Color Matters

By Guy Turck •  Updated: 11/28/22 •  6 min read

Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” –Henry Ford

Color Matters

Fortunately, such is not the case for modern fly fishers and their fly patterns.

Fly designers have long debated the relative merits of the “big three” elements of fly design: size, silhouette and color. What every fly tyer and angler wants to know is, of the “big three”, which is most important? Some would say that this is a vital question to answer. Dialing in on the perfect fly takes time and a little luck. Opportunities can come and go before an angler discovers that perfect pattern. Obviously, when choosing a fly, it would be preferable to hone in on the most important element first.

In trying to hone in on that perfect fly pattern it would seem helpful to understand how a trout perceives its world. Volumes have been written on the visual acuity of trout, color theory and the interplay between the two. Such topics can get quite complex and I have rarely found them to be of use in real-world situations. There are simply too many variables.

After all, what difference does it make what color is most visible to a trout if it doesn’t look like food? For instance, color theory tells us that blue is the first and last color seen by trout each day. Does that mean we should all use blue flies at dawn and dusk? I doubt it, and I’m not inclined to waste my time trying to find out.

Color theory also tells us that the color red is the last color to become visible to trout each day and the first to disappear as light fades. This indicates that a red fly would work best in bright conditions. But that is not always the case. Gary Borger – author, angler and authority on color theory – feels that trout have evolved the ability to distinguish color in order that they be able to “better separate potential food items from the background.” It logically follows then that flies that contrast sharply with the background are more easily spotted and, therefore more likely to be eaten. Yet, one of the primary survival mechanisms of many trout foods is the ability to blend in with their background. Lets face it, sometimes bright contrasting colors work and sometimes they send trout scurrying for cover like they had just seen a ghost.

To someone with my limited intellectual capacity this all gets very confusing. And worse yet, it distracts me from what I should be doing; using my powers of observation to solve the daily riddle of what fly to use.

One thing I do know; trout can and do distinguish one color from another, and it can be critical in determining whether you get strikes or rejections, or even any strikes at all. Sometimes I feel like if I had enough time to try every fly in every color I wanted I’d undoubtedly find a killer combination every day. Word has it that the late Bing Lempke – master of the Henry’s Fork and one of the most amazing fly tyers this country ever produced – felt that color was the most important element in fly design.

Yet, it is a common belief among many, if not most, fly tyers and fishermen that size is the most important element. I’ll let personal experience illustrate the point that Bing may have been right.

The first time the importance of color slapped me in the face came early in my fly fishing career on the Big Horn River. My friend and I were nymphing from float tubes in a very productive 300-yard run. Well, productive for Tom that is. On the first pass I was fishless but Tom had spanked them hard. As we hiked back up the bank for another run we compared notes, as usual. Same fly – a pink scud – same size, same everything. Maybe I wasn’t holding my tongue right.

Next run, same results. By now I’m beginning to experience the subtle panic every angler has felt when he’s getting stomped and his buddy, using the exact same fly, is doing his best Brad-Pitt-in-ARiverRunsThroughIt impersonation.

Desperate for a solution to my dilemma I remove my sunglasses – my sunglasses with the amber lens that is – and finally realize that my fly isn’t pink after all, it’s red. Viewing the red fly through the amber lens gave it a pinkish hue, at least from my perspective. Unfortunately for me, trout don’t wear sunglasses. But as soon as I switched to a pink scud I started hooking up too. Panic over. Lesson learned.

While realizing that the color of a fly is of critical importance one must also keep in mind the perspective of the trout. What color is the trout seeing? This, as we shall see, is an entirely different matter.

I had always wondered why a Pink Trude was such an effective pattern for the Yellow Sally hatch on the South Fork of the Snake River, until one fortuitous day when the mystery was finally solved. South Fork Sallies are a size 10 or 12 stonefly with a yellow body and distinctive crimson red butt. Virtually all Sally patterns try to faithfully recreate the characteristic body coloration, yet are strangely unproductive.

Yellow Sallies tend to hatch in great numbers on bright days and the day of my discovery was no exception. As often happens during a South Fork Sally hatch, we weren’t getting the action you would expect. Especially in light of the fact that feeding trout were everywhere. Standing in a riffle and gazing skyward to admire the prolific hatch, the proverbial light bulb in my head finally switched on. Looking up, I was seeing the insects from the same perspective as the trout – that is, from below and backlit by the sun. Dozens of florescent pink tubes fluttered overhead. When backlit by the sun the yellow and red melded into a vibrant pink body. The mystery of the Pink Trude had at last been deciphered.

So, does this mean color is the number one characteristic we should consider when picking out a fly? The experiences I have related here, and numerous others I could have mentioned, don’t prove that color is more important than size or silhouette. But they certainly indicate that color matters – and that it matters a lot. And that’s all any angler needs to know.

Guy Turck
Jackson Hole
January 2003