Yet the incentives to get it right are high. Trying on a color that's easy for crappies to find and helps trigger a feeding strike can mean the difference between a limit and a goose egg.
"When color makes a difference, it makes a big difference," says Barry Morrow, NAFC member and veteran guide on Oklahoma's Lake Eufaula.
The good news is, figuring out what color crappies want at any given time isn't rocket science. But it's far from a no-brainer, either. Perhaps the best place to start is a solid understanding of how and what crappies see.
Panfish they may be, but crappies are voracious predators that lean heavily on their sense of sight to put food into their stomachs. Other faculties such as the lateral line, taste and sense of smell become more important in low visibility. However, vision and the importance of color still play a role in situations ranging from schoolies chasing shiners in gin-clear water on a sunny summer day to winter-weary Northern fish suspended 20 feet below a 3-foot ice pack in the dead of a starless night.
In some ways, a crappie's eyes aren't all that different from our own. Both systems feature a lens that directs light onto the retina. However, a fish eye focuses by moving the lens in and out, while anglers' lenses stretch to get a clear picture of whatever we're looking at. While this discrepancy probably doesn't mean much in the color game, another difference, this one in light-control, most likely does.
When you look across the water before making a cast, the iris in your eye (along with your sunglasses) dictates how much light reaches the retina. But in a crappie's eye, the iris is fixed, forcing the retina's receptor cells to adjust to changes in light intensity.
Stay with me here, because all this biology has a purpose. Two types of cells (rods and cones) trade duties depending on light conditions. And guess what: the cone cells used during the daytime are color receptors, capable of relaying a range of colors to the crappie's brain. Rod cells come into play in low-light conditions, and although they're about 30 times more sensitive to light than cones, they transmit about as much color as a '50s black-and-white TV set. While this helps explain why intricate color patterns aren't as key in low light as during the day, color is still a factor. More on that in a minute.
Although we can't ask the crappies (well, we can ask, but we shouldn't expect an answer), science and fishing experience strongly suggest they see colors much the same as humans. The hitch is, things look different underwater. Even clear water is less transparent than air, and it filters light in a different manner. Water absorbs various wavelengths at different rates, removing reds fastest (red disappears at 17 feet in distilled water, and much faster in cloudy conditions). Orange fades next, then yellow and green. As depth increases or light decreases, blues last longest.
While on the subject of crappie vision, other points to consider include their amazing close-range acuity, which helps the fish detect tiny prey organisms. And thanks to their large, light-gathering eyes, crappies can do so even in fairly poor light. When you consider the finer points of your fishing presentation's color and other visual cues, keep in mind that both white and black crappies grow up feeding on zooplankton. As they mature, both favor small fish and large insects, but blacks are especially adept at surviving on tiny organisms little larger than a speck of pepper. And because crappies don't filter feed, it's all done using their keen vision.
As for distance vision, there's little doubt that water clarity and light determine the distance at which a crappie can see your lure. Noted crappie expert Dr. Kevin Pope once told meit's reasonable to believe that crappies can see other fish up to 10 feet away in clear water. That distance drops, of course, as water clarity wanes. Granted, whether a crappie swims over and inhales your jig after spotting it is another matter. Your odds of attraction depend much on the fish's hunger and activity levels, what other fish around it are doing and how well it likes your total presentation package.
To keep color selection as simple as possible, Morrow breaks water clarity into three categories: muddy, stained and clear. "In muddy conditions, my jig disappears one to two inches from the surface," he says. "Black-chartreuse, black-pink and black-orange are good in low visibility."
Three to six-inch visibility qualifies as stained. Here, Morrow favors anything with chartreuse. Yellow, red and blue-chartreuse patterns generally get the nod first, but black-chartreuse has a place here as well. When he can watch his jig fall beyond this level, especially past two to three feet, he considers the water clear.
"Combinations of white, pearl-blue, purple and yellow are good starting points then," he notes.
It's worth noting that these are largely body color choices for tubes and grubs in Lindy's Fuzz-E-Grub and Dancin' Crappie series. In the jighead department, Morrow stocks his tackle boxes with a sampling of the company's hot pink, chartreuse-yellow, fluorescent orange, glow (white) and gold jigs.
"I use these with the chartreuse body colors in all water conditions," he says. "Orange/chartreuse-yellow is another favorite. It was one of my hottest last fall."
But Morrow cautions that every lake has its own special characteristics that affect color choice.
"Factors from baitfish type and size to overall water clarity make it important to learn the key colors for each body of water you fish."
If color is so important, why do some anglers do well without switching up?
"Some folks use nothing but plain leadheads, and they do well at times because silver matches shad and many minnow species," Morrow says. "And my father uses nothing but a dark redhead, and outfishes me at times. But overall, you'll do better by not getting stuck in a rut, and experimenting with color on every trip, even throughout the day as light penetration changes."
Veteran guide and NAFC member Brian "Bro" Brosdahl also factors color into his crappie program.
Silver shiner or anything with a bit of blue, like the glow rainbow pattern, is a good general first pick, but other color options quickly follow suit as Brosdahl dials in the bite.
"I change colors quickly, so I keep pretied leaders with a variety of different color jigs close at hand," he says.
