TEXT: Mike Ladle & Alan Bulmer

Recently I happened across an excellent article written from Steve Starling which looked at the how to choose a lure colour to suit the conditions and summarised the findings in several elegant pictograms. It is well worth the read and most of the recommendations reinforced what Active Angling has already written on the subject of lure colour (

Check out Steve Starlings article by clicking on:-

The key pictograms from the article are reproduced below as they are a great way to remember what lure to select.

Lure colour and depth


Lure colour & turbidity

lures & weather

However, recently I read an fascinating chapter in Dr. Mike Ladle’s latest book “The Second Wave” which questioned the importance of lure colour and scent. This is what Mike had to say:-

“So are there ANY SOLID FACTS concerning the effectiveness of different coloured lures which might throw some light on the subject?   It seems that there are a few.

Scientists have compared the catch rates of some sea fish when using artificial lures in an automated hand-line fishery off the Shetland Islands. First a few words about this commercial jigging or automated hand-lining tactic.

The reasoning behind this study was that although different types and colours of artificial lures are widely available to commercial fishermen there isn’t much information about whether a particular design of lure worked best or whether something as simple as lure colour affected catches (just what we’d like to know of course). Catch rates were compared for five different colours of rubber tube lures and for five different designs of artificial lure commonly used in hand-line fisheries.

Oilwind jigging machines

The lures are ‘jigged’ up and down in the water using automated jigging machines (see above). Jig fishing tactics have been used for centuries by fishermen in the North Sea and North Atlantic and many of the techniques are still in use today. In recent years however, hydraulic or electric, automatic jigging machines have been introduced to make it easier to haul fish up from the depths. The machines can be programmed to change the jigging pattern and a pilot study was carried out in the inshore waters around Shetland.

Most of the fishing took place over rough, ‘un-trawlable’, bottoms such as hard ground, areas of rocky peaks on the sea floor and wrecks. During fishing the vessel was drifted over the fishing ground with the engine switched off. If the fishing was poor during the drift the vessel moved to a different area. Almost 500 hours were spent actively fishing various places over a 15 month period. Not surprisingly wrecks produced the greatest amount of fish, followed by rocky peaks, and hard ground was in third place. Pollack and coalfish made up most of the catch – 54% and 37% respectively.  Smaller numbers of cod (3%) and ling (5%) were also caught.

The factor which had the most effect on catches was tide. In many places fish would suddenly stop biting when the tide changed (did they move or did they stop feeding – see the chapter on pouting). However, at some other marks, there was no clear relationship between tide and catch rates. Wind speed and direction, daylight patterns and weather conditions also had lesser effects on catch rates.  The most successful method of catching pollack was jigging the artificial lures close to the seabed. It was not clear whether coalfish were permanently resident on particular wrecks, whether they move between wrecks or if, at times, they migrated away from the area altogether.

The important finding (for us) is that lure colour MADE NO DIFFERENCE to catches of pollack, coalfish, cod or ling. The only positive result was that cod did seem to prefer the lower hooks (there were six hooks on each line) when lures were black. Pollack, in contrast, were more attracted to the lower hooks when the lures were coloured blue. Also the type of lure made no difference to catches of coalfish, cod or ling. However, catches of pollack on a novel ‘sonar’ lure were poorer than on any of the others. It didn’t seem to make any difference where any of the lures were positioned along the line. (The lures used and set ups are shown below)

Jigging trial lures 1

jigging trial lures 2

Lure set ups trialled

The only other worthwhile study of lure fishing we could find was related to using lures on set long lines for bass. The system, using monofilament lines and artificial lures, was developed in response to the rise in consumer demand for ‘line caught’ bass. Unlike nets, it would allow commercial fishermen (they claim) to target bass without much impact on the wider environment. They would also be able to fish in waters with tricky tidal conditions or legal restrictions on the use of nets. It involved a six month trial from May to October off the coast of North Devon.

Apart from catching bass to sell, the idea was to reduce the need for livebait and to allow fishing in waters where netting was restricted or difficult. The method (just like angling) should also minimise by-catch and reduce the catch of undersized fish.

Since there was no need to re-bait, the lines could be fished for up to two weeks continuously, being harvested daily. Fishermen would be able to take full advantage of favourable conditions, having gear set up and ready to go at all times.

The idea is that the monofilament longlines are suspended between the surface and seabed. From these lines artificial lures are attached at equal distances. The lines can be left in place for long periods and actively fish all the time. Of course, expensive lures would be out of the question for commercial use so low cost, easily made gear was the order of the day.

The main line ranged from 400lb down to 200 lb. breaking strain. Durable Berkeley swivels were the best as other types deteriorated quickly (we’ve used Berkley swivels for years).  Aluminium or stainless coated double crimps, in conjunction with plastic sleeves, were used to hold the swivels in position on the main line. This eliminated the swivel chafing through the heavy line.   Small rubber ‘lamb’s rings’ were tied in to the droppers to act as shock absorbers and to avoid the fish running and snapping the line when hooked (shades of ‘pole elastic’).

