Monster Mackinaw and Kokanee Chrome
By Gary Lewis
A light breeze riffled the glassy surface as we pulled away from the dock. We watched the depth finder and Dana pointed the bow toward the eastern end of Oregon's Odell Lake. It was a rare day in the Cascades, warm for this early in the morning. Today we would be fishing deep, down to 140 feet, hoping to connect with a big mackinaw.
Many years ago, when first I fished for mackinaw, I looked out across that big, gray, wind-chopped lake and wondered where a person should start. I spent a couple of days trying and eventually caught a few fish, but I wasn't satisfied. Something about the mammoth trophies on the wall of the lodge told me that I had a lot more to learn.
Lake trout, also called mackinaw are, in fact, members of the char family. But whatever you call them, they are creatures of cool, deep-water lakes. And they are predators whose primary feed is smaller fish, up to one-third their own size. Since their preferred temperature range is from 48 to 52 degrees, lake trout are commonly found in depths of 50 to 150 feet. In the spring, however, and in late fall and winter, when temperatures near the surface cool, big lakers can be caught in shallow water.
In many lakes, kokanee are the preferred food, but other species such as chubs, whitefish, squawfish, rainbows, cutthroats, and bull trout might be on the menu.
Macks are slow-growing fish. In most waters it takes ten or eleven years to grow a five-pound fish. Lake trout can live as long as 40 years. The largest lake trout on record was caught with a net in Saskatchewan's Lake Athabasca. The fish weighed 102 pounds.
Lake trout may be found at different depths during the course of a day. Some fish will be chasing kokanee, slashing through a ball of bait at 80 feet, feeding until they are full, then dropping down to the 100 to 150 foot depth to rest and digest their food. They compensate for changes in water pressure by burping air through a duct connecting their swim bladder to their esophagus.
My friend Dana Knepper of Central Oregon Spinnerbaits in Crescent Lake has spent more time chasing mackinaw than anyone else I know and he loves to catch the big fish. Dana fishes from an 18-foot Starcraft, equipped with a 90 hp Mercury outboard, and two Cannon downriggers.
Using a downrigger on each side of the boat, we trolled flashers and large M-2 Flatfish baited with nightcrawlers. Dana began marking mackinaw on the depth finder right away. My daughter Jennifer kept watch, wondering which one of those little pixels representing predatory lake trout would follow the lure and smash it.
We were in the right place to catch a big one. Odell's lake trout fishery was established by stocking efforts in the early 1900s, and Oregon's current state record lake trout was caught in Odell in 1984. That fish tipped the scales at 40 pounds, eight ounces. Most of the fish you'll catch will run between five and 15 pounds, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has recorded lake trout in the 50-pound range. Anglers come from all over the Northwest for the chance at boating one and many do, but what most anglers don't know is that there are strategies that will help you land the biggest fish. Once you know the secrets to catching these monster mackinaw, you can boat more big ones, wherever you fish.
LAKE TROUT TACTICSWhen fishing for lake trout, use medium to medium-heavy spinning or baitcasting gear with ten- to 25-pound test line. This is a great time to use braided line because it does not stretch and deepwater bites are felt - and responded to - faster.
The braided main line is clipped to the downrigger with a quick disconnect that allows the fisherman to "pop" the line free and fight the fish without being tied to the weight.
Dana favors an M2 Flatfish in a coho pattern, baited with two whole nightcrawlers, trailing off the rear treble. He rigged both rods the same way, lining up the Flatfish behind a series of flashers. The downriggers took them to the bottom and we were underway.
We started fishing in 140 feet of water, trolling at low speed. There are tricks to trolling for mackinaw. Targeting resting lake trout, he fishes close to the bottom. He keeps close watch on the depth finder and regularly changes the depth of the downriggers, keeping the baits in the zone.
From time to time, Dana would "ring the dinner bell," by dropping the downrigger into the mud, then cranking it back up again. The theory is that the mack is intrigued by the sudden commotion, the stirring of the mud. He swims over to investigate, spots the Flatfish moving away and strikes.
