I’ve seen it a thousand times; an angler walks into a Sportsman’s Warehouse, heads straight for the fishing department, and then stares blankly at the huge wall of lures as if waiting for one of them to jump out at him and yell “pick me, pick me!” Since that never happens, the angler will wander back and forth along the wall, until finally giving up and asking an associate for help. Unfortunately, the question usually goes something like, “which lure is the best for catching walleye” or some other complete generality. Problem is, if our bewildered shopper asks 50 associates, he’ll likely get 50 different answers. Even worse, they’d all be right.

How’s that possible you ask? Because of prevailing fishing conditions. On any given day with any given fish, any given lure might be just the ticket for loading the boat. The real trick lies in intentionally picking the best combo of day, fish, and lure rather than relying on serendipity or some other mystical power to come up with the right combo.

The decision is easier if we break it down to its parts, so let’s do so. Since we have three variables, we’ll start with the most obvious one; the fish we hope to catch.

Before I even begin to decide what to tie on, I’ll take a few minutes to mull my target species over in my mind. Is my target pelagic or cover specific? What are their preferred forage species? What season of their spawn cycle are they in? These are the kinds of things I’ll consider. There’s an old Indian proverb that says “if you chase many rabbits, you catch none”, and I personally feel it’s as applicable to critters with fins as fur. My goals might include a multi species day of catching, but I still believe it is critically important to pick one to focus on as my target. Even if there is considerable overlap, no two species have exactly the same habits and preferences, and these are exactly what I’m thinking about as I ponder lure selection.

For instance, trout are well known to be roamers in a lake environment. They’ll roam large areas in a constant search for food or comfort. Conversely, bass prefer to spend a large part of their time sitting in one comfortable spot waiting for food to pass by.  Crappies may prefer minnows to all else for dinner, but the bluegill will happily eat grasshoppers all day. Lake trout like really deep cold water, while the pike spends much of each season in and around weedbeds. This column is nowhere near long enough to delineate the habits of each species that readers may fish for, so I won’t even try. The bottom line is, research the habits of your target species and think about how those habits will play into your lure selection.

The next thing to consider is the day you’re actually fishing. My mantra as a fishing guide is “fish to the conditions”, where the conditions are a combination of season, water temp, water level and direction of movement, wind, current, water color, light conditions, and forage…basically in that order. Some of these conditions will dictate where the fish are located, others will influence their mood, and still others will affect their ability to find your lure. All of them should be considered when choosing your offering.

The final variable in catching is the lure itself, and to a large degree, how you rig and work said lure. This is the variable we have the most direct control of assuming you’re targeting on a certain species of course, and you fish when you have time – not just when you like the conditions! It is also the one with most possible variation. After all, there was +/- 22,000 combinations of lures in a Sportsman’s Warehouse last I checked. Multiply that by rigging and presentation options and it’s easy to see why lure selection is tough. The selection process gets much easier if you simplify the lure characteristic you carry, and with more understanding of the species and how the conditions affect them daily. Plus, there are some generalities with daily conditions as they pertain to lure selection regardless of species. Mostly they are centered around basic predatory fish behavior, and weather and water.

Fish bite lures for a few different reasons. The obvious one is for feeding; the fish thinks he’ll gain calories by ingesting your bait. Another reason might be territorial, especially during their respective spawning seasons. Another is competition. When fish school up, each of them will eat more aggressively than if they were solo, perhaps to the point that they’ll bite even if they’re full just so the other fish don’t get your bait first. A great reason for fish biting a lure is out of pure, almost involuntary reaction. Picture someone tossing a ball at you from your peripheral; you’ll grab it out of instinct. As an angler it’s very helpful in getting them to bite if you know why they might – especially as it pertains to conditions.

Season is what I consider a “big picture” condition. An angler can judge the effects of other conditions based on season. For instance, a major cold front might shut fish down in spring as they ride a warming trend, but the same type of front might spur a fall bite as fish feed in advance of winter. How does this change the lure selection? In the first case it might require reaction strikes to catch fish since they won’t likely feed well. In the latter, matching the available forage might be key.

Weather fronts are often accompanied by wind. Most angler hate wind, but it can make locating feeding fish easier because, as a rule, fish will take advantage of windblown banks and current. Contrary to popular belief, wind does not blow the baitfish into a bank, but it does stir the food chain so to speak. I always fish windy banks first for any species, and I do so with lures that are easy for fish to locate in the rocking conditions. Lures that feature rattles, heavy vibration, rhythmic retrieves, or “flash” are my first choices.  Conversely, if it’s really calm I want quieter and more subtle lures.

Speaking of colors, think colorful lures for stained or dirty water, natural colors for clear water. During low light conditions, a dark lure silhouette can help, while in the brightest of conditions, a translucent bait can be great.

Other good general lure selection principles include using smaller than average lures in cold water. Keep in mind that “cold” is relative to the species; 45 degrees is very cold for bass, but perfect for trout. Same kind of thing goes for lure speed since all fish are cold-blooded.  Slow it down when it’s cold for them!

Another good generality to consider is vertical versus horizontal presentations. If you can use a horizontal presentation you can cover more water, but there are times when a lure dropping vertically gets more bites. If you know where there is a bunch of fish, vertical lures can be great. If you’re searching for fish, they can be a big waste of time because of the small area they cover. When fish are really deep you may have no choice but vertical presentations unless you troll.

If the fish are not in a biting mood, generating reaction strikes can save your day. Do this by using extremely erratic or fast baits. Add bright flash with chrome, or super bright colors. Don’t give the fish any time to think about biting – just surprise and excite them with the lure. As a guide, I find many folks have a hard time with this, but it works more often than not.

If you fish waters that get a lot of fishing pressure, try lures that are smaller or larger than most folks use. Or fish much faster or slower lures. On streams with a ton of fly pressure, try a huge, high speed streamer to trigger fish. If you see a gillion 2” shad in a lake, try a 3” lure to make your’s stand out. If everyone is catching them on a spinnerbait, try an in-line spinner or bladed jig. In all these cases, you’re giving the fish a different look. The generalities of color, sound, vibration, etc., still apply, but mix up the finished look.

I could go on and on about choosing lures, but let’s simplify. I carry lures as follows: vertical – horizontal; small-medium-large; dark-natural-bright and loud-quiet. Speed and other details are a function of presentation. With this matrix, I can match whatever conditions I encounter and know that I’m close. After all, fish have little bitty brains and great big mouths; get in the ballpark with your lure and you’ll catch some. With careful observation during your outings, you’ll learn to fine tune your selection and presentation.