Lure Color 101: What Do Muskies Want?

Lure Color 101: What Do Muskies Want?

Jodie Paul August 11, 2023

When we’re talking musky baits, we’re talking about size, shape, motion, and color.  If you go down the rabbit hole of color theory online, you might come back with a slight buzz or a dislocated brain stem, so let’s take the shallow dive with classic pointers to get you where you need to go when it comes to choosing the best color for any given situation while targeting muskies.

When we’re talking muskies, we’re not discussing vision like yours and mine.  Our overall spectrum of color perception and general eye movement are completely different, so let that go, and let’s talk fish—underwater.  If you remember when you were a kid, maybe you sat on the bottom of the pool and looked up at the surface on a bluebird day.  The surface waves, splashes, and bubbles might have amazed you, but more importantly, that’s the general perspective of a musky.  Muskies don’t need polarized glasses to see you, because the light is coming from above and not reflecting back from underneath.

So, what makes sense is to say that muskies are generally looking forward and up to hunt and not dealing with top-down reflection.  Their eyes are located on the sides of their head, slightly forward, with a great deal of mobility, so their blind spots are directly in front of their nose and behind their tails. Muskies' eye muscles are perfect for tracking movement and along with their lateral line sensory organs, they can easily locate their next meal.

Well, we know muskies love a good pulsing bait with some size to give off vibrations, so what is it they actually see?  Well, this is a little trickier.  Muskies see a variation of our spectrum of light frequencies.  They are thought to even see a variety of UV waves.  Meaning they are seeing color, but when it comes to color underwater, well that’s where things get tricky.  Muskies see in “binocular vision” which helps them to determine size and distance, but likely are forced to rely on silhouettes and patterns to discern their prey due to being nearsighted.

When reminded that lure color is related to light penetration, well then you have another quandary.  The deeper you go, the less light penetration, which leads to little color recognition at all. More narrow spectrums of light reach the depths of lakes, so down deep does it really matter to muskies or any other fish for that reason.  The answer is yes and no.

By laying out the rules for musky vision, it stands to reason that muskies and color matter “sometimes”.  These would be the best rules to follow for those who like to think scientifically about their lure of choice and choose the best color for the perfect day.

  1. When fishing shallow, color matters more because light penetration is stronger. Possible color starting positions would be to match the hatch as you might have likely heard before.  This works in all conditions on all waterways. 
  2. On bright sunny days and clear lakes, when fishing above 15 feet, you can use brighter colors, whites, and silvers, because they will be seen in greater detail. This is the best time to experiment with the most color.
  3. Color variations in shallow water on bright days are subject to musky preference. You might keep an array of brightly colored baits and a musky will only hit chartreuse.  This is a sensory perception preference per fish.  Muskies are like any other predator, not unlike humans, I will eat a purple popsicle, but my favorite is orange.  Reactions to specific forage are normal and change throughout a muskie's lifetime.
  4. On cloudy days or in stained water, choose darker colors and/or more pronounced patterns, the same for deeper water. Pronounced patterns can be seen better in low light conditions, try bars, stripes, and alternating fin patterns so that they can be discerned when light is low.
  5. All colors tend to disappear at depth, so the pattern is more important than the color when going really deep.
  6. When in doubt, black works in all conditions because it creates a silhouette that can be seen regardless of water clarity or conditions.

Hopefully, this short list will help novice anglers when finding their color instinct on new waterways.  All colors can really work at any time, but it helps to keep a smattering of colors preloaded for your next trip out on the water.  Seasonally, when fishing deep or shallow, on stained or clear water, a color palette that makes sense will alleviate the headache that comes with a boatload of tackle when all you need are a few trusted choices.