by Greg McCain
Today’s crappie anglers have an overabundance of colors to choose from.
For the modern crappie fisherman, color options run the full range of the spectrum. Once confined to just a few basic colors and combinations, fishermen had to make do with the choices at hand. In plastics, white, chartreuse, and smoke dominated in the not too distant past. Jig head options were often limited to white, chartreuse, or red. Unpainted heads were also more commonly used in the past as well.
Now the possibilities are endless with varied colors that artfully fill tackle boxes. With regularity, tackle companies introduce new offerings into the color scheme. Whether in hair or in plastic, diverse colors abound, making selecting the best option an overwhelming task at times.
Various factors contribute to choosing the best colors. A main consideration is water clarity. Gerald Overstreet (Overstreet Guide Service, 251-589-3225) spends much of his time on Alabama River impoundments. These south-central Alabama fisheries generally feature at least some stain.
“When you have high, muddy water, say here on the Alabama River or wherever – it could be Grenada Lake over in Mississippi – you want to have a larger profile bait in bright colors so that the fish can find it easier, your bright orange, black/pink, black/chartreuse, orange/chartreuse, glow green from Midsouth Tackle,” Overstreet said. “The bright colors help fish find the bait easier, and naturally you’re going to get more bites.”
Of course, stain is relative. Overstreet is accustomed to fishing the dirty water on the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. He considers water muddy “when you can see the silt moving in it. Otherwise, I feel water where you can see the bait a foot or so down is only slightly stained.”
On those occasions, Overstreet adds some lighter colors like white or lighter greens. Chartreuse is almost always a factor regardless of the water clarity.
“You can’t go wrong with chartreuse,” Overstreet said. “You just don’t want those deep, deep colors once the water starts clearing up.”
Overstreet also ventures to the lower Coosa River for tournaments and guide trips. The water there is generally clearer than other fisheries in the region.
“When the water is lightly stained, I go with blues, light greens, and pale pink colors,” he said. “As the water lightens up, we just keep going lighter down to a light grey, off white, bone-looking color whites.”
The clearest water often requires pale shades of blues like the Bobby Garland Monkey Milk.
“In crystal clear water, you want something like Monkey Milk or any opaque, clear-looking color,” Overstreet said. “Of course, you can’t always count on the notions of crappie. Sometimes, they will hit those deep, dark colors in clear water when you least expect it.”
Like Overstreet, most other anglers rely on instinct and experience to dictate color choices. They also start out with various color combinations when deploying multiple rods. The “let the fish tell you what they want” theme runs true among most fishermen.
“I would suggest to anybody, whether you are tournament fishing or fun fishing, mix your colors up,” said B’n’M and Midsouth Tackle pro Steve Brown, who often teams with Overstreet in tournaments. “Sometimes you will be surprised. You would think that in lightly stained water that certain colors work best, but you find that black/chartreuse is outperforming green/chartreuse on a given day.”
Outliers always exist. For example, there’s really no rhyme or reason why chartreuse is so appealing to crappie, yet “there are times when I go with solid chartreuse and catch fish all day long,” said B’n’M and Bobby Garland tournament competitor Steve Danna.
Anglers also differ on the use of white, especially in stained water. Dan Dannenmueller notes that all fish, baitfish included, often take on a pale appearance in water with little light penetration.
“I think that a brilliant white can be one of the most effective colors available for stained water,” Dannenmueller said.
Dannenmueller, CrappieNOW publisher and ACT competitor along with his wife, Sue, takes color selection beyond just the instinct and experience phases. He almost always relies on the Color-C-Lector technology from Spike-it as a starting point for color selection.
Many fishermen have an old, rarely used Color-C-Lector unit stored in the recesses of their boats. The technology has been around for years and in the simplest terms, measures light penetration and provides a chart of best color possibilities for the sampled water conditions.
“One of the worst things I can do is not listen to my Color-C-Lector,” Dannenmueller said.
