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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Browns, rainbows, and brookies… we all love to catch trout, but what about mackinaw? Mackinaw go largely overlooked by the California trout fishing fraternity. Yet they provide the best trophy potential of any trout swimming our waters. Mackinaw or lake trout as they are sometimes know regularly range up to and beyond the 10 pound mark at several north state lakes.
From a scientific perspective mackinaw, like the brook trout are not true trout at all, but rather members of the char family. However, from an angler’s perspective if it looks like a trout, swims like a trout, and quacks like a trout, it’s a trout!
In terms of size mackinaw are the second largest salmoniod in North America surpassed only by the chinook salmon. According to mackinaw expert, John Richardson lakers as large as 120 pounds have been taken at Lake Michilimackinac in Canada. Here in California, the state record is 37 pounds 6 ounces and was taken out of Lake Tahoe by Robert Aronson in 1974.
Over the years, mackinaw have earned the reputation of being reclusive deep water denizens that put up a substandard fight when hooked. This reputation is largely undeserved. The idea that mackinaw don’t fight dates back to the days before downriggers and sonar when anglers were forced to blindly work the lake bottom with heavy weights and wire lines. It’s hard to imagine a freshwater gamefish that can put up a determined tussle on 100 pound test wire with an attached 8 ounce sinker!
These days anglers equipped with sonar and downriggers typically target mackinaw in 50 to 250 feet of water using light to medium weight tackle. Tahoe mackinaw specialist Gene St. Denis of Blue Ribbon Charters employs medium action Shakespeare Ugly Stick rods teamed with Penn 209 reels and 20 pound Stren monofilament. I can tell you from experience that macks hooked on this gear provide plenty of adrenaline pumping excitement.
To consistently boat mackinaw, it’s important to have a basic understanding of their diet and habits. Studies reveal that small macks, those under 20 inches, feed mainly on shrimp and other small organisms. Large mackinaw, exceeding 24 inches primarily target baitfish and crawfish.
In terms of lure size it’s interesting to note that given a preference lakers prefer forage that is from one sixth to one quarter their body length. That means a laker the size of Aronson’s 44 inch state record would find a bait from 7 to 11 inches very attractive. When targeting macks the old saying, “big lures equal big fish” certainly has validity.
Most of the time mackinaw hold quite near the bottom, although occasionally you’ll locate suspended fish. A quality sonar unit is one of the most important pieces of gear a mackinaw hunter can posses. Unlike targeting other types of trout it really pays to invest some time in cruising about and looking for macks before beginning to fish. In even the best mackinaw lakes only 10% of the water holds 90% of the fish so it doesn’t make sense to begin fishing until you are reasonably certain a spot holds fish.
Rocky boulder strewn ledges that drop into deep water and show signs of forage such as kokanee salmon are classic areas for mackinaw prospecting. In the spring and winter when the water is cold or during periods of low light at dawn, dusk, and during overcast stormy days it is not uncommon to find macks cruising flats, however these flats are almost always in close proximity to deep water.
For much of the season mackinaw are spread out and travel alone or in small pods. During the fall spawning season mackinaw concentrate in large groups on the lake bottom, and once fish are located non stop action is often the reward.
Over the course of the year trolling accounts for more macks than any other method, although jigging is a reliable producer too. Mackinaw are aggressive feeders and a number of trolled offerings will tempt them. For numbers of fish as well as the occasional large fish it is hard to beat a rigged minnow trolled 12 to 18 inches behind a large dodger. If large fish are the goal large bulky plugs such as Bomber Long A’s, Rapala Husky Jerks, and J Plugs are all top choices.
When macks are cruising flats or relatively shallow structure it is possible to do well while top lining or using leadcore. However, in most situations employing downriggers is a must.
The first time I fished with Gene St. Denis I learned that downrigger trolling for macks is not a relaxed affair. Gene worked hard all day watching the sonar and constantly raising and lower the baits, so that they stayed within 10 feet of the bottom. In most circumstances if your bait is more that 10 feet off the bottom you’re not going to get very much action.
Jigging produces fish all year long, but is most effective when the fish are concentrated in preparation for spawning. Crippled Herring and Hopkins spoons are standard fair for jiggers as are large bucktail jigs tipped with pork rind or a thin herring fillet. Jigging is a technique best used when the wind is light making it an easy proposition to keep the boat over the top of the fish you locate on the sonar.
When jigging drop your lure to the bottom, reel in a crank or two of line and begin yo yoing the lure over the bottom. Try to stay in touch with the lure as it drops since this is when strikes most often occur.
Line stretch is the nemesis of the jig angler. The less stretch your line posseses the better you’ll be able to detect strikes. For this reason a lot of experience jig anglers prefer braided line such as Berkeley Fireline over monofilament. Braid stretches very little, providing exceptional feel and hook setting power. In addition it is much smaller in diameter that monofilament of an identical test. This translates to less line resistance as it moves through the water, allowing the angler to use lighter livelier jigs.
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