Skip to main content
Original Issue

A pretty kettle of dyed baitfish

Largemouth bass see red better than other colors. They love minnows, but minnows are drab. What to do? Dye them red to catch more bass

There is a recipe for dyeing live minnows. First of all, you have to be a nut. Being a bass fisherman will do. Second, you have to mess around with all sorts of horrible dyes that will stain your hands and clothes for weeks on end. Finally, you have to find a baitfish that can absorb a dye and still live. The point to all this, of course, is that you should be able to catch more bass with a live, brightly colored minnow than you can with a naturally dull-colored one.

Some species of fish can see colors. Not only that, but they apparently discern some colors more easily than others. Largemouth bass, for instance, are supposed to see red and yellow very well, but they have difficulty with green and blue. The classic experiment on large-mouths was done by Frank A. Brown Jr. of the Illinois Natural History Survey in 1935. He put 30 fingerling bass in white-enameled basins and, using a system of reward and punishment, found that the bass responded best to red, with yellow in second place. In later studies Dr. George W. Bennett of the Survey substantiated this color choice by keeping statistics of the harvest from different colored lures at Ridge Lake experimental station (SI, Aug. 19, 1963).

To anyone who has followed the work of Brown and Bennett the implications are vast. What would happen, I wondered last winter, if bass were presented with live minnows colored red? I happened to wonder this because the minnows commonly used where I live are the very durable but dull-colored killifish from the Hudson River. You can get drab killies by the thousands, but glistening and glittering shiners and creek chubs are hard to come by.

A marine biologist, Ron Eisler, suggested that I try dyeing killies with two laboratory stains, neutral red and eosin, and he provided samples of each. He also suggested that I get in touch with William Kelly, a biologist at the State Fish Laboratory in Livingston Manor, N.Y.

When I got home, I took a dozen killies, dumped them in a gallon jug filled with water and shook in a pinch of eosin. The water turned red, but the killies would not absorb the dye. I tried the neutral-red stain, and this time the killies became a bright red. A few died, but the rest lived, and they stayed red for up to 24 hours before resuming their usual drab coloration.

A couple of weeks later, I visited Kelly who, it turned out, was interested in dyeing trout, or at least in tattooing their jaws, as a way of marking them permanently. Metal tags have not been entirely satisfactory for marking trout; among other things, a tag impedes a trout's feeding, and it may also prompt infection. So far, Kelly had only been able to find injection dyes that lasted for nine or 10 months. However, since I was after a short-term immersion dye that would color an entire fish for only a day, Kelly gave me samples of Bismarck brown, Nile blue sulphate and FD&C orange No. 1. The last had been sent to him by a chemical-company representative who said that bass fishermen in Lake Ontario were just wild about it since it supposedly made minnows a bright gold. Kelly himself had not tested it.

Hastening home, I tried all three. The Bismarck brown turned the killies a bright-golden orange but killed most of them, the Nile blue sulphate turned them a deep blue but killed all within an hour and the FD&C orange No. 1 did not work at all. I moved on to certified food colors. I astounded a Sicilian gentleman in the wholesale grocery trade by ordering enough food dye to color a carload of strawberries, and I astounded myself by discovering that certified food colors will not dye fish. Kelly later explained that these colors will not penetrate the mucous coat of protective slime on a fish's body.

When I had finished experimenting with dyes, I decided that neutral red was by far the best. It was not generally toxic to the kilties, and they retained the color for an adequate period of time. The next step was to test the red killies on bass to see just how effective they were. I got hold of an enormous aquarium, a 125-gallon glass tank, six feet long, two feet wide and almost two feet high. It occupied, my wife noted in horror, a sizeable chunk of our living room. Filled with water it weighed 1,400 pounds, and we were fortunate that our living room floor happens to be solid rock.

