Can Trout See Color? Well, It’s Complicated

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Close up image of trout swiming in the water.

Yes, trout can see colors, and that’s good information for anglers. But colors appear different to the human eye than they do a trout’s eyes, so it’s important for you to understand how trout see colors and how you can use colors that appeal to the fish.

Trout eyes are like our eyes, in that they have rods and cones that allow them to see colors. 

Trout have eyes that, in some respects, are very similar to your eyes. Both human eyes and trout eyes have retinas, irises and lenses. And both have rods and cones, which means that trout do, indeed, see color

But it’s more complicated than that. 

While your pupils can grow and shrink with the levels of available light, much like the aperture of a camera, trout retinas are permanently fixed. This likely impacts their ability to determine certain colors under brighter situations. 

This might also impact how trout see detail. Also, human eyes have more cones with the ability to pick up green, while trout eyes have cones dedicated to seeing shades of blue. 

It can get a little wonky, but the bottom line is that trout see color, and you, as an angler, should always consider color when you’re fishing. You want to cater to the trout’s eyes, not yours, right?

How Do Trout See Colors?

But there are other differences of note. For instance, a young trout’s eyes have cones that give them the ability to see ultraviolet light. Our human eyes don’t possess these cones. 

The fish lose this ability to see ultraviolet light as they grow older, however. According to Dr. Iñigo Novales Flamarique, a fisheries biologist, this is likely because young trout feed on zooplankton, which are much easier to see with UV-sensitive eyes

This is new information for me. For years, I’ve been tying flies with UV-reactive materials and UV-reactive resin. Turns out, it doesn’t really matter, because I’m obviously targeting adult fish. As trout get older, they lose their UV sensitivity.

All that tying for nothing!

Nevertheless, trout can see color. That’s good information you can use when you’re fishing

But, just because they can see color doesn’t necessarily mean you should obsess over colors when you’re trout fishing. All colors appear differently under water. 

For instance, to you, a bright red fly or lure will look drab and brown or black under water. A chartreuse fly or spinner might come across as tan or taupe under water. To a trout, those colors will show up much differently.

Colors Matter, but Silhouette is Important, Too

Man's hand holding a trout with lure in the mouth above the clear water with rocks beneath.
Pink is a good option for trout anglers, but sometimes, it’s the silhouette that draws a strike, not the color of the fly or lure.

Certainly, color is important to your trout fishing. But just as important is the silhouette cast by a fly or lure. 

For instance, I fish a Blue-winged Olive mayfly hatch every fall on a big western U.S. tailwater river near my home. The bugs hatch in clouds, and they will absolutely get the attention of almost every trout in the river.

As their name might suggest, a Blue-winged Olive has a drab, olive-green body and grayish-blue upright wings when they emerge into adults and before they take their first flight. 

From beneath, though, do trout recognize these colors? I don’t think so.  

Instead, trout recognize the silhouette of the tiny mayflies on the water. For you, as an angler, it may not be at all necessary to match the color of the hatching mayflies, so long as you match the general size and silhouette of the natural insects. 

For instance, because I find it easier to see on the water, I use a size 20 Parachute Adams. This fly  is usually gray, and usually works just as well as a carefully tied Blue-winged Olive imitation. 

Because the BWO hatch is most prominent on gray, cloudy days, the lighter-colored Adams shows up better to me on the water. To the fish, as they look up through the water column, the color is immaterial.

It’s the silhouette that matters

When is Color Important?

Color is most important when you are pursuing trout using subsurface fly patterns, lures or even baits, like Power Bait or salmon eggs. Trout can be very color-conscious, but nobody really knows why some colors work better than others. 

That said, you can readily deduce why some colors work better. How so? We all know that trout eat worms in their natural environment. 

Red worms, earth worms, big nightcrawlers and even leeches are all on a trout’s daily menu. 

So, too, are chironomids, which are very small worm-like nymphs that hang in the water column before they hatch into very small flying insects called midges. 

Chironomids are prevalent in lakes, and as nymphs, you can imitate them with flies that look like small worms. 

Many worms (and chironomids) have red shades to them.

Close image of trout swimming beneath the water with lure near it's mouth.
Trout eat worms and red worms or red worm fly patterns are great options to try.

Remember that the color red appears kind of drab when it’s used in flies or lures underwater? A common fly pattern — the San Juan worm — is usually tied using red yarn. When it’s underwater, it looks drab and brown, just like a worm or a small chironomid.

But… the red you see is different from the red trout see. To trout, the drab red that your eyes see looks more bright and brilliant to the fish. So red is a good color for trout flies and lures.

Trout also eat a lot of fish eggs, from sucker eggs to eggs of other trout and, when they are present in the system, salmon eggs. 

