Go to the Dark Side for Low-Water Kings by JD Richey

Go to the Dark Side for Low-Water Kings by JD Richey

In the fall, we often deal with low-water conditions on Chinook streams throughout the West and the Great Lakes. While there is no one magic elixir that will magically make skinny water kings bite, but you can tip the odds in your favor by turning to the “Dark Side.”

In other words, try running your favorite lures in a slightly less gaudy color than you’re used to…namely, black.

black lure fishing steelhead salmon fish spinner orange

I’d really like to take full credit for discovering that low-water Chinook like the color black…but in the interest of full disclosure here, I guess I better fess up. My confidence in the dark side came quite by accident.

I was fly fishing kings in a river that was running very low and clear and not getting bit using traditional bright and flashy patterns. After a long drought, I decided to switch to a 6-weight rigged with a black Bunny Leech—I figured I could at least get a trout to grab on and pull a little string.

Well, the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened next goes like this: A big king pounds the fly like it’s a plug, runs like hell for the horizon, nearly busting two of my fingers in the process and reintroduces me to the baking on that reel—which I hadn’t seen since I originally spooled it on.

The battle rages for way too long and just about cures me of ever wanting to hook a Chinook on anything but heavy conventional tackle.

But the whole episode has also planted a little seed in the deep recesses of my brain: Was this some random incident or was I on to something?


Armed with heavier gear the next time out, my Black Leech accounted for five ridiculously hard grabs and three kings to the beach. A pattern was starting to develop! Then, I had one of those perfect days when I hooked 15 kings and landed every one of them on my black fly. From that day on, I was pretty much a believer!

Branching Out

Of course, my new-found success bolstered my confidence to try other lures in black as well. My first experiment came with black plugs like Kwikfish and FlatFish. Initially, the results were lackluster and I thought that maybe the kings’ taste for the dark side didn’t apply to plugs. But after some alterations, I found that they do, indeed, like black.

The major breakthrough in this area came one season while guiding in Southwest Alaska. After two solid weeks of 80-degree weather, the Nushagak River was running low and super clear and the kings were getting a little skittish. I recall thinking that the conditions were not unlike those back home in which I’d had success with the black leeches, so I spray painted a K15 black. The fish ate it but not really any better than anything else.

black lure fishing steelhead salmon fish

Then fellow guide Jeremy Warter asked me to try a little idea he had—out of boredom one evening, he’d covered the belly of a silver/orange bill K15 with black electrician’s tape, leaving only the orange bill visible. I put that “egg-sucking Kwikie” into service the next morning and it quickly became my hottest plug until we got a shot of rain and the water colored up.

At home, I made my own by buying all-chrome plugs and then painting the bill or butt orange and then hitting the body of the lure with rattle can black. Normally, I’d put a primer coat on first, but you get a cool almost metallic black effect by going straight onto the chrome. Just be sure to hit everything with a clear coat at the end!

I’ve tried that plug from Sacramento to Seattle and back and it seems to work anywhere you’ve got low, clear water. I should qualify that statement a little, however. It works anywhere the water’s clear, low and warm (60-70 degrees). In other words, early fall conditions. Later in the year, when the water temps are down, the black doesn’t seem to have the same appeal.


While I have had modest success on low water, fall-runs while using all-black spinners, the fish respond better to hardware with a little bit of flash to it. I’ve messed around with painting both the body and the blade of a spinner black and then adding a florescent orange or chartreuse dot to the blade. But to be honest, there’s a production model Blue Fox spinner that seems to work as well as any of my custom jobs. It has a black body and a silver blade with a red slash at the tip of the blade. There’s also a version with a chartreuse tip that is pretty effective as well.

While I rarely fish spoons for freshwater kings, I suppose you could also do well with a black model with a bright piece of red, orange or chartreuse tape stuck to the concaved side.

Other stuff

While spinners, plugs and leeches make up the bulk of my Dark Side arsenal, I have experimented with a few other things as well. Some have worked okay, while others were pretty much a disaster (don’t ask about the black herring incident…my wife’s still mad about the dark stain in her sink!). It’s no secret that Spin-N-Glos and Cheaters with black blades sometimes out-produce all other colors when drifting eggs or running them behind divers, but the other way around seems to work well too.

I’ll take a black Sharpie to the body of one and then hit the white wings up with a bright orange pen. Works pretty well, but I think a lot simply has to do with the quality of your eggs!

Not deterred by the black herring debacle, a buddy and I tried dying up some eggs black, which…well…let’s just say didn’t really yield the results we were hoping for. But hey, that’s half the fun of fishing—just trying out new stuff and seeing what works. I can tell you, however, that if you stick to fishing black on the basics like plugs and spinners this fall you should see some impressive results.

- written by JD Richey

For more fishing tips & tricks, check out my website: www.fishwithjd.com

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