Far and away the most common question I get regarding lure choices is, "What color soft plastic should I be fishing?" Unfortunately, however, there's no direct answer to the question, primarily because of the differences in water clarity, weed growth, and general fishing conditions. We'll break some of those down in detail here, and give a leg up to a question that many anglers struggle with.
Soft plastics colors are wide and varied, for some good reasons, and for some reasons that are more geared towards an angler's preference. Some of the more straight forward choices in colors relate to the general color of the water you're fishing. In green water, that which has a high algae content, it's often best to stick to deep greens like watermelonseed, and green pumpkin as base colors; it can also be noted that both those colors will excel in clear water situations as well. In stained water, such as the tannic waters of some WI and MN lakes and rivers, browns and reds will be a good starting point; keep in mind there's a difference between stained water and muddy water. Muddy waters are those with a high particulate content, water that is carrying lots of silt and soil, for instance. In those situations ultra high contrast colors are best, colors like black and blue, black/blue flake, and purples.
Further breaking down of those primary color choices is achieved by using some basic steps that will ensure the right color choices are made. One of the most essential keys to color choice can be made simply by basing the colors on forage base. In many lakes and rivers across the US, crayfish have specific colorations. Most often that's based again on water clarity, but there are also some things like what sort of soil type and how much light penetration there is. In most of the Midwest, the crayfish tend to be green with blue or red-orange highlights, sometimes even chartreuse. A very, very easy way to think about what colors may be highlighted is by using what colors show up most easily in the water. The basic rule of thumb is that blues show up best in crystal clear water. Red is excellent in muddy water. Chartreuse and orange can range from clear to muddy, they're usually the best "all around" highlight colors. It is very easy to formulate some basic color patterns for crayfish using those rules. That can be applied to jigs, jig tailers, and in some instances, creature baits.
When considering color on a soft plastic swimbait, the choices can be much simpler. First, one must consider the actual forage. If shad are the primary forage, then pearl white with a touch of grey and chartreuse is a good bait. If the primary forage happen to be bluegills and other sunfish, green pumpkin or watermelon base colors are the better option. In lakes where green sunfish are a base forage fish, chartreuse tail tips are often a deal sealer. In yet other waters, it's necessary to go with a very dark sort of bait to match forage like Ciscoes and Yellow Perch. When gamefish are predating a specific baitfish, matching, as closely as possible, that coloration is the difference between success and failure.
Overall, colors are something that can be very simple, with not a lot of thought going into their selection; in terms of soft plastics, that is. If we apply the basic thoughts of the following:
- What color is the water?
- Am I attempting to imitate a crawfish, a fish, or another "creature?"
- What species, if I am imitating fish, are they eating?
Those three basic questions will help you eliminate a wide variety of your choice under most conditions, so long as you apply them correctly to the situation. That said, Smallies absolutely hate chartreuse and largemouth will eat a bubble-gum pink Senko without hesitation. They don't necessarily always read the same books we do; as such aren't quite as educated as we are.