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Written By: Cal Kellogg, August 6, 2014
Deepwater trolling, shallow water trolling and jigging are the three most popular approaches used for subduing macks throughout the year at most western mackinaw lakes, yet before you can fish for them you’ve got to find them and this can be one of the biggest challenges.
Even in lakes that boast a substantial population of macks, they can be quite elusive. When it comes to mackinaw the old saying that 90 percent of the fish only occupy 10 percent of the water is scripture. As a result, a quality sonar unit is among the most important tools the angler can posses.
As a general guideline, a laker’s preferred habitat is craggy boulder strewn ledges that fall into deepwater. If such an area shows signs of forage such as clouds of shrimp, kokanee salmon or chubs the chances of it holding macks increases significantly.
During the cold water months from fall through early spring, macks can often be found hunting in shallow bays and on shallow flats. The common denominator that separates productive flats from nonproductive ones is the immediate proximity of deepwater. When the water temperature is cool, mackinaw won’t hesitate foraging in shallow areas, so long as the security of deepwater is nearby.
Throughout the year trolling, more specifically deepwater trolling accounts for more mackinaw than shallow water trolling and jigging combined. If your goal is to consistently land limits of average size macks along with the occasional big boy, deepwater trolling in depths ranging from 100 to 350 feet is the way to go.
Uninitiated anglers often assume that since they successfully pull rainbows out of deepwater using their downriggers the same approach will earn them a quick limit of macks, but this is seldom the case. While the basics of downrigger trolling are the same no matter what species is being targeted, there are a number of variations in tactics that differentiate the successful rainbow troller from the troller that consistently boats macks.
When targeting rainbows, it is often to the angler’s benefit to cover ground, while the exact opposite is often true when it comes to hooking lakers residing in deepwater.
A successful mackinaw troll begins with pinpointing a group of fish using sonar and marking their position using a GPS unit. Generally speaking, mackinaw holding just off the bottom are the easiest to catch because they tend to stay put, allowing the angler to work on them.
Deep water macks may or may not be actively feeding, but provided the fish stay in one position they can often be caught even if they aren’t in a feeding mode initially. You see, inactive fish can often be prodded into feeding, by presenting your baits to them multiple times.
Mackinaw, particularly those residing in deep water, will hit a variety of different offerings. Rigged baitfish are a top choice wherever it’s legal to use them. A lot of dedicated mackinaw specialists go through the trouble of catching chubs and other minnows that are native to the lakes they fish.
I’ve always done well using the 2 to 3 inch shiners that are found in bait shops as well as frozen herring that are most commonly used by ocean salmon trollers. However, make sure that you check the Fish and Game regulations regarding the use of live minnows on a particular lake before venturing out.
Some anglers insist that it is crucial to have live minnows, but I have never found this to be the case. Since the common method for rigging minnows for trolling is to thread a treble hook tipped leader through the body of the baitfish, I doubt if it makes much difference whether the minnow is alive or fresh frozen.
For small minnows I typically use a No. 6 treble attached to a 16 inch piece of 15 pound monofilament leader. I thread the leader through the minnow from the vent to the mouth such that the treble rides along the bottom of the bait just in front of the tail. When using herring or other large baitfish I go with the same leader length, but I upsize the treble to a No. 2 or 4. When using baitfish I always pull them behind a dodger or set of flashers.
At times when I don’t have or can’t use baitfish, I’ve found Shasta Tackle’s large double hook Kok-A-Nuts, Matrix Minnows and plastic Matrix Paddle Tails to be effective substitutes. The Matrix Paddle Tail is basically a small minnow imitating soft plastic bait. I rig them just like I rig a real baitfish, using one of my treble hook tipped leaders. Kok-A-Nuts and Matrix Minnows are flies that provide a lot of flash and movement. I also like to rig them behind a dodger.
Other effective baitfish substitutes include grubs from Berkley and Sep’s as well as Hoochies from P-Line, Gold Star and others and Berkley Gulp! Minnows.
Most of the time rigged baitfish, soft plastics and flies are all I need to hook up, but once in a while deepwater macks show a strong preference for plugs. For these situations, I always have a few Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, floating Rapala Minnows, broken back Bomber Long As, Apex Lures and EChip equipped Pro Troll Sting Kings on hand.
I don’t think the color makes a big difference when it comes to selecting plugs for use in deepwater, but since macks like to feed on small rainbow trout and kokanee salmon I almost always go with rainbow trout and silver over black pattern plugs. When using plugs I run them alone without dodgers.
Once you get on the water for a deepwater trolling session the first task is to locate a group of fish holding near the bottom using the sonar unit. When you get some promising looking returns, mark the location of the fish on your GPS and get ready to drop your rigs down to them. If I have baitfish they are my first choice, followed by my soft plastics, flies and finally plugs.
Since deepwater macks will likely be sluggish when you first show them your lures I heavily scent all my offerings with Pro-Cure A number of different scents work well including rainbow trout, sardine, herring, trophy trout, shrimp, krill and garlic. Not only do I apply the scent to the bait, but I also smear it on my dodgers too. Naturally the scent is intended to draw strikes from individual macks, but as you make multiple passes through the fish it also creates a cloud of scent that helps to excite the whole pack.
Deep water trolling is not a high-speed affair. With baitfish, plastics and flies, speeds between .8 and 1.5 miles per hour are perfect. When using plugs you can push the speed up to 2 or at most 2.5. Trolling for deep dwelling macks is unlike any other trout trolling, since your goal is to troll a very small patch of the bottom while working in conjunction with your sonar and GPS. You want to maneuver in circles and figure eights, keeping the lures in front of the fish as much as possible.
Okay so you are trolling, the lures and scent are working and a fish decides to strike. Even smallish macks are big heavy fish compared to the rainbows we often catch, so the mack is going to pull the line right out of the downrigger clip, right? Well, sometimes that is exactly how a strike occurs, but more often than not a bite is much subtler than that. Since your offerings are moving slowly lakers tend to nip at them daintily and get hooked right in the front of the mouth. Many times when they are hooked they will swim along with the boat and the line won’t be pulled from the release.
As a result it is imperative to keep watching your rod tips as you troll. A few light taps or pumps are often the only things that register a hooked fish. If you think a fish is on the bait, grab the rod, pop the line out of the clip and reel as quickly as you can to get the slack out of the line. Once the mack feels the resistance and is drawn off the bottom it will wake up, shift gears and begin putting up the dogged head shaking fight that deep water macks are known for.
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