My favorite fly pattern that incorporates red. The Royal Coachman. It’s tied with red floss and vibrant green peacock herl. It’s my go-to fly on small water when I’m searching for trout that might be on the prowl.

Close up image of a trout with bait in it's mouth held by man's hand.
Eggs and egg imitations are great options for trout, particularly in shades of pink.

Fish eggs range in color from bright orange and even yellow to deep red, with pink being a very popular option you can use to mimic the food source. Under water, pink shows up much better than red or orange. 

Salmon eggs, red, pink, orange or yellow Power Bait or egg fly patterns in these shades are good options for you whenever there are eggs in the water. 

Suckers, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout spawn in the spring, and brook trout and brown trout are fall spawners. Those are the best times for you to use eggs or egg patterns when you’re fishing for trout. 

What Colors Work Best for Trout?

Obviously, red is a winning color for trout because it shows up in many natural prey sources. But other colors work well, too, like yellow or chartreuse. 

Chartreuse and yellow work for trout, particularly in deeper water or in stained, tannic or dirty water, where there is less light to absorb or reflect the colors. 

Man standing in the water holding a trout with net below.
Yellow and chartreuse are easier for trout to see in dark or stained water.

Another color that has proven effective? Purple. Purple appears to be much more brilliant to a trout’s eye than it does to the human eye, and fly fishers have used purple for years to catch trout. 

I love to cast a Purple Haze. It’s a great attractor dry fly you can use it to catch fish that are feeding, or willing to feed. 

Also, eggs, as they deteriorate in the water, can take on a purple hue. When I’m fishing for Dolly Varden or sea-run cutthroat trout in Alaska, I often use pegged purple beads. 

This is obviously a color game for trout, and the trout love them. I’ve had 100-fish days just bouncing pegged beads behind schools of chum or sockeye salmon. The Dollies and the cutthroats can’t resist them!

Also, a purple Woolly Bugger streamer is a good fly you can try for trout.

Finally, black is always a good option for trout. Many leeches that live in trout water are jet black, and black streamers and lures are really good options for trout in dirty or stained water. 

If you’re a fly fisher, you probably have a good selection of Woolly Buggers or Zonkers in your fly box. Why? Because they work. The same is true for black spinners and bucktails. They work, so we use them, right?

Final Thoughts

Trout see colors, and, because they’re predators, they are attracted to colors that are common in their prey. But, it’s important that you realize that color isn’t the only deciding factor in successful trout fishing. 

I love to fish bold, colorful flies, but I also recognize that, during some situations, color isn’t what really matters. 

Trout swimming in the water with red bait near it's face.
Trout see red and shades of red much more brilliantly than we do.

Often, the silhouette a fly or a lure casts is more important to trout than the color, particularly in low light where the fish can’t discern one color from another. If you understand this, you’ll have better luck fishing.


Can Other Fish See Color, Too?

Yes, other fish can see colors, just like trout, although different species see colors differently. Some fish retain their UV sensitivity, while others have eyes that see colors more vividly. Do your research on colors and the way fish see them. It’ll make you a better angler. 

Why Do Black Flies and Lures Work in Dark Water?

Black flies and lures block out all light that reaches them. Even at night, a black lure or fly is easier for trout to see, because it blocks out what little light is available. Other colors can get lost in dark water. Black remains visible.

What is a Pegged Bead?

The pegged bead is a simple setup often used by fly fishers who fish in waters where salmon are present. 

It consists of a pink, red, purple or orange bead (meant to imitate a salmon egg) that is “pegged” to the tippet (light leader material) above a bar hook that’s tied to the tippet about an inch below the bead. 

How is the bead “pegged?” Most anglers slide a toothpick into the hole of the bead, alongside the tippet. Then, when the toothpick is good and tight, the break it off near the top of the bead. This “pegs” the tippet against the inside of the bead and keeps it from moving up and down the leader.

Where Do Flies, Like the Purple Haze, Get Their Names?

Famous fly-fishing patterns get their names from the artists who first tied them. 

The Purple Haze fly is simply a purple mayfly imitation — its creator, Andy Carlson, named it the Purple Haze as a tribute to the late rock guitarist Jimmi Hendrix. 

The Adams, on the other hand, was tied in Michigan by Leonard Halladay. He named the fly after Charles Adams, the angler who first fished it.

Is Catching Trout With Flies Tied to Look Like Worms Cheating?

Absolutely not. Trout eat worms. Trout eat fish eggs, too. Why wouldn’t anglers try to imitate these food sources at the fly-tying vise? Worm flies and egg flies are perfectly legitimate fly patterns. 

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