For the Angler, Orange is the New Black


Across much of the walleye world, there’s a saying going around among those diehard anglers who always seem to be on fish: “Orange is the new black.”

Of course, the phrase, “the new black” comes from its use during the 1980s, when black became a go-to color for fashion designers looking for a versatile staple that could work with anything. So what does that have to do with walleyes?

Here’s the deal: In a similar way, the color orange – and its various hues – are becoming fashionable in my tackle boxes for walleyes, and a wide variety of other predator species, too.

For me, it started years ago with crayfish patterns being something I chose as a confidence color, no matter where I fished. That was especially true on rocky river systems and their impoundments, which had an abundance of crustaceans.

During the last few years there have been more and more fishing reports specifically calling out orange as a “must-have” color. And not surprisingly, lure manufacturers have responded. Here’s my take on the surge in popularity of those new orange tones, and why you should give serious consideration to them, especially on certain bodies of water.

The author fooled this big walleye with rusty-colored Shad Rap.
The author fooled this big walleye with a No. 7 Shad Rap in the crayfish-colored Demon pattern.

Crayfish Carcasses

A few winters ago, I talked to Josh Bullivant, avid angler, guide and manager of Trapper’s Landing Lodge on Leech Lake. “Orange,” he said. “You need anything with orange. And if your spoon doesn’t have it, on a tough bite you won’t get bit. It was that way this past summer with all of our jig fishing, and now it’s carried into the winter.”

That statement seriously piqued my curiosity. Why orange? That next summer, on a trip to Lake of the Woods’ Ontario side, I fished with famed guide Dan Schmidt to try out a few new lures and wrinkles on some reef walleyes.

No matter where we fished, and no matter what depth, walleyes were coughing up crayfish carcasses. And here’s the important point: Not just any crayfish, but the highly invasive rusty crayfish.

Bright orange shells and claws filled our livewell, and after draining and removing the fish, its contents looked more like the aftermath of a Louisiana crawfish boil than a fishing trip.

It wasn’t until we cleaned some fish and my kids fed some of the remains to the local pelicans that it started to click for me. One carcass was missed by the feathered brigade, and sitting in a foot or two of water, but I had to grab something on the boat before I could dispose of it.

After a few minutes I returned to see it gone. The pelicans had left, and upon a closer look, I realized that the carcass wasn’t missing…it was actually alive with more than a dozen crayfish completely covering and eating every square inch of it.

After getting a feeling for the volume of invasion for these exotics, and having ever since had smallmouth, walleye, northern pike and even perch spew orange in the water, on the boat, and on my person, I’m convinced that fish species everywhere are increasingly choosing them as a preferred forage item.

The author thinks the rusty crayfish color hues are as important, or even more important, than the lures themselves. When it comes to his favorite picks, here are five different colors in five different lures.
The author thinks the rusty crayfish color hues are as important, or even more important, than the lures themselves. When it comes to his favorite picks, here are five different colors in five different lures.

Rusty crayfish are an exotic species that has invaded much of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, while being present in portions of 17 other states.

Their spread is thought to be from anglers using them as bait. Their aggressive nature and vast reproduction success has them displacing native crayfish, eating the same invertebrates many minnow species eat, and reducing the amount and kinds of various aquatic plants.

Lake of the Woods natives tell me that the lake’s ever important cabbage growth has been severely impacted by the huge numbers of rustys, and other waters are experiencing similar effects. Because of the risks associated with the spread of this invasive species, it’s illegal – and stupid – to release them into the wild and transfer them in any way.


From Demon to Delta

While the rusty crayfish’s ecological impact has been unfortunate and felt throughout the waters they infest, it’s had a drastic impact on lure color selection on these same lakes and rivers.

New crankbait colors such as “blaze,” “rusty,” “demon,” and “delta” are all getting at the same phenomenon of using crankbaits to imitate crayfish, specifically rusty crayfish. Historically, most crankbait styles and colors typically mimic a variety of minnow species.

Whether it be jigs, spoons or any other artificial, the effect of these invasives on fish forage, and ultimately fishing success, has been drastic in the waters where they live.

Any lure sporting the color orange, fished near bottom or around rocks, has the potential to be extremely effective given the expanse of the rusty crayfish’s spread. That goes for jigheads, plastics of various shapes, and even for spinner blades.

That said, the most important application of orange to any bait is in the crankbait category –  a lure type that scurries and searches along bottom much the same as a live crayfish does.

I’ve even seen fish movements of walleyes and smallmouths directly correspond to shorelines and shallows that are more abundant with these crayfish species, making orange crankbait variations a solid choice whether trolling or casting.

A large number of Midwestern lakes are affected, including regionally popular fisheries such as Mille Lacs Lake, Leech Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, Cass Lake, Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, Lake Vermillion, and many more. Lists of infested waters are available on respective state’s DNR websites for more information.

Because of the unfortunate spread of rusty crayfish, keep orange, red, and various crayfish shapes and colors in mind the next time you reach for a lure in your tackle box.

New rusty crayfish inspired colors from Rapala are deadly on walleyes and other predators.
New crayfish-inspired colors from Rapala are deadly on walleyes and other predators.

Rapala to the Rescue

Not sure which lures to add to your arsenal when it comes to rusty crayfish imitators? No worries because Rapala has you covered. Check out my top picks below; lures are listed from deepest running to shallowest.

My favorite color among them all for rusty-infested waters is the Demon; it has almost a blaze-orange brightness that seems to be preferred by walleyes. Give it a shot!

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