color patterns and on overcast days favor the more contrasting patterns.

Clear water conditions are a common occurrence now more than ever on Lake Erie. The introduction of Zebra and Quagga mussels has resulted in a habitat with far less plankton and microorganism content than the latter part of the 20th century. The clear water periods that now exist can be found during all three major periods. Clear water by itself not only dictates certain color patterns, but the weather conditions during clear water periods can also dictate certain color patterns over others. Because clear water exists in all three periods, bait size and style will also vary according more to the period and its forage base than the water clarity.

Clear water conditions during the near shore period will tend to require the implementation of planer boards and longer leads on downriggers, flat lines, and segmented lead core rigs in order to maintain the optimum effectiveness of your spread, rougher seas may alleviate the need somewhat, but it is never a bad idea to implement planer boards during the near shore period under any circumstances. Clear water periods and sunny weather conditions during the near shore period will tend to favor more natural colored or drab color baits in patterns like Baby Brown (trout), Gray ghost, Perch, Chicken, Mayfly and the like on some days and on other days may favor metallic, shiny patterns like Metallic Trout, Cheap Sunglasses, Boy Girl, and Greasy Chicken. When spoons are the bait style du jour, copper cupped choices tend to be the most productive choice during this period. The copper not only validates the more natural color preference but also maintains a metallic quality as well. The one unifying characteristic of near shore period baits is that they should definitely lean towards the small side of the bait spectrum. Cranks like Dave’s Kaboom Shiners, Jr. Thundersticks, and Little Rippers are good choices and mini-spoons should be favored as well. Mix your spread with these different color and style choices until a pattern emerges. Keep in mind that walleyes are finicky and early in the morning when the sun is low on the horizon they may favor one color pattern and later in the day they may change over to the other. When fishing in clear water conditions during the near shore period and overcast or rainy conditions persist, darker color patterns and natural colors will be productive choices. Darker patterns like walleye magic, electric chicken, Andy’s walleye slapper, shrimp, lights out, and purple demon will be good choices. When opting for harnesses during the near shore period and during clear water conditions, the color choices should remain similar, but due to the warming water temperatures, Colorado and Indiana blade harnesses should be favored and will perform better at the slower trolling speeds that this period tends to require.

Clear water during the mid-depth and offshore periods will require different color choices and bait styles than the near shore with some exceptions. The early mid-depth period will mirror that of the near shore period with some variation towards the latter mid-depth and offshore periods’ styles and patterns. When walleyes have left their near shore period haunts and begin to chase forage and cooler temperatures into the forty feet to fifty feet of water range, bait style and color pattern will be very similar to that of the near shore period. Clear water can still result in spooky fish and in most cases, the implementation of planer boards will be a near requisite for success. This period will have exceptions to the size rule, especially in the latter part of the mid-depth period as the forage base grows and some days regular size spoons will outperform the mini versions preferred during the near shore period. I still prefer the same crank bait styles and sizes during this period, but many times larger spoons will outperform smaller ones during this period. The latter stages of the mid-depth period and the offshore period a shift in color patterns will emerge during clear water conditions. As the forage base composition shifts towards what is typical of the offshore period, the pelagic baitfish species, walleyes will tend to prefer almost strictly metallic colors in variations of blues and greens during sunny weather patterns. During these sunny day mid-depth and offshore period days try patterns like Kevorkian, Wahoo, Blue Icicle, VQ Blue and Green Alewife, Watermelon, Alewife, and Dirty White Boy. When smelt appears to be the pelagic baitfish the walleyes are feeding on, especially during late summer, Watermelon can be an unbelievably hot choice. When shad and alewife are on the menu, especially during early fall, Blue Icicle can be unbelievably hot. Keep these two baits at the forefront of your thought process, especially when fishing the offshore period. When mid-depth and offshore periods have overcast conditions during clear water clarities, I tend to favor darker baits. Patterns like the Evil Alewife, Pink Alewife, Andy’s Walleye Slapper, and Walleye Magic will be good choices.

When considering bait selection, I feel it is most important to consider the period you are fishing as well as where the fish are in the water column. During the near shore period, smaller baits will out produce larger baits because the size of the forage is smaller. Late summer and early fall walleyes will be feeding on larger forage so larger baits will now out produce the smaller ones. Crank baits will be the most effective when walleyes are no deeper than forty feet below the surface. Spoons will be most effective from thirty feet below the surface all the way to the bottom and worm harnesses can be effective at virtually all depths.

When considering color choice, I feel it is most important to consider the period you are fishing as well as the water clarity and weather conditions. During the near shore period and early mid-depth period, favor natural color choices that are going to be similar to forage. Color choices should mimic the perch, round goby, and crawfish as well as a few emerald shiner / shad imitations as well. As the walleyes become more pelagic during the late mid-depth and offshore periods, the larger baits should mimic emerald shiners, alewife, shad, and smelt almost exclusively. These generalizations will hold true especially well during clear water and sunny weather conditions when fish can discern color with acuity.

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