Dana changed directions often, keeping a sharp watch on the depth finder. When the screen indicated a depth change, he would raise or lower the weight as needed to keep the lures from five to ten feet off the bottom. He tried speed changes and zigzagging to spark the bite. Nothing seemed to work. Such is fishing. Finally we changed locations, running the boat east to work another section of the lake.
In the summer, lake trout are deepwater fish. Through July and August you may find fish as deep as 140 to 160 feet. The fish will move up and down in the water column on a daily basis, feeding on kokanee and other food fish. But during the summer, you need to go deep to find them.
In the summer, explore the depths adjacent to steep cliff walls and the sharp-breaking shoulders of islands and points of land. Use a depth finder to find deep humps, slots and holes in an otherwise shallower part of the lake.
When lakers are feeding on schooled kokanee, you can entice them by jigging spoons. After you locate fish on the depth finder, do a vertical jig with a one or two-ounce lead-head jig or spoon. Lift the lure with long sweeps of the rod, keeping your line tight while the lure sinks.
When you find them in shallow water, cast to the bank, or troll spoons and plugs on a long line. When fish are deep, you can reach them with downriggers for precise depth control. Another method to reach deep-water lakers is trolling a three-way rig. Tie a three-way swivel to your mainline and tie a three-ounce weight to a four-inch dropper from your swivel. Use a Flatfish, a Sutton Spoon, a Rebel Minnow, a Rapala, or other fish-imitating lure tied to two feet of leader. Lower the rig carefully to keep it from tangling before you start trolling.
Jennifer's first fish was a 20-inch laker that took the bait after Dana made a right turn. She reeled it in. We took a picture, slipped the hook out and watched it kick away.
It was early afternoon when she caught her second fish. The rod bounced when something snapped at the trailing nightcrawlers. Dana dropped the downrigger, making the plug dive. The fish, startled by the sudden change in direction, followed and struck again. This time, when the rod bounced, the tip stayed down. Jennifer took the rod.
That fish was 130 feet down when my ten-year-old Jennifer started fighting it. She pulled the rod high and reeled down to gain line, then did it again. For a time, the fish allowed itself to be reeled in, but when it was close to the boat it took off on another long run.
After ten minutes of head-shaking, arm-wrenching battle, Jennifer brought the fish to the surface again. Well over the 30-inch minimum length, the big fish weighed 17 pounds.
When she posed for pictures, Jennifer could hardly hold the big fish long enough for me to frame the picture and snap it. But her smile was equal to her struggle. Something tells me she doesn't think that mackinaw are as big a challenge as I did at her age.
Mention mackinaw to people that eat fish and you're liable to get mixed reactions. Some people don't like it. But the key to good-eating mackinaw is how you take care of it after you catch it. Don't put it on a stringer and drag it alongside your boat. Because summer water temperatures can reach 75 degrees or more at the surface, you are slowly cooking the fish before you clean it. Instead, bring a cooler and put your fish on ice right away.
Be sure to fillet your lake trout. Start with a sharp knife and cut fillets from each side of the fish. Next, trim the belly fat away and use it for crab bait or fertilizer. Then remove the skin from the fillet and make a V-cut to remove the layer of fat along the lateral line.
In many northwest lakes, the fortunes of lake trout are linked to the population of kokanee, those landlocked sockeye salmon on which they feed. In lakes where both species are found, you can target one species in the morning and the other in the afternoon, maximizing your time on the water. In fact, if you've been targeting macks, you've likely found the kokanee already.
A few years ago, we fished for kokanee in a popular lake in central Oregon. We found the fish in 50 feet of water off a rocky point, drifting ahead of a light breeze. Far off in the distance, lightning flashed. We counted to hear the thunder, calculating the distance at seven miles.
I paid out line and dropped my jig, letting it tumble and fall to the bottom then cranked it up a few feet and let it bounce. I imagined the kokanee below, watching my jig, turning away, then following it again.
Lighting flashed again and thunder rolled. Was it closer this time?
