By David A. Brown

Fish have moods, impressions, preferences; all of which can add up to a big pile of pickiness. It’s rarely an easy task to talk a day’s worth of good ones into cooperating, but for Tennessee River guide and crankbait specialist Jimmy Mason, a well-conceived approach to color selection makes the job a lot more doable.

“It’s important to have a variety of bait colors because you’ll need to adjust to things like sunny or cloudy skies and muddy or clear water,” Mason said. “Also, time of year will determine what forage the fish are feeding on – shad, bluegill or crawfish. Having a selection allows you to match the hatch as well as conditions.

“For example, in winter the fish are transitioning from shad in the fall to crawfish, so you’ll want to go with more crawfish colors and reds. And in dirty water, you might try a firetiger pattern.”
Beyond these basics, Mason also applies another level of discernment when selecting his bait and this one gives great consideration to visibility. Essentially, how well a fish can see his bait plays a significant role in how it’s perceived – and what strategy Mason employs.

“My theory of crankbait selection is that in clear water, you want to hide it, and in water with less clarity you want it to jump out,” Mason said. “If the water is stained, I go with something that catches the fish’s eye. In clear water I want something with stripes or a splatterback design to break up the outline. The fish can see the movement but they can’t see the whole bait. If you look at nature, it tries to camouflage everything.”

Whatever color he selects, Mason knows that ongoing analysis of the fish’s reaction can help him dial in his efforts. How does he know if he’s making the right choices? He lets the fish tell him.

“You want to look at how a fish is hooked and use that to gauge how interested they are in the bait,” Mason explains. “If your fish are constantly hooked on the rear hook, they’re interested, but not fully committed. When a fish has the whole bait in its mouth that tells you you’re throwing the absolutely perfect color.”

Mason keeps an open mind on bait colors, but he definitely has his tried-and-true set of faves. Here’s a look at his top producers:

Black Back Pearl: A good general shad pattern, Mason likes this one when the water is semi-clear to stained. The color pattern is not broken up with bars so the bait’s profile stands out well in muddy water. This color is a great choice when shad is the dominant forage.

Blue Back Chartreuse, Orange Belly: Mason throws this vivid bait a lot in the early spring through summer, but he’ll also pull it out in the fall, particularly after a lot of rain when runoff discolors the water. An eye-catcher above the water, Mason said this pattern often takes on a different visage in the right combination of stain and light penetration.

“I’ve been told by divers that have observed the bait underwater that this is a dynamite color to use when you have a little stain and the fish are feeding on shad,” he said. “From what divers have told me, this pattern actually changes into more of a pearl-looking shad color when you fish it about 7 feet or deeper in the Tennessee River.
“That has a lot to do with light penetration. The color spectrum varies with the amount of light.”

Root Beer Chartreuse: This blended color with a green glitter finish is one of Mason’s top producers.

“That is a winter and spring confidence color,” he said. “It’s a craw imitator; it’s a bream imitator. It’s not overpowering, but when the water has some stain to it and it’s a little cool, this is a highly effective color.”

Root Beer: Similar to the previous color but with the obvious absence of chartreuse, the straight root beer has more of a cream colored belly and sides. Mason throws this pattern during the same times as the root beer chartreuse but usually in clear water because the softer color blends better with the water.

“From February to May and again in the fall when I’m shallow cranking, I will always have one of those two colors tied on,” Mason said. “I let the conditions dictate which one I’ll use. On a bright day and clear water when it’s easy for the fish to see, I use the root beer; in darker water or if it’s cloudy and I need that bait to pop so the fish can see it, I go with root beer chartreuse.”

Chartreuse Back Pearl: Like the black back pearl, this is a good shad imitator for summer-fall. Mason notes that he’s more likely to go with the black back pearl for standard baitfish impersonation, unless he’s in water with a little more stain – or if he’s around spotted bass.

“If I’m fishing the Coosa River or Smith Lake, I’m more likely to throw the chartreuse back pearl because spots definitely like some chartreuse on a crankbait. This one gives you that color with a shad profile. By their nature they’re a little more aggressive, so that bolder color appeals to them”

Splatterback: “This is another good shad color,” Mason said. “If the water is clear, I may start out throwing that rather than black back pearl because the splatterback breaks up the bait’s profile, almost like camouflage.”