Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Do Fish See in Color?

Lure color is a hot topic among anglers. No one can deny that. It's probably the second most discussed aspect of artificial lures , after the type of lure is determined. This subject came up recently on one of the message boards I frequent and I find it intriguing. Are fish colorblind? Or do they see in color?

I don't think there is an easy answer to this one. Some experts will say they can't see color , some will say they can , but the truth is the fish remain silent on this most pressing matter. It's probably a good thing , otherwise the fishing lure industry as we know it would be vastly changed , most likely for the worst.

Physical evidence would point to the probability that , yes fish do see in color. Though I'm not sure which species were studied , you can find evidence of studies that show fish do have cone cells in their eyes. They also have rod cells. Neat. My problem with this is the assumption that their primitive brain and optical nerves are capable of translating data collected by these cells in the same fashion as we do. Not that I don't think the science is sound when it comes to identifying types of optical cells , but rather I don't think we can rely on assumptions about the mind of a mainly instinctual animal to form a definitive yes or no answer.

Anecdotal evidence also points in the same direction. Most of us can probably remember a day on the water when only one color lure would catch fish , especially if you've ever spent much time chasing trout or salmon , walleye or bass. I understand that completely , but can we really base a firm decision on that? I really can't say for sure that a truly scientific study has been done in a controlled environment , and honestly I think it would be hard to do such a study and provide consistent results.

I have at least two reasons for questioning these assumptions , and if nothing else, I hope they at least give you some food for thought.

First , and most important is the great diversity of fish in the world. To dissect an eye from one third of the species we know of would be a huge undertaking. I highly doubt that more than a handful of species have ever been subjected to the process involved in identifying cone cells in the eye. This diversity means that we have everything from very primitive deep water species to more recently evolved fish that prefer to lounge in the sun near the surface. With over 24,000 known species , and more being discovered , I think it's safe to say that we would be making a huge assumption if we declared that fish do or do not see in color.

Second , is the fishes environment. Habitats range from muddy ponds to crystal clear mountain streams , plus everything in between. Depth is another factor , with everything represented between several inches of water and extreme deep sea depths. Both of these create special situations where the amount of light that is able to penetrate to a certain depth comes into play. Perception of color is very dependent upon light. It's worth noting that certain cave dwelling species evolved to a point that they had no eyes , while their deep water counter parts , with a similar dark environment , evolved to have huge light gathering eyes and make use of bio-luminescence. Fish are wonderfully adaptive creatures.

I won't make any statement of support for either side of this argument , as I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Species in clear , shallow water can possibly make use of color differentiation , but I question it's worth at great depth or in cloudy water. There is almost always something that appeals to a fish's other senses in the lures we use , even when they show a preference for a particular color. I don't think we'll ever know with 100 percent certainty.

Let me know what your opinion about our scaly friends' eyesight is in the comments below! Have a great week!


  1. Like you said, I think fish in muddier waters end up relying less on eyesight to find prey. I'm not sure if that means they see color or not though.

    On a side note, many fish species -have- to see in color. Color differences between male and female cichlids would be pointless otherwise. Most colorful fish gets the mate when they can't even see color?

    Good post though. I spend way too much time picking lure colors haha

    1. Good point Alex , and I will admit that some species certainly do see color to some extent. I've read before that some species have four types of cone cells in their eyes (humans have 3) , which makes me wonder if they see in the ultraviolet spectrum like some insects do , or if it's just to aid with another aspect of vision.

      I think lots of us are too concerned with lure color , when we could do other things to improve as anglers.

  2. I've always thought they could see color, but the more I think about it, I'm not so sure. Example: One day you catch everything on a silver lure. The next day, fishing in the same place with the same conditions, gold catches everything. Next day, same conditions, same place, firetiger catches everything. Is it a matter of color or does the lure reflect something that catches the attention of that fish on that particular day?

    1. I agree Mark. When you think about some of the older artificials that still work today , it seems that a lot of them are very basic and appeal to other senses besides color alone. Spoons reflect light like you mentioned , bucktails are usually solid white and topwater baits usually cause a commotion on the surface. All three of those use action or movement to draw strikes rather than a certain color , and are still very effective. Makes you wonder , or at least it makes me wonder :)

  3. I have always assumed that fish do see in color since a lot of fishing lures come in many different colors so they must have been created that way to attract the fishes.



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