There’s a lot of contention among surfcasters about the importance of lure color in striped bass fishing. One angler I know has told me that beyond black and white, it really doesn’t matter. Other surfcasters think the more realistic the color pattern on their lure, the better their odds of success, so they throw intricately hand-painted designs. Most, however, fall somewhere in between.
As with all surfcasting, there are no set rules when it comes to color selection. Even the “light colors in light, dark colors in dark” rule is subject to change. I’ve watched anglers catch nice fish on black darters at mid-day, and I’ve seen nice fish taken on new moon nights with white bucktails. This isn’t to say color makes no difference – it most certainly can.
The “Primary” Colors
On any particular night during the season, you could lift the flap of my plug bag and see a mix of the surfcasting’s four “primary” colors. These would be white, black, chartreuse and yellow. If you were to only buy lures in these four colors, you would still catch plenty of fish and may not ever feel the need to throw anything else.
White is successful because most baitfish have white bellies. It is a good choice that works in a wide range of situations.
Black is a go-to color on dark nights because it contrasts better against the dark sky than lighter colors. Don’t believe it? Check it out for yourself. On the next dark night, go outside with a couple of your lures, one white and one black, hold them up against the sky, and see which profile you can make out more easily.
Yellow and chartreuse are fish-catchers because, simply put, they get seen. A study performed at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences showed that striped bass see yellow and chartreuse better than other colors as they are smack dab in the middle of the striped bass’s visual range. This research effectively proved what some fishermen have known for years – night or day, yellow is a dynamite color for striped bass.
While some striped bass prey may have yellow fins or a yellow sheen, nothing in nature is chartreuse in color. Nevertheless, stripers hit chartreuse lures, sometimes better than they’ll hit anything else. Chartreuse seems to work especially well in rough or discolored water. I also like it during sunrise and sunset, as the color stands out in the low light.
Olive-over-white, blue-over-white, and more intricate, realistic patterns are often employed to closely mimic any baitfish that might be present, but when looking for a lure to match the prevalent baitfish, keep in mind that stripers will eat just about anything. In many areas, flounder, fluke, scup, lobsters, crabs, sea bass and sea robins may end up on the menu more often than menhaden, herring, mackerel and more traditional “baitfish.” Thinking outside the box a bit could help you accurately “match the hatch” and fool more stripers into eating your lure. Steve Musso of SuperStrike lures told me that he sells lots of black-over-orange plugs in the springtime when sea robins are present and make up a large portion of a striped bass’s diet. Another fisherman I know claims gold lures work best along one rocky Rhode Island shoreline where large scup are abundant. The pair of mid-40-pound bass he caught on gold plugs in 2011 served to prove his point. Brown or root-beer-colored plugs could closely match tautog, while black-and-blue or black-and-purple plugs might mimic small sea bass. Olive or brown bucktails dragged across the bottom are a good representation of the small crabs stripers often scavenge on. Get creative and see what color combinations you can come up with the match the local forage.
Most baitfish are silvery, which makes lures with a chrome finish seem like a natural choice. While bluefish certainly love chrome-colored lures, the jury is out on whether or not they are really effective for bass. On dark nights, lures with chrome finishes won’t do much to help attract fish, but during the day, or on full moon nights, this flash can catch the eye of a striper from a distance.
I saw with my own eyes two 40-plus-pound bass caught on bright pink soft-plastic lures in 2011. This color is largely overlooked in the surf, but it works wonders. Years ago, I was told that pink worked because, in water deeper than 10 feet, the red faded out and it looked natural to the fish. Though the logic was questionable, the results were not.
Wine red is another excellent color year after year. This color may represent a squid or lobster, but it works all over, even when neither of those baits are present.
“Wonderbread” is another oddball color that works wonders on striped bass. This color migrated over from largemouth bass fishermen who found that adding red, blue and yellow dots or splotches to a white lure increased its productivity.
Obviously, our plug bags and our shoulders limit just how many different colors of each lure we can carry. I usually bring at least two and as many as four colors of each lure I’ll be packing for each trip. In most cases I’ll bring along one light and one dark lure, though sometimes I will bring some “match-the-hatch” colors as well. Conditions will also dictate what colors I bring along. In rough water, I’ll have more chartreuse in the bag. During the day and on bright nights, whites and realistic color patterns will dominate my plug bag. On pitch-black new moon nights, I’ll include more dark colors, but I won’t exclude the lighter colors entirely.
I am constantly switching out lure colors, even if I’m having success. I’ve had nights where almost every cast resulted in a short hit with only the occasional hook up. On some of those nights, a change in color made those hesitant fish much more willing to commit and my hook-up ratio improved dramatically. One dark night, I was fishing black bucktails and catching plenty of school-sized bass. On a whim, I switched to white lures, and though I had fewer hits, it seemed the fish interested in the white bucktails were considerably larger.
Though you can’t bring it all when picking lure colors, cover the bases as best you can, and switch up often until you find what works best.