"Got one." It was Jeff with the triumphant grin and the bouncing rod. He played the fish up to the boat and Scott slid the net under it. Then it was my turn as my rod bent and danced with the fish beneath us. Kokanee came fast for a few minutes, sometimes following our lures all the way to the surface.
I reeled in to change lures. While my line was unencumbered it lifted off the water, in defiance of gravity, suspended in the air. Electricity arced from my graphite rod to the aluminum tube of the boat canopy.
"Hey," someone said, "my hair's standing on end." Lightning crackled across the sky. We broke our rods down and pointed the boat toward shore, praying that we could make it out of the water before a bolt from heaven made this our last fishing trip. My two kokanee would have to be enough for this night. An awesome light show, with thunderous accompaniment, lit up the snow-capped peaks until midnight.
Most summer kokanee trips aren't cut short by nature's electric fury. More often, a cooler full of fish marks the end of the day.
Kokanee travel and feed in schools of similar-sized fish and can be easy to catch when conditions are right. Full-grown, they average 12 to 18 inches. In lakes where kokanee are abundant, they may not grow as large due to the competition for food. Silver-sided, males turn red at spawning time while females turn gray or dark green. In September, sexually mature fish seek out inlet streams for spawning. Good fishing can be found in early September, where kokanee congregate, waiting for rain to swell the streams, making upstream passage easier.
The two most popular ways to fish for kokanee in the Northwest are trolling and jigging.
Whatever method you choose, lure action is very important. To achieve the optimum control, use a six to seven-foot medium action steelhead rod, and a level wind bait-casting reel equipped with six-pound line.
According to fishing tackle designer Dana Knepper, jigging is the most effective technique in the springtime on many waters. As the surface water warms, bigger fish will school in deeper water. This is when they become vulnerable to the angler armed with a jig.
The Buzz Bomb is one example of the types of jigs employed for kokanee. Common sizes are ¾ (three/fourths) ounce and one-ounce models. These jigs are made from lead or brass bodies and painted in different fish-catching colors. Fluorescent orange is one of the most popular finishes.
Knepper prefers the brass body of his own design, the Hexagon Hooker. He believes that the brass is key to catching more kokanee. Fishing the jig close to the bottom, the lure will tick on rocks. The ring of the brass striking stone gives a higher-pitched tone than a lead jig will produce, and this, Knepper asserts, is more attractive to kokanee.
When jigging for kokanee, the aim is to imitate a crippled baitfish. When the fish are feeding close to the bottom, drop the lure all the way, crank it up a few inches, then raise the rod tip 12 inches and let the jig flutter back down.
In deeper water, fluorescent and glow-in-the-dark paint schemes can make the difference between catching a few fish and "limiting-out." It can be dark down there, especially when the sun is at the wrong angle.
Many anglers switch to trolling in early summer when the larger fish are found in deeper water. A three-ounce "banana" sinker can be used to take your bait down to about 40 feet. Lead-core line is another option for serious kokanee trollers. A small Herring Dodger or Ford Fender should be used. Tie on a 24-inch leader followed by a lure like a small pink Rooster Tail. Or try a specialized kokanee lure like the Kok-A-Trolla or Crescent Fluorescent manufactured by Central Oregon Spinnerbaits. Bait the hook with a kernel of white corn.
In deep water, fluorescent and glow-in-the-dark paint schemes can make the difference between catching a few kokanee and "limiting-out." It can be dark down there, especially when the sun is not directly on the water. When trolling, make frequent changes in lure direction, speed, and depth. Sometimes the change in direction will spark a charge from an otherwise uninterested fish.
Whenever you lower your lure or bait over the side, make sure your hooks are sharp. If the fish can grab and let go without getting stuck, you probably won't have a chance at that one again. Sticky-sharp hooks will mean more fish brought to the net.
Many of the lakes that contain the biggest populations of kokanee also have a few big-bellied predators that keep them in check. That should be enough to electrify most fishermen. When you want to catch a trophy, troll deep and ring the dinner bell for a big mack. When you need to stock up on tasty meat, target kokanee.