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Hard times in the 21st century

ere we are in the new millennia, the Age of Aquarius, and somehow survived the Mayan apocalypse. We have cars that can drive and park themselves, devices acting on verbal command, but we still can’t out-smart a cold-blooded vertebrate with a brain smaller than a pea. We’re still without a means of teleportation into wilderness fishing locals…still no Bigfoot carcass.

Taking a modern-day look around at the technological advances in fishing, is there reason to be overly impressed? I’m still without a magic new fly, lure, or scent, guaranteed to catch fish…left wondering why vintage design produces my best results. For me, trolling lakes for trout using weighted line -- leader tipped with threaded worm behind flashers -- still comparably beats any other setup. And why does color selection for kokanee drastically vary from year-to-year? Why their attraction to garlic-scented corn? It’s hard times in the 21st century.

But seriously, why do vintage lures, flies, and techniques, many times out-perform the fancy new stuff? There are dodgers and lures that glow with UV-activated paint. Does this help? Some lures and plugs are decorated with elaborate designs and artwork. Can trout really discern these delicate patterns? Will trout refuse a hopper if it has the wrong colored head or eyes? Some scents have UV reactants which will alter the color of a lure. There’s fluorescent paint and holographic tape. Is most of this purely to catch us instead of the fish?

Daredeveil and ZRay lure, photo by Phil Akers
For decades the Daredevil has had a place in tackle boxes. Red-and-white has always been a productive color combination because it provides excellent contrast under various conditions and light scenarios. The Z-Ray is another long-time producer, mainly due to action rather than color.

Years ago I was hell-bent on understanding how color and design selection could enhance fish-to-net ratio. Having witnessed sticks and even rocks in the gut of wild trout, it’s hard to imagine how sexy paint-jobs could help trigger a trout to bite. Some research led me to purchase a couple of books: “What Fish See” by Dr. Colin Kageyama, and “The New Scientific Angling” by Reed F. Curry. The general message is even though trout vision is much greater than ours -- four cone cells compared to our three -- it’s believed their brain can’t process such an overload of color information, and they can’t filter out sensory input like we can. In software engineering we call this CPU bound.

Not only is a trout’s brain smaller than ours, it’s constructed much different. We perform a tremendous amount of processing in the part of our brain used for identification. We have the ability of identifying things quickly, and, once identification has been made, we can quickly turn this function off. When I say quickly, we’re talking nanoseconds here folks! Trout lack this ability and more processing takes place in other parts of the brain. The premise is; trout spend more time on survival -- processing sensory input, location and navigation -- and far less time on identification. Maybe that’s why they sometimes swallow sticks and rocks.

Meeps Spinners, photo by Phil Flip Akers
Mepps developed a “See Best” line of lures and spinners. Notice how the stripes are painted in the direction of spinner rotation, providing distinct separation between contrasting colors. Stripes don’t need to reach all the way across a lure or spinner.

Another theory is transition triggers the highest level of visual processing. Transition is where contrasted colors meet, precisely at the edge. To make a bright lure or fly brighter, add dark pin-stripes. Conversely, to make a dark lure or fly darker, add bright pin-stripes. It’s important to add these stripes in the same direction as the motion or rotation. My own analogy; picture a 55-gallon drum or large barrel, and you’re going to roll the barrel down a hill. Stripes painted around the barrel will be more visually detailed than stripes painted the length of the barrel, which would be a blur. The idea is transitional contrast triggers the highest visual processing in trout. In fly fishing you will see this concept in patterns like green butt skunk (providing contrast to an already excellent steelhead fly) and egg sucking leach. Plugs such as Flatfish and Kwikfish exhibit these principles along with lure manufacturers such as Mepps, with their “See Best” line of lures and spinners.

Black flies luers, by Phil Akers
Many times, black is my go-to color. Fact is the black Woolly Bugger has been a hallmark fly for a very long time. Bombers offer a weighted version of the bugger. Nothing fancy here, just using weight to transport contrast to the feeding zone.

Serious lake anglers know the color of their presentation on land is much different than it is under water. In many California lakes, due to suspended phytoplankton, sediments, and other impurities, colors can change or even diminish in the 12-foot range. Red will begin to appear black at this distance, with other colors following suit, tuning into proportional shades of gray. At this point, the only useful purpose color provides is contrast against a background. Black is often a great color choice because it produces a striking silhouette against virtually all backgrounds. But fluorescent colors, UV glows, and reflective flash work well in deeper water.

Dodgers lures, photo by Phil Akers

Vibration and reflected flash from dodgers attract fish in deep water where UV light is scattered and limited. This is a very effective way of trolling for trout, kokanee, and other inland salmon. These are 100% stainless steel dodgers from Siskiyou county by Trinidad Tackle.

Glow paints and scents work well in deep water because they are illuminant. Fluorescent colors don’t glow but are very bright and retain their color to depths a little beyond the point where other colors fade. Not every gorgeous wild trout from pristine mountain streams is a native, and not all bright colors are fluorescent. To be sure, test your colors. Glows will do just that, glow in the dark. Fluorescent will retain its color under a black light, other colors will not. Caveat emptor, and shop wisely.

Glow Lure, photo by Phil Akers

When fishing deep for trout, kokanee, and inland kings, I’ve had success using lures, dodgers, and flodgers that glow. Before dropping down into the dark depths, this Silver Streak flodger requires being “charged up” by placing in direct sunlight for a couple of minutes.

Like many other fly anglers, I understand during hatches trout become zoned in on a particular size, shape, and action. During large hatches, or other events such as insect die-off, matching size, shape, and working your fly in the natural direction is often all that’s required…elaborate design and color doesn’t seem to matter as much. Working your fly opposite the natural hatch mostly proves fruitless, regardless of color or how detailed the pattern. From my experience, although color is a parameter, precise color figures to be the parameter caboose.

When it comes to trout I believe action, vibration, and scent, play larger roles, especially in poor visibility due to depth, angle of the sun, or other low-light scenarios. It’s long been said trout hunt with scent and vibration detection through their lateral lines to initially sense prey, and, unless there’s contrast, flash, or glow, only utilize vision up close. This may be true for lake predators but river and creek trout likely feed by detecting contrasted images against their background, including gazing up toward the surface. River and creek trout can see you, and you likely appear much larger to them than you actually are. When fishing the small streams, match the color of your surroundings, prevent noise or disturbance, and don’t cast shadows.

Kokanee Lure, photo by Phil Akers
I can consistently out-smart the younger kokanee but there’s nothing consistent about the larger, mature kokanee. Of all the inland fishing I do, kokanee is the most color sensitive. Their color preference can change several times a day without noticeable reason.

So what does all of this mean? What am I trying to say? Being most scientists and optometrist agree the visual acuity of trout is largely unknown, I certainly don’t know. I’m not trying to sell you on highly theoretical and controversial studies…just throwing another log in the hot stove, trying to keep things interesting, thought provoking, and share my own experience. Go with what makes sense to you. Although classic flies and lures had things figured out long ago, there are certainly modern-day advances that help us catch trout and kokanee; GPS, sonar, paints, fly line, flies and fly-tying material. But to understand these fish, we’ve not made huge advances for quite some time. And it sure seems kokanee can discern color. Oh yeah, why are they attracted to garlic? We still have a lot of questions to answer, but my ink’s getting dry…now where the hell is my flying car? It’s hard times in the 21st century.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.


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