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The Truth About the Color of Marlin Lures

I recently read a book by Professor Charles Mathertitled "Billfish" that caused me some confusion. The book was published in 1976. It included numerous photos of friends and acquaintances taken from fishing spots all over the planet; Places such as Florida, Panama, California, Hawaii, New Zealand and Bimini. I even found myself in a few of the photographs, as a young skipper in Cairns, Australia. There were hundreds of pictures that brought back some great memories and a couple of things that made me realize how much of the old “Knowledge” that was once universally accepted by anglers and crews as TRUE in the past has changed over the years.

One page in Mather’s book includes "scientific classifications" of billfish species but differs quite a bit from the newest list in my 2015 IGFA record book. What is now known as a "Round Scale Spearfish" used to have at least one other name, including that of "Hatchet Marlin.”

Knowledge of many things is ever changing but I was surprised to read in Mather’s book that "Billfish have good vision and see color well. The retinas of billfish contain a combination of rods for light and cones for color perception." Next in the book came a detailed discussion of how quickly clean, clear water attenuates color (absorbs color).

My latest information is that billfish have a substantial number of rods but relatively few cone cells; I called Dr. John Graves to recheck myself. As a result, they have only limited color vision, which is mainly in the wave lengths we call yellow and green. The rods would provide them with the ability to see in low light conditions.

I have known for many years that red is the first color to be taken away when diving below the water’s surface. The last colors that I see on deep dives are yellow, green and blue, with blue being the last one to be seen; which is why clear, deep, oceanic water appears to be blue. At extreme depths, blue finally fades away to black, in the total absence of all light. Personally, I have never been close to deep enough to observe this!

Since this law of nature works horizontally as well as vertically, I often demonstrate this phenomenon to our students at Marlin University. I get into the swimming pool wearing a red swimming suit. I then give the student a pair of goggles and have him or her duck their head under water while I swim toward the other end. When I am about 30 or 35 feet away I surface. The student also stands up and says “now it looks gray.” I move a few feet farther away and surface again. The student pops to the top and says “Now it looks black.” So, when I ask the student why anyone trying to “raise” a marlin from deep beneath the surface would ever use a lure with a red head or skirts he or she often says something like, “I see what you are getting at.” My next question is “Why do you think I love lures with red heads?” (And they really are my favorites for any lure on or near the surface!)

I do not care very much about skirt colors for marlin and, for many years, I kept accurate records. Any color from white to black will get plenty of bites. However, most anglers, skippers and crew rarely (if ever), keep accurate records of the number of strikes on each of their lures. The only conclusion that can be drawn about lure color is: the lure and the color you use the most is the one on which you WILL get the most bites.

When a lure is purchased and leaves the tackle shop, it has done its job. The only person who really cares what lure you use is the guy trying to sell it to you. Forget the color and pretty much the action of your lure; unless, it spins so badly your swivels can not keep the line from getting twisted. If you pull a lure at at any speed from 7 to 17 knots, anywhere in the spread, you WILL get bites.

I end up telling the Marlin U students that I prefer bright headed lures, not because fish prefer them but because I can easily and quickly see them myself! They stand out in all the white and blue of the boat’s wake and whatever wind chop we have that day. From my vantage point, high up in the tower, a red headed lure on or slightly below the surface water can be quickly and easily seen. Light reflects all of the colors of the lure back toward my eye, otherwise I could not see it. Since there are very few feet of water between me and and any shallow running lure I am pulling, I can easily see the red head of a lure even if it is on a long rigger bait or set way back from the center rigger.

I LOVE a long center rigger with a modest sized jet head or bullet head and I do care what color that lure is, because yellow fin tuna do have color vision. It is billfish that I say don’t respond much to color, not true for tuna. I will be happy to get a bite out of a marlin or a tuna.

Think about it. Why would a yellow fin look like that? When searching for a mate, many vertebrates home in on their own species by looking for color patterns. It is of no benefit to the yellow fin tuna species if a male yellow fin falls for a female big eye tuna. Mating and successful reproduction can only occur when a male and a female of the same species get together, in most cases, probably aided by their ability to see the colors and patterns of their soon to be mate. When targeting yellow fin tuna, it makes sense to attempt an offshore version of what trout fishermen call "matching the hatch."

If I see flying fish getting up, I would go to a blue and white lure about the length of the flying fish.

Ditto if ballyhoo were showering. If I saw squid or their ink in the water, a purple or chocolate colored lure would be my choice. Tuna can be hard to catch if the color or size of your lure is very different from what they are feeding on and SIZE does matter, especially when they are in a frenzy "balling up" very small bait fish.

A small tuna is a blue and black marlin’s favorite prey, dead or alive, but nothing beats a live tuna! A tuna up to one tenth the weight of the target billfish are great baits. We once caught, rigged and put out a live 37-pound yellow fin tuna. We wound up tagging and releasing a black marlin that might have weighed (at the most) 500 pounds!

From the tower I am constantly looking for a marlin. If I can give my anglers a "There he is!" call before a billfish bites, our hook up percentage just about doubles compared to a blind crash strike with the angler eating a sandwich and drinking a coke! I look for a mark on my fish finding sonar, then I scan the horizon for birds, or maybe a jumping billfish, or one tailing on the surface on a choppy day. If I have been trolling for an hour or more without raising or sighting a fish, when I do locate a billfish somewhere in the area I want to pound that spot for a while. If I know I am close to a fish, I will put out a live bait if I have one in a tube or can catch one and I’ll stick around for awhile. Just knowing there is a fish in the area is a big help!

I always keep looking at the fathometer, scanning the horizon and the water, looking for birds and jumping fish. Then I take another look behind the boat where my lures are being dragged along. This is the most likely spot for me to see a marlin underwater, not way off to one side or way in front of the boat. Having a red head on a lure helps me find it quickly and I can keep going back to the machine, the horizon, etc. If it takes me too long to find a lure, say a purple headed "Softhead" with black skirts (an excellent lure but one that does not stand out in the white water), I may miss out because while trying to find my lure, I failed to see the marlin jumping 100 yards out and off to one side. Therefore, I never got my boat and my baits anywhere near what might have been a hungry fish.

(PS~ Get rid of any shaft whine you might have. I will discuss noise attraction and repulsion another time.)

Good Luck~ Peter B.

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