A mysterious predator lurks deep in the darkest, coolest depths of a handful of Idaho lakes. They are seldom sought after or well understood by most anglers, but every winter a handful of monsters are pulled through the ice, and I giggle with excitement when I see the photos.
I’m talking about lake trout, or as I like to call them, mackinaws (named after Mackinac Island in my home state of Michigan).
Lake trout often are overlooked by Idaho anglers for a variety of understandable reasons. They are relatively rare, especially compared to popular species such as rainbows and cutthroats. And the majority are caught from boats or through the ice, which eliminates a percentage of the angling community.
Regretfully, I’m in the majority on this one — I’m far from a mackinaw expert. In fact, I’ve only caught one — a 2-pounder I caught in the South Fork Snake River right below Palisades Reservoir in eastern Idaho. The year before that, I lost perhaps the biggest fish of my life in the same spot. It was a true monster that destroyed my light spinning rod and 8-pound test. I never got eyes on that beast, but I suspect it, too, was a mackinaw that had washed through the dam.
As you set your fishing calendar and goals for 2016, consider adding lake trout to the bucket list. It’s definitely on my radar. Here are some fun facts and figures to get you fired up for mackinaw fishing:
Misleading name: Mackinaw actually aren’t a trout at all — they are a member of the char family. It’s a minor detail, as char, trout and salmon all share similar traits. In fact, mackinaws are one of three char species commonly referred to as “trout.” Brook trout and bull trout are the other two. If you Google pictures of all three, it’s easy to see the resemblance.
Lake monsters: Mackinaws are big fish that routinely reach 10 to 20 pounds or more. The state record is a whopping 57.5-pounder caught in north Idaho’s Priest Lake. To put that number in perspective, it’s more than double the size of any rainbow, brown or cutthroat ever caught in the Gem State. In the Great Lakes and Canada, legends of 100-pound specimens abound. The current mackinaw rod-and-reel world record is 72 pounds.
Apex predators: Mackinaws forage almost exclusively on other fish. Perch, chubs, suckers and trout are popular prey species, but virtually anything that swims is on the menu. Thus, catching them requires using fish-imitating lures. Large spoons in silver and blue, silver and green or gold are popular choices, as are tube jigs, hair jigs and soft plastic minnows in silver or white with a dash of color.
Deep dwellers: During the warm months, mackinaws dwell in the deepest, coldest water they can find. The only way to fish for them is to deep troll or jig those pockets using a fish finder. Mackinaw are caught in shallower water — occasionally even from shore — during spring and fall, and they are active throughout the water column in winter, which makes them a prime target for ice fishermen.
The closest places to try for lake trout are Payette Lake and Warm Lake. Palisades and Bear Lake (eastern Idaho) and Priest and Pend Oreille lakes (north Idaho) are known for producing big mackinaws. Give it a go, and there’s a good chance you might catch the biggest fish of your life.
Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing Idaho waters since he was a teen. Share your fish stories, adventures, tips and tricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.