When surface-plugging for rockfish, I like to have at least two rods ready and rigged with contrasting colored lures so I can switch back and forth without interruption. This way I can immediately cast back to the spot of a missed strike with a different color, giving the fish two different looks.
Over the years, my box of poppers has expanded to hold about 25 lures of at least a dozen different colors. Over many seasons, each lure has at one time or another been a special producer.
As a general rule when fishing shallow (less than six feet) top water, almost any color floating lure can induce a fish to strike — when fish are there. Once you’ve established the presence of stripers willing to strike, you will also notice a color preference.
You see this truth clearly when fishing with a partner offering a different color than yours. One of you will catch more than the other. If the low man switches to the more successful color, that difference will be greatly reduced.
About four seasons ago, we rarely took a fish over 23 inches that wasn’t caught by one particular lure. That year’s favorite sported an iridescent green-and-black back, flashing gold sides and a bright orange belly. That one was the giant killer. Other lures may have taken more fish overall, but all the big ones fell to Mr. Orange Belly.
Another year, all-black was the top dog for catching big aggressive rockfish. I always switch to black under poor light and heavy overcasts. That season, black was the best color by far under every condition. Last year, white was the most productive. This year has yet to be determined.
You can guess forever about why the preferences change year to year or even day to day. It’s one of the mysteries of angling.
Color Is a Changing Phenomenon
A menhaden doesn’t display the same colors dead or even freshly out of the water as it does when it is cruising with its brethren along a rocky shoreline. Often young ones flash silver, while older, bigger bunker will have a golden hue. A live eel free swimming shows different shades of lavender, not the black we expect eels to be.
White perch are generally light or silver colored, especially when swimming around lightly colored bottoms. They can also take on a much darker, virtually black, appearance when they are over a dark bottom or ensconced among weed beds or downed trees.
Those aren’t the only baitfish a successful fisher has to emulate. If the stripers are keying on silversides, they will be looking for a different color than when they’ve been munching on bay anchovies. Yearling mud shad will sport a much different look and shade than a peanut bunker. Yellow perch are much more colorful than white perch. I have caught rockfish stuffed fat with jet black mad toms (baby catfish).
Rockfish also love blue crabs, soft ones when they can find them though they’ll eat small hard crabs as well.
All of these prey species are different colors, and these colors alone can trigger strikes under the right conditions.
Your lure doesn’t have to emulate the exact item the rockfish are eating. If the color is close to the one the fish are expecting to see, they will attack.
Testing the Waters
Faced with a full color palette, I went right to basics starting with an all-black Smack-It Jr. on one rig and a plain all-white variation on my second outfit.
My partner had tied on a silver plug with black details that suggested a more realistic baitfish.
As we moved along the calm shoreline, his lure drew an uncertain swirl behind it. As he threw back into the same area, I shamelessly dropped my all-black popper just a dozen feet upcurrent of his.
Apparently my offering was closer to what the fish wanted. I was soon fast to a fat and explosive striped bass that turned the water to froth.