Walleye Color Vision

Does Lure Color Matter? The Surprising Science Behind Walleye Color Vision

Many people wonder how effective color selection is when walleye fishing. This leads to one of the most highly debated topics in the walleye world: Does lure color matter?

We are going to breakdown if walleye have color vision, but first, let me state that there is a LOT of misinformation out there regarding walleye and lure color.  Many people advise based on limited anecdotal evidence, instead of looking at actual research-based information. 

That’s why I’ve decided to discuss the science of color, vision, and the environment – justifying if walleye can see color, and just how effective color can be.

Why Changes in Color Have A Limited Effect on Walleye Angling

Walleye Color Vision

Color is probably not nearly as important to walleye fishing as many walleye anglers would assume. This is because we don’t see the same colors as walleye, and we also don’t live in the same environment that they do. Comparing eyesight and visibility between different species in different environments is a complicated matter – so I’m going to do my best to break it down as simply as I can.

Essentially, there are two main factors that affect a creature’s ability to see color:

  • Light Availability of the Environment (how wavelengths reflect, refract, and absorb in the environment)
  • The Amount & Size of Cones in the Species Eye (dictating their ability to see color)

To understand how this pertains to both walleye and anglers, we first need to understand:

  • How Color Works
  • How The Environment Affects Color
  • How We See Color
  • How Walleye See Color (Compared to Us)
  • How this Affects Lure Selection

I break down each of these factors below, helping you understand exactly what, if any colors, make a difference in walleye fishing.

Understanding How Color Works

How light and sound waves affect how we perceive sound and color.

Color is not inherent in objects (you can thank Isaac Newton for figuring this one out). Rather, color is how we perceive wavelengths of light reflecting off of the object and into our eye.

The color that we see is based on the wavelength of light we are detecting and how our brain processes it. 

For example, an apple isn’t “red”, but rather it is perceived as red because the red wavelength bounces off of the apple and into our eye. Our brain is able to process this color as red.

How humans can see color
Photo Credit: Wade A and Benjamin A (2013) How Do We See Color?. Front Young Minds. 1:10. doi: 10.3389/frym.2013.00010 http://www.kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2013.00010

Therefore, first, we must know what colors fall in the visible spectrum. The “visual spectrum” is the spectrum of light that we as human beings are able to see. These colors influence our perception of lure choice.

Walleye Visible Spectrum

Above is the visible spectrum of color and corresponding wavelengths. As you can see reds are long wavelengths, greens are medium wavelengths, and blue wavelengths are short.

The light is emitted in these colors, then reflect, refract, scatter or get absorbed depending on the object. The reflected colors are what we perceive (more on our perception below!)

Changes in Light Availability

Next, we need to discuss how each wavelength is physically affected by the environment. For example, water is denser than air, so, therefore, light will behave differently in water then it will in air.

An estimate of color penetration through CLEAR water conditions.

Above is an estimate of wavelength penetration through perfectly clear water.  The catch here is “clear”.

Even in clear water, different colors of light travel through water differently. Longer wavelengths disappear more quickly than shorter wavelengths.   Therefore, depth is going to affect light availability and therefore color availability.  All biological factors aside, this alone will affect how any creature (including us) can see the color under the water.  

However, walleye anglers virtually never fish in clear conditions (even the Great Lakes have turbid water).

Therefore, the next question is how do particles and turbidity affect wavelength penetration?

How Color Changes in Dirty and Turbulent Conditions

Light Hits a Particle it Reflects

Now let’s talk about more “real-life” conditions. Most walleye angling situations means the water is more turbid – or “dirtier”. This means particles in the water (sediment, microbiology, pollution, etc..) all play a significant part in reducing light visibility. It also affects how we see colors.

These particles will either absorb or reflect light, changing its ability to penetrate the water column. Therefore, also reducing the wavelength visibility.

The dirtier the lake the less light will penetrate, as more light will be scattered in different directions. The less color will be visible.

As an analogy, think about the particles in the sky. The reason we see blue is that the shorter blue wavelength is easily scattered (so is violet, but our eyes are more sensitive to blue- more on this below). This also applies to water. We often see water as blue because the blue light is being scattered. Short wavelengths scatter the quickest.

Add in a bunch of dirt and sediment, and the color turns to brown. This is because more wavelengths are being absorbed and scattered, changing the appearance to our eye. As this occurs, the light becomes less available through the color – further eliminating the ability to differentiate between colors of any species.

In fact, add cloud cover into the mix, and there is one more factor scattering light. This why on overcast days, everything seems much more “dull”.

Combine all of these factors together and light availability during typical walleye periods is simply limited.

If you are looking for an in-depth study on water clarity and turbidity issues on walleye populations, then be sure to read this research paper. 

How the Human Eye Works

Next we need to understand how eyesight works..

Not all creatures perceive color in the same way. This is because eye structure varies from species to species. Therefore some see more color than us, some see less color than us, and some see no color at all. Even humans have person-to-person variations.

So next we need to understand why this is.

Eye Structure and Color

Eye structure is a complicated subject. Therefore, for the simplicity of this article, we are only going to focus on rods and cones – and how they influence color abilities in both humans and walleye.

A digram showing the human eye and its red, green, and blue sensitive cone distribution.

Cones

Your ability to see color is dependent upon the type and number of cones in the eye. Cones are cells that exist in your retina that allow you to detect different color wavelengths.