Due to continual immersion, corrosion quickly rendered cheap hooks useless so stainless steel or Duratin was essential. The best hook size varied with the size of fish being caught, but ranged from 3/0 to 5/0. Hooks were snelled (whipped on) rather than tied to avoid fish chafing through knots. Snoods (droppers) were of 60lb breaking strain monofilament (pretty hefty by rod and line lure angling standards). The best length for the snood, to allow the maximum number to be deployed on a line, was 5ft and interestingly a luminescent bead on the end of the snood (at the head of the lure) seemed to increase the catch rate.

Wreck drifting

As in the jigging experiments, tide was very important and a current of at least 0.8 knots was needed to keep the lures working. Above 3 knots the lures began to spin and this reduced their effectiveness. It was noted that bass moved about to feed in an optimal tidal flow which fell between the 0.8 and 3 knot current speeds.

At first, lines were shot across the tide to allow the lures and snood to be held well away from the back line. However, fish were found to be running up tide in quite narrow bands, resulting in the catch being distributed in isolated patches rather than along the whole line. Also, with the lines running across the tide, the hooks were prone to catch far more rubbish, weed, plastics etc. which in extreme cases would chafe through the back line. Consequently the lines were later set along the direction of flow.

The colour of the water was a consideration; both too clear and too dirty were worse than something in between. Very high turbidity, (visibility less than 3 feet) and very clear water, (visibility more than 24 feet) caused big reductions in catch. Vibration, it was thought, could have helped fish to find lures in murky water.  In gin clear conditions, it was considered that fish were mostly caught at the change of light, round about dawn and dusk (confirming our preferences).

The best visibility for fishing was found to be between 9 feet and 15 feet.  Of course anglers using finer, less visible gear and more realistic lures may do rather better in clear water conditions.

Scent was experimented with as an added attractant.  Amazingly, when lures were dressed in pilchard oil prior to fishing it reduced catches. Whilst the lures had traces of oil on them they did not catch bass. It is not known if other attractants might work. However the lures fished well without scent in all but the dirtiest water. May bloom and any other algal infestation rendered the lines as good as useless and rubbish catching on the lines spoiled their effectiveness.

The lines were fished in some areas notorious for seals damaging fishing gear and catches. There were incidences of hooked pollack being eaten by seals whilst bass on the adjacent hook were alive and untouched. There were no incidences of half-eaten bass, but when seals were present in the vicinity, catches decreased.

The catch data was based on bass caught per number of hooks each day. In the early days only a small number of lures (60 to180) were used at a time. This was while the lines were being tested to eliminate problems.

Later, as the lines were modified with experience, more bass were caught for a given number of lures set. Part of this improvement must have been due to the increasing numbers of fish available as the season progressed. When properly set the lines caught one bass per twelve lures. The majority of the fish caught were bass, and by-catch made up only a tiny percentage of the overall catch. Pollack were the commonest ‘other fish’ along with cod. Species other than bass were, in most cases, returned alive.

So, there we have it. All the observations should probably be taken with a large pinch of salt (water) but what can we, as lure anglers, conclude from these tests?

  • Firstly, lure colour may not make much difference to effectiveness, but a spot of luminescence on the trace could help induce bites.
  • In murky waters a lure with plenty of vibration may improve results.
  • Lures can be effective even when tied to pretty hefty nylon lines but in very clear water it could be worth refining the tackle a bit.
  • Scenting lures may, in some cases, put fish off.
  • Bass run up-tide in quite narrow lanes, so try to fish across the flow until you locate them and then fish at the same distance where you had your bite.
  • Catch rates reduce when seals are in the vicinity.”

I was intrigued that the experimental results did not confirm that lure colour was important so I tracked down the research report and tried to determine at what depth the trials were conducted. This is where it got interesting. The scientists never actually correlated the depth at which the lure was fished so it was not possible to determine precisely what colours worked best at which depths. However, what I did discover is that they never fished in shallower water than 10 metres and most of the wreck drift fishing was done between 50 – 110 metres. If you look at Steve Starling’s pictogram above then you will see that at these depths blue and black are the most visible colours which explains why they probably were more effective.

The experimental results regarding the effectiveness of pilchard oil as a scent are also interesting. This may explain why some scented lures appear to be more effective than others. If the composition of the scent is alien or unattractive to certain species then it can put them off. This then brings into question whether some brands of scented lures truly do have the universal appeal claimed and whether or not each brand should be thoroughly tested on the species likely to be targeted by anglers in the countries where the lures are sold.

I’m not convinced that scent is actually that important, especially when the water clarity is upwards of 3 metres and the fish can clearly see the lure. Scent probably does have a place when fishing in murky water where anything that can help the fish find the lure is important. For the same reason lures which are noisy or emit a strong sonic signal that can be picked up by the lateral line of fish are often more effective in murky water.



  1. Hi Alan,

    I’ve always found “noisy” lures interesting. Many of them have ball bearings in them (which also adds weight for casting or ballast for action) that would create what I think is quite unnatural sound. They seem to work, so I have to put that down to the curiosity of fish, but it would be great to know the reason. But why would a particular scent put fish off a lure, and not an unnatural sound? I wonder if in the scent scenario above that pilchards are not native to the area, and whether the experiment needs to be repeated with a range of scents, especially something local that is successful for bait fishing?

    Anyway, another good article. I enjoy the science and structured testing of observations.

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