It’s a trap that every angler has fallen into. Walking past the lure selection at the local bait shop is impossible without grabbing that blindingly bright crank or intricately detailed frog imitation. After all, it caught your eye; wouldn’t it catch a pike’s?
Northern pike are undeniably visual predators, but attracting their attention isn’t quite as simple as throwing big and bright lures (in most cases). Fisheries biologists all over the world are studying how pike see and whether or not it makes a difference in how they hunt.
Like most predatory fish, Northern pike rely firstly on their lateral line to detect hydrodynamic vortices – or underwater vibration trails – left by prey. The paths can sometimes take minutes to dissipate completely, allowing gamefish to track prey that may be yards away and much too far to see. In fact, when fish are suspended they are usually scanning for these trails, especially in murky water where their eyesight becomes less useful.
What sets pike apart, though, is that they depend solely on sight when their prey is within visual range. Multiple international studies have suggested that once a pike begins its ambush, it ceases to register information from the lateral line.
Unsurprisingly, the visual systems of pike and Muskie are more sophisticated than those of most other gamefish. Not only can they distinguish shape, size, and distance well, pike have highly developed color vision. The retinas of pike hold the same two photoreceptor cells that are found in human retinas: rod cells, which detect shape and movement, and cone cells, which detect color.
Pike have mostly rod cells, which implies that their main visual focus is on perceiving depth, shape, size, and motion. Double cone cells are the second most prevalent photoreceptors. These recognize longer wavelengths best, like those of reds, oranges, and yellows. Single cone cells, which recognize the shorter wavelengths of greens and blues best, are the least widespread.
It’s wise to keep in mind that, while pike eyesight is fairly advanced, they still see everything through a cloud regardless of how clear the water may be. Lure details like individual painted scales probably won’t be seen until the pike is practically biting down – and at that point, they won’t matter at all. Very little can dissuade a pike once its stalk has begun.
One of the best ways to take advantage of a pike’s reliance on its vision is by using lures that contrast with the surrounding water. As most anglers know, black is the best color for night fishing because of how it stands out against even faint moonlight. The same logic can be applied in daytime. In deep water, reds and violets turn to gray. Reds and oranges disappear entirely in muddy water. In both situations, green, blue, or flashy lures will be most noticeable. However, anglers should avoid greens and blues when fishing algae-stained water.
Biologists say that past this point, though, lure choice becomes less important. The key determining factor in pike fishing success is an angler’s ability to locate habitat, not the ability to find the right color. So don’t get pressured into taking out another mortgage to buy the newest hyper-realistic lures on the market – by the time a pike would be able to appreciate it, you’d already be setting the hook.
Originally published in Outdoor News Minnesota.