Why Do Bass Change Colors?

color change in bass

If you fish bass often, you are always looking out for a dark-green or olive-colored fish, and sometimes brown. So what happens when you find it appears darker than usual, something closer to black perhaps? I remember my first encounter when I once headed out to my favorite bass fishing spot only to catch a black one. It looked so weird, and disgusting and I thought it was sick until I learned that they sometimes change colors. 

So, why do bass change colors? Bass can change their skin color by altering pigment cells after receiving light stimuli from photoreceptors in their eyes, which essentially matches their surroundings. These fish have empathetic color detection abilities that perceive the surroundings reflected light, and this is the ability anglers rely on when baiting bass with colored lures. 

But why do bass change colors, and what exactly are the environmental features that would affect this chameleon-like transformation? Read further to find out which colors bass are receptive to and what messages or information these aesthetic changes convey.

3 Reasons Why Bass Change Colors

Water Quality

As an avid bass angler, I have noted that individual fish can change their skin color, either depending on water conditions that affect light reflection or as a form of perceptible signal to others. I’ve seen black bass in water, but it turns out much paler once reeled in and placed in the Livewell. 

According To the Surroundings Perceived

A United States Department of Energy program dubbed ‘Ask a Scientist!’ sought to find out why bass changes color, conducting research that uncovered light receptors in the fish’s eyes. When light variations hit these receptors, a cue is relayed through hormonal release to move color pigments further away or closer from the skin. 

Sexual Activity and As Stress Responses

These color changes are used to relay important messages about an individual fish’s status to others of the same species. Often, bass will display skin pigmentation according to sexual activity, social dominance, boldness, aggressiveness, and stress responses. 

This explanation fits in with my observations in the water, as when caught, bass will change color in the Livewell to portray a change in mood. You’ll also find small and largemouth that’s black during early nesting season, but later the only dark individuals appear to be more aggressive and dominant within groups of paler bass. 

The specialized mechanisms at play here include chromatophore cells, with which bass can accomplish the color shift ability. These cells can also be regulated in various ways, including at the cellular level that responds to a change in the fish’s environment, the nervous system, and the hormonal controls. 

Why Do Bass Turn Black?

The most functional attribute of bass fish being able to change color is camouflage, common with other aquatic and terrestrial animals. Bass can turn black when seeking cover in clear waters and where there are weeds to blend in. 

These fish use chameleon-like abilities to hunt and ambush prey or hide from the prying eyes of predators. Other factors that contribute to color alteration include sunlight in the water, the time of year, water depth, turbidity, and the stress levels in a school or individual fish. 

While bass will turn black within specific periods, they can’t do it ‘on command’ like octopi or chameleon, and some black spots on these fish are due to mutational disorders. White bass eggs are crossed with striped bass sperm to produce hybrid sunshine bass, a spotted fish that can appear black and is sterile or cannot reproduce. 

When their color is black, bass becomes formidable predators, with increased efficiency to sneak up and ambush minnows or other like-sized prey. Darker coloration allows this fish to position itself among aquatic or submerged vegetation, and black bass males have been found to attract females during the mating season better. 

What Color is Bass?

What Color is Largemouth Bass?

Adult largemouths have a mix of umber with green from their backs to the sides of their bodies, where the whitish underbelly seems to luster against the aquamarine.  On each side, these bass species have a dark lateral line that appears like freckled markings on their greenish olive scales, which are sometimes blackish brown. 

As one of the most hunted game fishes worldwide, the largemouth is a marvelous-looking fish and thrives best in clear freshwater, where its appearance is pronounced. 

What Color is Smallmouth Bass?

Individual smallmouth bass can exhibit various colors ranging from jet black to a lighter brown depending on the same factors that influence other members of the bass species. I set out to test these insights with a nearby lake friend, setting up a camera to monitor one nesting male’s movement and color variation. 

It was in the summer, and when I first spotted this fish, it was identifiable by a slightly damaged left side fin while guarding its nest, like many other males. At that time, the smallmouth was jet black, but by the time we had set up a camera, due to the slightest water disturbances perhaps, the fish had turned a pale brown shade. 

Two hours later, with only the camera present to observe the fish, this same male turned back to almost jet black, and my conclusion that the color change was due to perception of danger. This foray proved that individual smallmouth bass could alter their skin pigmentation when stressed after maintaining a darker hue during the post-spawn season. 

How Color Change Affect the Success of Bass vs. Anglers 

Bass Can Easily Conceal Themselves against Predators

While bass will be oblivious to your camouflage, clear blue, fluorescent, red, and fluorocarbon line colors, their skin coloration will help in concealment to ambush prey or hide from predators. After the spawn, large males that guard nests are dark against the sandy bed or muddy vegetated banks in shallow water.

In deeper and clearer water, bass appears whiter, with a pale coloration except for dominant individuals in a group, who are darker and more aggressive than the rest. While it’s difficult for you to spot deep water bass for the diminished light down there, the fish must also not know you’re there, so you must spot them first. 

What Line Color Better Works to Fool Bass into Biting?

Having established that bass is sensitive to red and green colors, making their vision dichromatic, you must apply this know-how to your fishing skills. Line color for such a light receptive fish must correlate with the background waters, blending in to afford you extra stealth. 

As the water depth increases, colors fade, and water conditions that are clear, muddy, or stained will have a varying effect on your line color. Underwater, especially in muddy or stained conditions, the color blue can be perceptible. At the same time, in low light, red can appear black, but green merges with the background aquamarine to make it less visible. 

The best line colors to bait bass would, as these prevent light from traveling down. You must see your line as an angler; otherwise, sneaky bass will pick out your bait without noticing it.

Which Colors Are More Noticeable to Bass?

Research conducted at universities in both New York and Illinois suggests that bass fish are attracted to green and red colors. Receptors in the fish’s eyes contain two types of cone cells, responsible for sensitivity to these two colors, giving bass dichromatic vision

These studies involved using colored baits to observe how the fish attached these targets, encouraged by food rewards. The results proved that bass fish have an affinity to red at 80%, green at 75%, blue at 48%, black at 40%, white at 33%, and chartreuse at 30%. 

Bass can see red and green colors significantly well, and while the rest of the spectrum is somewhat visible, brighter and darker colors appear pretty similar, unable to be distinguished. 

Researchers that conducted experiments to ascertain what colors bass are more attracted to performed them in clear and adequately filtered water. While these conditions don’t represent other places where the fish are prevalent, color perception has been noted to vary in the bass of different age groups as sexual activity or dominance-related changes don’t happen in younger ones. 

Such findings impact the way anglers perceive bass, and the resultant insight is sure to lead towards better innovation in baits or lure colors for these fish. However, you should let your experience and other fishing senses dictate the way you fish, for if a color not represented works better for you, I would recommend you keep using it. 


Some mysteries concerning fish like bass are still to be fully unraveled, such as why they change color. However, the little research conducted, coupled with the observations of passionate anglers, answers why sometimes bass is darker than at other times. 

This knowledge will give you an edge over other fisherfolk, and you’ll be able to understand why bass appears a certain coloration, thus interpreting their behavior. As an avid angler, you can better anticipate and react to bass appearance where others will be floundering and becoming mystified. 

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