Using Water Color to Find Fish

Water color is the key to finding fish.

Many anglers enjoy simply going to the water, taking out an old box of frozen squid that's been in the freezer for a year, putting a chunk on a J-hook and tossing it the water. They catch whatever jumps on the hook and call it a day. And that's perfectly fine for many folks – it's a way of getting out of the house and it doesn't require much thought, preparation or planning.

But there's another percentage of anglers who are a bit more serious about their fishing targets. They prepare days in advance. They study tide charts, Moon phases, buoy placements, underwater wrecks, reefs, and a few other factors. These anglers are successful mainly because they have taken the time to acquire as much knowledge as possible. But one crucial factor not often addressed by even stout anglers is water color.


Changes in water color is a key that can help you locate fish, desirable habitat, particular water temperatures, certain water depths and even higher oxygenated water. It can help you find a specific species of fish, or eliminate that body or section of the water tables as a spot for a specific species. Water color, depth and clarity will tell you where the fish will be. Learning how to locate places that fish inhabit helps you not waste time on places with low (current) fish populations.

Light Water and Dark Water

Being able to determine the depth of the water by color is important not just for fishing purposes but also for boater safety purposes. For example, grass flats that are light own indicate shallow water. The lighter the brown, the shallower the water. Water that shallow can generally eliminate it as a place for big fish to be in. Light-colored water usually means shallow water. The lighter the color, generally the shallower the water. Dark-colored water means deeper water. The key word here is generally. You can sometimes have dark-stained dirty water that is shallow, or light clear water that is deep. It depends on many factors, and with more experience, you will be capable of knowing the difference.

Whether fishing inshore or offshore a distinct color line will let you know there is some type of change in the water, whether it is depth, habitat, nutrient rich, etc. Grass flats and sand flats that are light-colored and then suddenly go to a darker color are usually one of the following: Dropoffs, cuts, channels or deeper water. During low tides the fish will hold in those dropoffs, cuts and channels. The lush grass flats that are dotted with various sizes of white-colored areas are pothole depressions. Not only are the depressions a few inches deeper than surrounding sand or dirt, but are great places to spot the silhouettes of gamefish. The contrast of the darker fish against the light-colored pothole stands out to the angler's eye.

color change

The darker colored-water such as dark brown and blackish generally indicates the water is deeper. The darker the color the deeper the water. Finding a distinct change in a water-color line is often a great place to start searching or just start fishing. A good example is in summer when water is hot, and you find this inshore color change, you can bet that fish will be in the cooler and more stable and deeper water. The deeper water will not only be cooler temperature wise, but will have a higher dissolved oxygen content which is important for most fish to breathe. That same distinct water-color line in the winter will be utilized by fish in the same way. The lighter-color, more shallow water will get colder faster and stay colder longer. The deeper and darker-colored water will be much more stable, which keeps the water warmer for a longer period of time.

Another tip on color changes in the winter, is that if you find shallower, darker muddy water in a creek or canal, that water will heat up faster because the dark bottom absorbs and holds the heat better. Fish will find these shallow dark muddy waters and use them to stay warm.

Tannin-Stained Water

Tannin-stained waters which are common in many rivers, canals and back country fishing take on a dark reddish, copper color. Many anglers use the word tea or coffee-colored water when then find tannin water. Finding these will clue you in to a few very important things. One, that the water has a lot of vegetation and decay, which mean finger mullet and mullet concentrations could be high. Even though the water is this color it can be very clear because of sunlight penetration. Which means this water will be warmer. The further the sunlight can reach in the water column the higher the water clarity and the warmer the water. This is called the photic zone.


Above is Jim Cramer one of New England's finest anglers.  He had a big influence on Captain David's fishing skills and knowledge.  He bulit Captain David's first custom rod, which is still used today.

The clearer the water, the deeper the photic zone and the greater photosynthetic production. So why is this important to fishing? This is the process by which plants use the energy from the sun to produce fuel and oxygen for all living things, which means bait and fish! The fish in these waters, like snook, redfish, trout, tarpon, sheepshead and black drum, take on a different color. (Notice the tannin-stained redfish above). Snook especially will use the color change of tannin dark water to the lighter clearer water as an ambush line.

Offshore Color Changes

Color may be more important in offshore fishing then in inshore fishing. Since there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of water and gamefish inhabiting only a few places, color plays a much bigger role. When finding a color change in offshore waters it indicates many different water changes. The water color from green to blue can mean many things offshore -- a temperature break, change of current flow, two different waters meeting, a salinity change, or nutrient rich water. It is a place where fish will be! Offshore gamefish prefer one side of the color change over the other because you can easily find the side. One side of the color change will have more plankton, more diatoms, and more nutrient-rich water holding more baitfish, in turn holding more Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, Tuna and Dolphin.

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Offshore fish often do use both sides of these color changes. You will be able to distinguish both sides not only by color, but by clarity. The clear blue side will be higher in oxygen and you will be actually able to sight and see the fish. The fish will be there for the oxygen. The less clear green side will be rich in nutrients and food, the fish will be there to eat. The fish also could use either side as an ambush point. Fish could sit on the green side of the color change waiting for their forage to cross the line into the clear blue side, so they can easily see their prey and ambush it. Or they could sit in the clear blue side enjoying the oxygen and wait for a large flush of micro-organisms to be pushed by the tidal current, which in turn draws huge schools of baitfish.

The bottom line is the color change is like a big piece of structure in the middle of nowhere. If the gamefish are on the clear side of the change they are also easier for the angler to see. Finding a layer of dirty water will also help, because it will drive the gamefish to the deeper clearer water, where they can track down their prey by sight. If you're an offshore angler and you have not used Chlorophyll Data Charts, you are missing out on some very important information. The charts tell you where these offshore color changes will be. In short a Chlorophyll Data Chart shows you areas with high levels of Chlorophyll, which indicates off-color and nutrient-rich water.

Water Color and Clarity -- Other Factors

So many other things affect water color, water clarity and more importantly our fishing. It makes for a better angler to have a basic knowledge of them. Catching a fish and taking note of his color will tell you what type of water color or water clarity that fish came from (another lesson). That should lead you to find that particular water color and clarity, which will take you to where the fish will be. Some of the other variables that we did not talk about or just briefly touched on are: water salinity, water runoff, rain water, turbidity, dissolved oxygen content, and even how to increase your sight fishing visibility in certain colored water conditions, and freshwater color changes for the bass fisherman. But we will in future articles.

capt mike wade

All of these elements play a role in the specific species of fish we are targeting. By reading The Online Fisherman portal pages on fish, you can gain insight to the particular gamefish and its habits, likings to water preferences, etc. That makes it much easier to locate and catch fish.

Captain David M. Rieumont
The Online Fisherman Inc.

The Online Fisherman

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