The color of the primary forage also comes into play at times. On the best days, fish will eat just about anything that passes within a comfortable feeding range. On most other occasions, crappie are far more finicky and dictate that fishermen “match the hatch.”
“If it’s a lake that I know well like D’Arbonne, I generally know what the crappie will be feeding on,” the Louisiana competitor said.
A primary forage on D’Arbonne is crayfish so Danna ties hair jigs that mimic the local crustacean population. He crafts jigs that frequently feature a khaki base with hints of red or blue added.
“When I’m fishing my home lake, I’m usually in tune with what color I need to throw,” Danna said. “If I’m on a lake fishing a tournament, especially if it’s one that I’m not that familiar with, I think it’s very important to choose a color that resembles the local forage base.”
In those situations, even subtle changes of shades can mean the difference between the best stringers and an average one. Even adding flake to a solid color can change crappie’s perception of a presentation.
“Don’t get locked in a certain color,” Dannenmueller said. “Don’t just rely on what your buddy tells you. Do your homework, and fish the best color combinations possible based on the fishery and the water conditions.”
“…anglers rely on instinct and experience…”
Many fishermen – Dannenmueller acknowledges that he is guilty as well – don’t always follow that advice. They too often stick to personal favorites when another color probably works better. Just about every crappie pro surveyed admitted to getting into a rut and failing to make critical changes at times.
The need to swap colors exists from day to day, during the course of a day’s fishing, or even from minute to minute. A north Alabama fisherman related a tournament experience that illustrates that idea. He had located crappie scattered on a 100-yard line of stumps in about eight feet of water. The fish would only hit with the boat moving from north to south and with a significant color change on each pass. The constant adjustments were tedious but necessary.
Most experienced crappie fishermen can relate. For tournament fishermen, making the right choice can often mean the difference between earning a check and going home empty handed.
“We are creatures of habit,” Dannenmueller said. “We become stubborn and want to stay with what we think will work. Don’t get locked in on a particular color. Don’t just do what your buddy says. Go out and do your homework. Look at how much light penetrates in the water. That’s usually going to tell you how to make the best color selections.”
Added Overstreet, “I tie on my favorite jigs that I want to fish with and then don’t understand why I’m not catching anything. I still stick with them, sometimes too long. Most of the time, I have a jig right there in my box that will catch fish but fail to use it.”
However, constant changes are not always positive, according to Danna. He said that it’s important to give crappie a chance at a color and that purposeful changes are much more effective than random ones.
“Yes, there have been many days when a color change was critical for me,” Danna said. “You have to determine if the fish want something else or if you have just spooked them. If they are just spooked, they will usually settle down and bite the same color if you give them a little rest.
“But one thing that some fishermen do is change colors too quickly. There have been plenty of days when I have changed colors and triggered the bite, but there have been others when I probably should have stuck with the same color.”
And then there are those occasions when the fish want no color.
“Sometimes they just want a jig and a minnow,” Brown said. “We’ll get to a lake, practice all week, identify the color, and all of a sudden, they won’t hit it. They just want a jig and a minnow.
“We’re always going to have two rods rigged that way. If that’s what the fish want, then we will know about it immediately.”
Effective color transitions stick in the mind of crappie pros, perhaps reinforcing the need to change when the bite dies or to switch to a single color or combination when crappie pick out their favorite on tournament day.
“This year on Lake D’Arbonne in the ACT,” Overstreet said. “The water cleared up just a little bit, and the fish suddenly wanted nothing but black/chartreuse. We caught a lot of crappie after making that change.”
Danna recalls a similar experience on D’Arbonne although in an earlier tournament.
“We were fishing Crappie Masters a few years ago,” he said. “We had been catching fish on blue/chartreuse pitching to trees, and I noticed that the bite had started to slow. I went to a blue/pink and my partner changed to khaki with a little red in it. We probably caught 100 crappie after switching colors. That was a day when changing colors was important.”