Anyone that has bought a diamond engagement ring is probably familiar with the four “C’s” of diamond grading: cut, clarity, color & carat. These four items are what determine the overall quality of each individual diamond, so diamond shoppers pay very close attention to them. Similar to diamond grading, color & clarity are two very important characteristics to pay attention to for wintertime fishing. In fact, for hardwater pursuits, color & clarity are linked together in a bond that cannot be broken.
Winter Time Clarity
When I refer to “color” and “clarity” as it relates to fishing in the winter, I am referring to the clarity of the water we fish in and the effect that has on lure color selections we make. Obviously, “The Two C’s” are important in fishing at any time of the year, but I feel that they are especially critical during the hardwater months. This is because the waters we fish in the winter are usually the clearest they will ever be. The cap of ice that seals off the lake from the rest of the above-water world also eliminates turbulence in the water created by wind & wave action. This allows most suspended particles in the water column to settle and provide water so clear that it can be startling at times on certain lakes.
Color selection during the winter is so much more critical because ice fishing is so much more surgical; we can hover directly above and specifically target individual fish. This means that fish have ample time and water clarity to allow them to very thoroughly inspect any offering before they eat it. If color selection is even the slightest bit off, the fish will refuse to bite what is offered to them.
Another thing to keep in mind during the winter is that it is usually much darker in the water below the ice than it is above the ice. This is especially true as winter wears on and the ice becomes cloudy with repeated thawing & re-freezing, or significant snow accumulates on the ice. By mid-winter, it can often be dark below the ice a full half-hour to an hour before it gets dark above the frozen sheet. This can significantly affect what colors we choose at different periods throughout the day.
Clear Water = Metallics
For clear water, one of the strongest patterns I’ve found is using metallic colored jigs: silver, brass, copper and especially gold! I fish the gin-clear waters of West Okoboji frequently and day in and day out, I can count on a gold colored jig to get the job done. One of my theories as to why gold jigs are so effective in clear water is that they resemble some of the aquatic bugs flitting about in the water column that the fish are already eating. Many of the bugs have a somewhat hard shell over their body, or in the case of mayfly larvae, a hard cap over the wing casings from which their wings will grow when the nymph metamorphoses into its dun and adult stages. In either case, when light hits this hard cap or shell in the water, the resulting reflected light very closely resembles the flash of a gold jig. Some of the bugs that don’t have a hard cap or shell do have a small air bubble attached to their body that helps them navigate vertically within the water column. Again, the light reflected from this air bubble when under water looks very much like a gold or silver jig. Unlike a flashy chrome jig, a metallic jig more closely resembles the flash that these natural food sources exhibit, and is a key advantage when targeting neutral or negative fish. The more subtle flash of metallic is more natural and neutral that even the most negative fish will snap it up, while refusing a much flashier chrome or brightly colored jig.
Add a Dash of Color
Metallic jigs also afford me a very efficient way to quickly determine what the hot color may be for any given situation. Because metallic jigs are such a neutral color and I’m confident that even negative fish will take a swing at them, I am totally comfortable tying one of these jigs on and leaving it. This is great because it allows me to use the plastic tails that I dress my jigs with to experiment with color, rather than constantly tying and re-tying jigs to find exactly the color the fish want. Pulling off one color plastic and replacing it with a different color only takes seconds while re-tying jigs can take a couple of minutes or more sometimes. In fact, using this method, I can very quickly work through every color I have in my plastics arsenal. I know right away when I’ve hit the right color too, because fish will suddenly go from annoying, disinterested tail-biters to aggressively taking the whole jig without hesitation. On the rare instance where I work my way through all my colors, and still haven’t found the one they want, I will then begin to change other variables like jigging cadence or profile of the plastic I’m using. Some of my favorite clear water colors for plastics are bubble gum, motor oil, white and red.
Matching the Hatch
As I’ve already alluded to, I feel it is best for your presentation to look as natural as possible for clear water presentations. One of the best ways to do this is to “match the hatch”. This is essentially what I am doing when I select a metallic jig; attempting to imitate the bugs that are already swimming around in the water column. The same principle also pays dividends when using jigging spoons or other lures like a Jiggin Rapala or Chubby Darter. I try to stay away from very bright vibrant un-natural colors in clear water, opting instead for more natural and neutral colors. If I’m fishing a lake that has an abundance of golden shiners, I will go with a golden colored pattern like a Lindy Macho Minnow in the golden shiner pattern. If emerald shiners are abundant, I’ll look for something with a green tint. For most of minnows and chubs that make up the forage base in Iowa’s lakes any silver shiner pattern is a pretty safe bet.
Calling Them In
It’s fairly rare for me to have a glow color tied on when fishing clear water. It does happen from time to time however, but conditions have to be just right. If it’s daylight below the ice, the water is clear and I do happen to be using a glow jig, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a glow red. One of the specific instances when I will go with a glow red jig in clear water is if I am “prospecting” for fish. This means I don’t have any specific fish nailed down yet, and I’m just trying to cover as much water as possible in order to find where concentrations of fish are generally located or to determine where bigger fish might be found. In this type of a scenario, I’m trying to get the attention of as many fish as possible from as far away as possible. Because red glows the brightest of all glow colors, its glow can still be seen under the ice even in daylight. This glow allows me to catch the attention of fish farther away from the hole I’m prospecting in that might not even notice a similar jig in a more neutral color.
Stained Water Patterns
For some lakes, even after they have capped over and all the particulates floating in the water column have settled, their waters still retain a dark tint. In several of the lakes I fish in northern Minnesota tannin from the trees leeches into the water and gives it a tea-like color year round. The tendency for many people when fishing stained water is to go for the bright and fluorescent colors. In contrast, I try to pick colors that almost disappear into the color of the water. Observing baitfish in stained water I have noticed that they don’t stand out like a fluorescent jig, rather they blend in. Often times, it’s impossible to even see them except for a faint silhouette in the water. Predator fish in stained water often feed by feel rather than by sight. They will detect vibration first and hone in on that to find their prey. That faint silhouette of a bait fish is actually what they’re looking for as they close in on their next meal. Again, I can go with a gold jig because it is still fairly neutral in stained water, and rely on plastic colors like purples, blacks, smoke, green etc. to simulate that baitfish silhouette in stained water.
Much like I do when I’m prospecting for fish in clear water, I also lean on glowing baits for prospecting in stained water. The biggest difference is that I stay away from the intense glow colors like red, and rely instead on softer more subtle glows like blue and green. The intent is to attract the attention of the fish and not blind them with the most intense glow I can put down there. Since stained water, by definition, is darker than clear water, the more faint glow colors will contrast enough with the surroundings to attract fish from further away all the while not scaring them off with the intensity that a red glow exhibits.
School of Hard Knocks
I’m fortunate to be able to sight fish in the crystal clear waters of West Okoboji. In doing so, I have been able to observe how fish react to a variety of colors and presentations and is the foundation for how I pair certain colors for certain water clarity conditions. I am a strong believer in trying to match what fish are already feeding on, and only stray from that practice if the fish are in a positive mood and biting aggressively. In that case all rules go out the window, and it’s time to do some serious experimenting with color. The bottom line is that water clarity for a large part will be the single most important factor in making color selections. Clear water is probably the toughest to handle because visibility is so good for the fish that your presentation must be spot on, as the water clarity gravitates towards more stained conditions, the concern shifts away from a perfect presentation to getting your presentation noticed.
Keep these key concepts in mind and you too will soon master the two “C’s” of ice fishing.