The next step was to get the bass. A local conservation officer, half torn between calling the cops or the psycho ward, finally issued me a permit to catch bass out of season. Unfortunately, I was out of killies at this critical point, and I had to use worms to catch half a dozen bass at a nearby pond. When the bass entered the aquarium they sank to the bottom, cramped their tins and refused to move. This is symptomatic of unhappy fish, but in about 6 hours they came to and began swimming around the tank. The next day they had their first meal, and I was able to conduct my first experiment. I dumped in two dozen killies—12 dyed red. 12 naturally dull. The bass went after them at once. Flat on my back on the floor, I kept score with a pad and pencil. The action was frenzied, and I was hard pressed amid all the excitement to keep accurate count, but the red killies were eaten faster than the naturals. The ratio was about two reds for every natural. It was interesting to see that when a bass ate a kiltie, it grabbed and gulped. A bass does not chew its food. Its sandpaper teeth are used to seize slippery prey, and once the prey is seized, the bass draws it inside the mouth where it is turned around and swallowed head first. Bass probably do this so that the dorsal fin of the swallowed fish will not stick in the throat the wrong way. Feeding bass also display two other characteristics. For one, the spiny dorsal fin, ordinarily held flat, is raised as the bass goes in on the attack. For another, the iris in the eye of a feeding bass becomes a bright reddish gold, giving the fish a crazed, fanatical look. When bass have glutted themselves—and it takes about three three-inch killies to fill the stomach of a 10-inch bass—they sink to the bottom of the tank to digest and rest. No other food, however enticing, can induce a sated bass to strike.

Although the bass prefer the red killies to the naturals, they will strike at almost anything when they are hungry. My bass have devoured frogs, toads, moths, crickets, katydids, crawfish and a field mouse. The bass have also gone after my fingers, a thermometer, a net, a red pencil, a dropped dime and a diverse assortment of lures and flies. Here color, flash and movement all play key roles. Many jigs and streamers are made with bucktail, but maribou is much to be preferred. A bucktail streamer dropped into the tank will attract notice and a strike or two, but a maribou streamer, which flutters and undulates, excites the bass tremendously. The most effective streamer devised so far has a gold tinsel body, yellow maribou wings and a red-bucktail tail. The bass have gone gaga over it, even to the point of picking it up off the bottom.

The race is on

But there is nothing like live bait for bass, and so in the interests of statistical accuracy, I have repeatedly fed the bass equal amounts of red and natural killies. And on almost every occasion, the bass have gobbled up the red killies faster. For instance, at 11 a.m. on June 20, I fed the bass 14 killies—seven of which were dyed—even though the bass had been fed worms earlier that day. Within half an hour, the bass had devoured four red killies and only two naturals. By 2 in the afternoon, only one of the seven reds was left while four naturals remained. At 4 o'clock, there were no reds and two naturals.

There can be no doubt but that the bass can see the red killies better than the naturals. One evening while I was lying on the floor catching the action—and it can be pretty exciting action—the largest bass, a burly two-pounder, had a go-at the last red. That killie raced up and down the top of the tank four or five times with the bass in hot pursuit. No matter which way the killie dodged, the bass hung in there and finally nailed him in a corner with a mighty rush that sent water slopping over the sides. That red color simply stood out too much for the killie's own good. On other occasions, drab killies have shaken a pursuing bass by blending into the background of the weeds and rocks in the aquarium.

It is far harder to keep accurate statistics for fishing in the field, but what statistics I do have give the edge to the red killies. The first time I cast a red killie in a local pond, I accidentally cast short. While I was cursing and unsnarling the line, it began to move. I reeled in an 18-inch pickerel. A friend who wanted to take pictures of bass hitting a red killie in the wild asked me to take him along. We went to a lake, and a bass hit at once. But my friend asked me to do it again since his camera was not set up. I cast out again, and at once another bass grabbed the red killie. This time the photographer complained that the water was too murky for a picture. We went to another pond where the water was clearer. I cast again and caught still another bass. This time the photographer called it quits because the red did not look dramatic enough.

Seagoing barber's pole

On several occasions I have fished with two rods, red killies on one, naturals on the other. I recall one steaming July day when no fish seemed around. I used a red killie on a fly rod and a series of naturals on a spinning rod. I did everything I could to entice fish into striking at the naturals. I let the bait sit, I fished it low, I used small killies, I used big killies. I did not catch a fish on that spinning rod, but I caught four crappies with the red killies on the fly rod.

If the dosage of neutral red is small enough, shiners can also be dyed. For some reason or other, perhaps because they have a lower metabolism than killies, shiners will retain the dye for two or three days. Creek chubs can also be colored red, but since they are often a natural pink, there is little to be gained by dyeing them. I once tried to dye a foot-long eel, but it died. I have the feeling that some factor other than the dye was involved, and I am going to try again. I have a mad dream that a bright-red eel, or better yet, one with bright-red stripes like a seagoing barber's pole, would prove deadly with striped bass.

This is slippery business, but it can be solved with stick-to-it-iveness.