My friend and mentor Charlie Meyers was the outdoors editor of the Denver Post for many years (he passed away in 2010). He taught me a lot, and when it came to fishing, we agreed on just about everything. But one thing we disagreed on was bright colors. Charlie was the master of stealth, and he’d always show up to the lake or river in drab olive, gray, or even camouflage attire. I, on the other hand, would inevitably hop out of my truck in a hot Hawaiian print shirt, or a bright white cowboy hat… it drove him nuts (and I’ll admit that I sometimes did that just to get his goat).
Science does indeed tell us that fish see colors. Bright colors will help alert fish to your presence, and often spook them. I did a series of stories for Field & Stream called “Going Deep,” where I went scuba diving with bass, trout, pike, and other species. Interestingly, one lesson all these fish consistently taught, was that the panic factor was triggered by motions and shadows overhead… birds flying over a run… shadows anglers make… errant casts, and so forth. Didn’t matter if you were wearing a red shirt, if the fish sensed something “wasn’t quite right,” the chances of hooking up went down considerably.
For Charlie, bright colors worn by an angler were a potential giveaway. And he was right. Wearing stealthy colors will never hurt your chances. But in my twisted way of thinking, wearing bright colors made me more self-conscious about things like how I approached fish, where I positioned my body and boat when I cast, and the shadows and motions I created. If I realized I was a shiny beacon, I was forced to concentrate on the things that really mattered, and I didn’t have a false sense of security because of the shirt or hat I wore.
The beauty of fishing is that there are no exact right or wrong answers, only theories and ideas. And each angler is free to devise his or her own system and plan that works best.
I will say that the more you think about shadows and motion, and the better you plan your approach, the more your chances of catching fish improve… and that’s true everywhere, from the saltwater flats, to the bass pond, to the trout river.
Avoiding bright colors is probably the smartest plan. But I still fish in gaudy colors now and then, just to keep my mind focused on the real challenges at hand. And I’m sure that somewhere, Charlie is still shaking his head.
Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large with Field & Stream, and he co-wrote The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing with the late Charlie Meyers.