Why is the other guy catching all the fish? Could be one of a million reasons, but when sitting side-by-side on the ice, the list narrows to scent, bait type, jig action, line diameter, line type, lure type, lure size, and lure color.
Color may seem like the most trivial factor in that group, but not when all else is equal and the other guy is still catching all the fish. Having walked the hard water with folks like Dave Genz, Al Lindner, Tony Roach, Mark Martin, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, and many other giants of the ice-fishing industry, and having ogled their color choices carefully over the years, I break down color like this:
A good jig box has more shades in it than a carton of crayons. The main factors to consider when trying to pluck a color from that rainbow are these: 1) Water Color, 2) Thickness of ice, 3) Amount of snow cover, 4) Depth, 5) Time of day, 6) Mood of the fish.
Water color: Sometimes it pays to start with a multi-colored jig, like a parrot, perch, or fire-tiger pattern. It’s like playing the trifecta instead of trying to pick a single winner from a pack of options. Sometimes, just a dash of the right color will trigger a take. Think primary colors and natural colors in clear water—like white, black, brown, gray, olive, or beige. Dial down the brightness of metal lures. Think glow or fluorescent shades of chartreuse, orange, lime green, or blue in heavily stained or very cloudy water. Use single colors in clear water, but contrast colors in stained or cloudy water. Use bright metallic flash to attract in cloudy water. In between those extremes, mix and match according to the other following factors. For metallic attraction and flash, I start with gold in cloudy water, copper in stained water, and silver in clear water.
Ice Thickness: Under thin ice, use natural and primary colors more often. Under thick ice, use glow colors and bright metallic flash more often.
Snow Cover: Same as above—go natural with no snow cover in clear water, and choose incrementally brighter colors as snow deepens. Under thick ice and heavy snow, it’s dark down there. The most consistent color used by experts in that condition, in all water colors, is glow orange coupled with bright metallic flash matching the water color. Don’t be alarmed when glow chartreuse or glow blue works better, but be moderately shocked if fish prefer jigs without glow.
Depth: In shallow water, successful colors tend to be more natural. The deeper the jig has to go, the more fluorescence or glow coupled with bright flash it should have. However, under thin ice on bright, sunny days in clear water, don’t be surprised if a duller, more natural shade attracts more strikes. But also consider how reds become gray only a few feet down, followed closely by orange and yellow, while colors at the blue-green end of the spectrum tend to remain visible much deeper—all due to wave length. Wider frequencies in the wave length of colors cause them to disappear quicker. But fluorescent and glow paints of all shades maintain color much deeper than standard finishes.
Time of Day: Before the sun rises, just after sunrise, just before sunset and after the sun goes down, glow colors tend to work best in all conditions. During the remainder of the day, other factors should influence color choice.
Mood of the Fish: Aggressiveness among fish under the ice is controlled, to some extent, by these factors: 1) Fishing pressure, 2) Weather, 3) Time of year, 4) Forage abundance, 5) Oxygen content. Cold fronts can make fish lethargic, and heavy pressure can make them wary. Early and late in winter they tend to be more aggressive than during mid-season. Dense forage abundance and low O2 counts can make them lazy. Match colors to mood the same way the experts match colors to water conditions. Wary, less-aggressive fish tend to respond better to natural colors with less flash, while aggressive, lightly pressured fish tend to race up and eat anything that moves—suggesting the use of the brightest, most highly visible color combinations possible.
All of which has little to do with the science of how fish see color. Or the fact that, on some lakes, the same colors tend to work best all winter long no matter what the conditions are. And some of these things are contradictory—such as the fact that aggressive fish in ultra-clear water under thin ice just might crush the brightest glow jig in the box all day long. These are general guidelines describing a place to start every day. Just don’t tell the other guy you have a system. Let him be the control factor, going “eenie-meanie-minie-mo” every morning. One of you will stumble across the right color, eventually.