Visionary Angling

An eye doctor looks into the question of lure visibility. The answer may surprise you.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Optometrist Dr. Colin Kageyama peered into a patient's injured eye through an optical filter that made blood vessels and blood appear black. Other portions of the man's orb glowed from the fluorescent dyes that Kageyama had applied. The West Coast physician had used these tools many times, but today his observations prompted a chain of thought that had little to do with optometry.

Optical filters change the apparent colors of things and enhance contrast. Water, Dr. Kageyama knew, acts as an optical filter. "Could the answers to my fishing problems be so simple?" he wondered.

That 1995 incident (the patient recovered, by the way) is important to anglers everywhere. Kageyama is a steelhead angler who for years had worried about which colors and combinations thereof are most visible to fish. The doctor's epiphany led him to develop filters that replicate what happens to sunlight in clear, green-tinted or muddy water. Kageyama next made light and dark backgrounds to simulate those against which fish view lures. Then came the job of seeing what really happens to lure colors as seen through optical filters.

Kageyama's research revealed that contrast, and not simply brightness, is the most important factor in a lure's visibility. The doctor found that subtle hues and dull color combinations often provide the most contrast. Through his own tests and conversations with guides, Kageyama learned that the same high-contrast colors and patterns are effective on all freshwater fish.

He also learned that how far a fish will move for a lure depends first on the fish's level of activity, which changes with water temperature, and then on the clarity of the water. When fish are active they will chase a lure farther, and you want to use colors that are seen best from greater distances. These, it turns out, are the colors akin to the tint of the water itself. In clear blue water (all "clear" water has at least some tint), fluorescent blue, fluorescent green and silver plate appear brightest at long distance. In clear green water, fluorescent yellow, fluorescent green (chartreuse) and genuine gold plate appear brightest. In mildly stained water some oranges and reds show up well at long distance.

Fish won't move as far for a lure when the temperature or barometric level have made them inactive, or when fishing pressure has made them skittish. In turbid water or pocket water, fish see a lure only if it passes close by. Now you need colors that provide maximum contrast at short ranges. "You need to think of it as hitting the fish in the face with your lure color," says Kageyama. "You're dealing with small increments. If visibility is truly limited, fish might see and react to one lure finish at twelve inches, whereas another color would need to pass six inches away before a fish sees it."

** The Additive Effect**
The next step is to add a secondary color. Get it right and you have a combination that works within a wider range of conditions and as the lure passes from light to dark backgrounds. "By combining the correct colors -- we call them 'additive' -- you get an effect that's brighter, that gives better contrast than either color alone," Kageyama says. In clear or slightly green-tinted water, pink (particularly fluorescent) with green is the brightest combination. You might think that white would stand out well in clear water. It does up close, but it takes on the tint of the water at a distance, becoming progressively less visible to fish.

"Now consider really low-visibility situations," says Kageyama. "Take a board painted with a rainbow's worth of colors below the surface in highly muddy water and everything will break up into black or white. You could use a black and white lure in muddy water, but chartreuse and black give you much more contrast." Orange is also good to combine with chartreuse in muddy water, but not because it shows oraange. In deep, stained water, an orange stripe on the belly of a chartreuse crankbait appears black and provides added contrast.

How about good old magic black by itself? Isn't that the ultimate high-contrast finish, especially at night? Black, Kageyama finds, is a top short-range color in muddy water or for fish looking up against a night sky at short range. In clear water on a calm, sunny day, black is very visible at short and long ranges to fish in the shallows or to fish looking up. But Kageyama's research shows that black alone is not highly visible in moderately cloudy water on dark days at long distance. Nor is it easily seen on dark days or in dark water below the fish's line of sight.

But black's visibility in muddy water can be enhanced with the right contrasting flash -- gold, according to Kageyama's findings. For muddy water, the doctor's favorite steelhead spinner has a large gold-plated blade with black and fluorescent chartreuse tape on the underside. The body is black, and the hook shank is covered with chartreuse tubing. He calls the combination "Down and Dirty."

Closely following color in importance are a lure's size and its amount of reflection. A big, bright lure rings the dinner bell for fish in winter conditions when they won't move far to eat. As the water warms slightly, Kageyama believes that you should go to a smaller lure with less flash. During the heat of the summer, reducing size and flash even further brings more strikes from trout or steelhead, he says.

** Using the Data**
So what's Kageyama's go-to lure? "For summer trout and steelhead fishing, it would be my Summer Heat spinner," he says. "I'll fish it anytime in hot weather. It's also productive during low-water winter conditions or on highly pressured fish in most conditions. But people don't like it. It doesn't have flash or look exciting." The Summer Heat has a metallic-brown blade and black body. A commercial version uses a coffee-color blade.

Kageyama says that against a dark background a Summer Heat spinner has better long-distance visibility than an all-black spinner. "Depending on conditions, I'll fish it either near the surface or rolled along the bottom," he says. "It gives maximum contrast against a bright sky and against a sandy bottom. It also stands out against bright underwater bubbles."

The doctor's research has already been incorporated in a line of Mepps spinners called "See Best." The company is adding the finishes to additional spoons and spinners. Kageyama is negotiating with some makers of both soft and hard bass lures to add the concept to their lines. "Most bass-lure makers have hundreds of colors," he notes, "but they need only about six combinations. Most of them have maybe three of those in their lineups." What's missing and what's there, he won't say just yet.

"It's easier to add the proper colors to metal or hard baits," says Kageyama. "Soft plastic is porous and more difficult to get to hold the color consistently. Fly-tying materials are even worse."

Where do you go from here? You could get a set of Kageyama's filters ($29.95 to $59.95; 800-361-3668) and view your favorite lures through them in a darkened room, using a flashlight for illumination. You could get lure tapes in various colors to enhance the contrast of your baits, or try the Mepps See Best spinners or kits.

But remember this: "A poorly designed lure with the right color isn't going to help that much," says Kageyama. "Color is not everything, but it can be important under the toughest conditions. That's the way I look at it." He must be doing something right. In the steelhead arena, where anglers who catch 10 fish a season feel pretty smug, Kageyama averages 130 released fish a season.

As for me, I'm going to stock up on some of those ugly Summer Heat spinners for the warm weather ahead.