Leaders consist of 3-pound Bionic line (2-foot leaders in stained situations, 3 footers for clear water); a QS1 Snap Clip at one end of the leader and jig at the other round out the rig.
"I run a small barrel swivel on the end of my main line, so I can make color changes in a matter of seconds," he says.
For easy storage, he keeps long leaders wrapped around short sections of flexible, foam "swim noodles."
"The kind kids beat each other with at the pool," he laughs.
Like Morrow, Brosdahl uses water clarity to guide his color selection steps, but his picks differ because of the forage variations between his natural Northern lakes, and the Southern impoundments Morrow typically fishes.
In general, Brosdahl favors shades of green and a bit of flash for clear conditions; darker greens, including prawn and brownish-green armyworm are good bets, as are orange-brown crayfish imitators. Stained water calls for black, browns and Northland's deep-purple grubby grape. He adds that the deep red of bloodworm seems to work well in any water clarity.
"Glow red works well in coffee-colored water, too," he says. "But sometimes it pays to try something off the wall. In clear water, when I'm catching fish but really want to heat up the bite, I sometimes switch to white. It's amazing what a difference that can make."
NAFC Life Member Capt. Charlie Nelson agrees that color is a key crappie factor. A seasoned guide on the mighty St. Louis River, Nelson is also a retired F-16 fighter pilot who approaches crappies with a critical eye toward detail.
"I factor jig and hook color together with bait size to find the right combination for the situation at hand," he says. "Because of the river's stained water, it flows through a clay basin, I typically start with lighter colors; the whites, pinks and chartreuse patterns."
A fan of Lindy's X-change system(which allows you to snap different size or color heads onto a hook), Nelson's go-to patterns include pearl white, hot pink and chartreuse/orange.
"The system gives you hook-color options, too, which can be a big factor," he notes. "Overall, I like red. But I'll experiment with green, blue and black nickel, especially when I'm fishing with a few other people in the boat. Everybody fishes something different until a pattern develops."
If lighter shades fail to produce, Nelson switches to metallics.
"I like chrome and gold or brass. The metallic finishes add a little glitter and flash, which can be key at times," he says.
Nelson also factors in forage.
"The St. Louis sees two major shiner runs—spottails in the spring, and emeralds in the fall," he explains. "Matching jighead and hook colors to the bait can be critical at the peak of migration. Emerald shiners are a little larger and flashier, so a bigger presentation with a metallic head is always a good starting point."
High Contrast Another point in the crappie color discussion is how the hottest patterns are often a study in contrast.
"The more colors you have in the water, the better off you are," says Morrow. "In low-vis conditions, a glow head and black body are a great combination. The glow attracts the fish, while the black gives you a fish-catching silhouette.
"Contrasting colors, like pink-and-white and blue-and-white, are always good," adds Brosdahl. "They're easy for crappies to pick out. A black tail on a glow head is another top combo."
Does color matter once the sun goes down? Our NAFC experts say so. Here, too, glow is a top option, whether in basic whites and pearls or other color variations.
"Glow catches fish at night," says Brosdahl. "But when I'm fishing above a school of crappies in clear water, dark colors that silhouette well are also good."
While he likes Northland's red-flecked black bullhead pattern best, even the deep-purplish hues of grubby grape produce after sunset.
As a rule, Nelson reserves phosphorescence for after sunset, but also uses glow during the hardwater season in winter.
"Glow is great when it's dark, either when I'm ice fishing or night fishing in open water," he says.Getting Started
Even with these great tips, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the endless color options in any tackle shop worth its salt.
"Keep in mind, you don't have to buy them all," Morrow advises. "When you're shopping, set a goal of trying five or six new colors. Test them out on the lakes you fish. Then, try five or six more the next time you buy, and so on until you have a nice variety of colors that work under a range of fishing conditions."
Do that, and you're already well on your way to catching more big crappies on every trip.
Given the crappie's spectacular color vision, you'd think tipping with live bait would almost always be a plus. After all, how better to offer natural colors and bait profiles?
Interestingly, opinions from our stable of NAFC crappie experts vary. Lake Eufaula guide Barry Morrow never tips. However, his reasoning hinges on how live bait affects his ability to execute hooksets, not on its ability to generate more or less strikes.
"I jig fish most of the time, and when I feel the slightest touch of a fish, I set the hook. Crappies don't have hands, so when they check out a jig, they do so by taking it into their mouths. Most people don't feel the fish inhale the jig, they only feel when the fish decides to spit it out. So my hooksets are quicker. If I'm fishing a jig tipped with a minnow, all the fish usually has in its mouth when I set the hook is the minnow, and I miss the fish as a result."
Minnesota guide Charlie Nelson, however, is a big believer in tipping his jigs. On a recent trip with him, we dressed jigs with robust fatheads better suited for walleyes than crappies. But the beefed-up bulk and profile helped the river slabs zero in on our jigs in the stained water.
For Nelson, bait considerations include overall size; whether to use just the head or the whole minnow, and the bait's color—shiny and flashy or dark.
"Some days, flashy shiners work best, while others call for black, spawning-phase male fatheads. Again, it's best to try different options to dial in the best bait for the day," he says.