The sea at false dawn was a mess. It had been blowing for a week, with strong Easterlies stacking up roller after 6-foot roller to pound the beach. Rain fell long and hard and rivers brought down tree limbs and coffee-colored water. Huge clumps of bladderwort and saltcord grass floated on the surface, enough to foul every other cast.
Calm southwest winds followed the storm and called me to splash my skiff. Rob was on board, but truth be told, he can be a Debbie Downer. I saw opportunity, he saw darkness and gloom. Agreed, the deteriorated conditions were tough, but not so tough as being off the water for a week.
“This sucks,” he said. “Mung, red weed, dirty water.”
“At least not the wind,” I said. “Gusts have been up to 50 all week.”
“What are you going to tie on?”
“That’s a no-brainer.”
With that he pulled out a 4/0 Chartreuse Half and Half and tied it on with a Homer Rhode loop knot. The fly was big, bold, and bright. His was a heavy tie, with a clump of who-knows-how-many bright green saddles tied flatwing style. The enormous dumbbell eyes left a splash when they hit the water, and there was enough neon green bucktail to leave a noticeable hole in that buck’s tail left on the tying bench. In the water, his fly stood out like a tight red dress at a cocktail party. Even in the dark water I could see it 5 feet below the surface.
Rob didn’t ask, but I tied on a muted flatwing. Compared to his fashion show, my fly was boring, drab, and sparse. Its tan saddle was ratty from a bunch of striped bass eats, the black, olive, and tan bucktail faded from repeated use in the saltwater wash-and-dry cycle. Save for a few green strands, there wasn’t much left of the original peacock herl back. When my fly hit the water, it disappeared out of sight.
“You ain’t gonna catch jack on that fly,” Rob said.
“No?” I asked. “Why is that?”
“The fish won’t be able to see it.”
“Absolutely. If it ain’t chartreuse it ain’t no use.”
Carthusian Monks and Day-Glo
The word comes from a French Carthusian monastery known as the Grand-Chartreuse. Since 1737, monks have distilled a 110-proof liquor made from over 130 different herbs and plants, the combination of which results in the distinctive color. The author Hunter S. Thompson famously drank a glass of the strange-hued alcohol before writing every night. That color carried over to America in the 1930s by the Day-Glo Color Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio. Day-Glo manufactured similarly colored, high-visibility paint. Originally used in World War II, chartreuse also found a home in post-war life. The color appeared in construction sites, on safety vests, in running shoes, and on tennis balls. Chartreuse defined the 1980s wardrobe and continued deep into the 1990s hip hop era. I can only assume M.C. Hammer’s baggy pants came in the neon green.
Is it Any Use?
A visit to any tackle shop shows how fond anglers are of the color. Half a century ago, spinnerbait skirts appeared in bright yellow-green. I bet you have a pack of Mister Twister grubs in your kit, and maybe a Bomber A, a MirrOlure like the MirrOdine Broken Glass Suspending Twitchbait, or even a Heddon Spook Junior in chartreuse. Saltwater and warmwater patterns like Clousers and Deceivers are often loaded with the color, and even trout anglers weave fluorescent green posts on their parachute flies. Bobbers, strike indicators, anything that needs to be easily seen gets a dab.
So, is the popular maxim “if it ain’t chartreuse it ain’t no use” overstated? I’ve heard the refrain repeated from striper anglers, to smallmouth guys, to pike fanatics, to coho diehards, and more. The real issue isn’t if chartreuse is mandatory to catch fish—it’s not—but chartreuse does stand out in the age-old debate of imitation vs. attraction.
Imitation vs. Attraction
Going natural isn’t new to fishermen; imitating a food source is the original idea behind fishing. From rigging local bait to matching the hatch, it’s central to fishing DNA. For a very long time, anglers have gone to great lengths to perfectly imitate the preferred prey of their quarry. In Liberty, New York, 1913, Roy Steenrod used the urine-stained fur from the underbelly of a red fox to create his legendary fly pattern, the female Hendrickson. Some 21st century swimbaits so closely resemble baitfish in, color, shape, and movement that one’s hard-pressed to call them “lures”—they’re facsimiles. They also require a second mortgage for the average angler to afford a box of them.
On the other end of the spectrum, who knows how many fish have been caught on lures that catch fish through attraction. Spinnerbaits, Whopper Ploppers, wooly buggers, flukes, and the thousands of other flies and lures don’t closely approximate any natural food source, but they sure do catch fish.
Natural or Supernatural?
So, where does chartreuse fit in? Is it imitation or attraction? I’ve never personally seen a chartreuse baitfish, and it’s well-known effectiveness in stained or dark water would seem to fit squarely in the attractor category. But I know of at least one situation where chartreuse actually does offer a near-perfect imitation, and others may exist.
Take the skinny water found on a sandy saltwater flat on a bright sunny day. Baitfish dancing over the sand under bright sun take on that exact yellowish-greenish hue. In a hard current, grab a blue-over-silver stickbait, hit the blue with a chartreuse yellow marker, and you’ll get a chartreuse-green color. In a soft current, grab the same plug but in a broken back version and color it with the chartreuse marker. You’ll catch fish when no one else does, because the plug and it’s bright yellow-green perfectly matches the bait. It’s a similar color configuration of Abrames L&L Special, the best bright-sun flats fly going. Imitation meets attraction, and that’s why lines go tight.
That said, chartreuse also works in situations where its gaudiness just gets attention. Bright lures stand out to fish the same way a vehicle driving 90 m.p.h. attracts a highway patrolman. Aggressive fish hone in on chartreuse just as brookies whack Mickey Finns and muskies inhale Bull Dawgs.
But is Chartreuse Necessary?
Bright colors will work in dim water, but they’re not essential. Natural or dark patterns that contrast sharply with the water work just as well if not better. Why? Because the baitfish don’t suddenly turn bright green in dim water. Use chartreuse if you want, and you’ll catch some fish. But saying “if it ain’t chartreuse it ain’t no use?” That’s a bit strong, especially because fish don’t starve when the water turns cloudy—as I proved to my buddy Rob that day after the storm. Both our fly choices produced fish that day, but all of the biggest stripers ate the natural-colored pattern. Smaller, more aggressive fish went for the day-glo eye candy.