In general, the human eye has 3 color sensitive cones (in large numbers). Our cone colors are

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue

Remember, red is long wavelengths, green is medium wavelengths, and blue is a short wavelength. Our perception of them depends on which wavelength is being reflected into our eyes.

So what about the other colors we are able to see? Well, although we don’t have a cone that can detect yellow, we still can see it because our red and green cones are both activated. Therefore, when a yellow wavelength is reflected into the eye, our two closest cones start working.

If a species doesn’t have these cones, then they can’t see yellow.

The University of Arizona has an easy read article on cone variation that you can look further into here.

Rods

Rods are cells in the retina that allow for visibility in lowlight conditions. These are much more light-sensitive, but it comes at the cost of color. When we enter a dark room – it takes some time but our rods do aid us in lowlight conditions. However, rods do not allow us to see in color. When our rods kick in, we lose this ability.

Why is this important? Because walleye are much more rod dominant than we are. Their twilight behavior is indicative of this. Therefore, their late-night behavior, in general, would require them to rely on their rods – and therefore likely eliminating any ability to identify the color to begin with.

Now let’s take those principles and pertain them to walleye. 

Walleye do NOT have the same number or size of cones that we do, but from the cones, they do have, just how can they interpret color? We break that down below.

Cones: What Colors Can Walleye See (in perfect conditions)?

What Colors Can Walleye See?

As mentioned, humans and walleye do NOT have the same eye structure. This also means we do not share the same number (or size) of cones and rods. Considering cones determined our ability to see color, that means we don’t see the same colors. 


So What Can Walleye See? 

So the obvious question is, what cones do they have?

Well we have to look at the research done on cone availability, and here is what we have:

The “Electrical responses and photopigments of twin cones in the retina of the Walleye” in the journal of physiology states:

...4. A 533 nm green-sensitive photopigment was found in single cones. No blue-sensitive cones have been found. 5. With the exception of a modest discrepancy in the violet, the absorptance spectrum of the 605 nm photopigment of twin cones agrees closely with the action spectrum measured by intracellular recording”

In simplest terms, this means that walleye have the ability to see in green (if conditions are right for it) and a variation of yellow/orange (605 nm). They cannot see variations of blue. This doesn’t mean they can’t see the object, it just means they likely see blue in grayscale – rather than the blue we do.

And there is more research regarding blue in a study right here stating:

“First, it is to be noted that no blue absorbing cones such as those reported in the goldfish (Carassius auratus) (H6rosi and MacNicol 1974) have been found in any of the percids studied. This is in agreement at least with the generally turbid habitat preferred by the walleye and sauger which does not transmit blue light well”

The two arrows below designate what part of the light spectrum that likely can be seen.

Walleye Color Vision
The part of the visible spectrum that Walleye can see.

Walleye Environments are Rarely Clear

What they can seem to see, in perfect conditions, is green. However, in the dirtiest and darkest environments, even this will be a variable factor.

Therefore, even though we know that they have green-sensitive cones, it doesn’t mean that they can always see color. Just like we lose the ability to see color when we lose light, it’s very likely that they do too.

Therefore, it’s easy to conclude that color has a limited benefit in turnover rate. Not only because they have limited color to begin with, but because the environment they exist in isn’t always conducive of it.

Color is a Limited Factor in Walleye Behavior

Now we know what light is, how it changes in water, and how both humans and walleye can process it. Here is a summary based on the information we went over. 

  • Long wavelengths of color become less visible the deeper you go (you are going to lose red the quickest in clear conditions.)
  • Turbulent and dirty water diminishes wavelengths quicker than clear water (especially short wavelengths – blue). The more turbid, the less light availability, and the less color that can be seen.
  • Walleye have fewer cones than humans do, altering their perception of color compared to ours.
  • Research shows that walleye do have green and (likely) orange sensitive cones.
  • There has been no research showing that they have blue-sensitive cones (so we can hypothesize that walleye don’t see blue the same way we do.

With this summary, what can we conclude:

  • In clear, shallow water, during daylight – colors such as green can be visible to walleye.
  • In deeper and dirtier water, any color visibility will be reduced.
  • Blue colors likely won’t make a difference (the lure is visible, but the blue color is not).
  • Red colors won’t make a difference in deep or extremely dirty water.
  • It’s evident that factors other than color are likely more important in angling success.

After reviewing all of the information above, I think we can all agree on the fact that success doesn’t rely on picking your favorite color.  It’s just simply not that easy. There are too many variations, between species and the environment.  Having 10 different color variations of the same jig is probably going to have limited if any, benefit.  

What Does This Mean For You as a Walleye Angler?

For most anglers, this simply means you should adjust your efforts elsewhere, first. From the research above, t’s likely not as much of an influence as other factors. 

Instead, in most situations you will want to focus on other things (rather than running to get a different color lure):

  1. The location should be your primary focus.  You need to find fish to catch fish. This can mean being on the right body of water and being on the exact right position in that body of water.  If your partner at the front of the boat is catching more fish than you – then I’d first analyze the location.
  2. Next check presentation and technique. Even the line angle can affect the location and lure presentation. 
  3. Evaluate the need for vibration. Turbulent and dirty water limits any eyesight in general, the lateral line because of a significant factor in these situations. Therefore, evaluate what you might need to do to get its attention. 
  4. Lure size has been shown to have a greater effect on walleye success. Adjust size before focusing on color.

It doesn’t mean you should stop buying your favorite color. Just understand that the specific color you chose likely isn’t as impactful as you personally perceive it to be. 

Below is a list of resources you can gather further evidence from:

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