By Steve Brown
Anvil Draw, Mustang Ridge, Linwood Bay, Swim Beach — to a Flaming Gorge mackinaw fisherman these names conjure up images of head-shaking, rod-pounding battles with a water-bound bull. There is nothing subtle about a lake trout. Hang one over 30 pounds on light tackle and the adrenaline rush is unparalleled. Thirty-pound fish have become the yardstick by which a decent mack fisherman is measured. How many over thirty...? is a common follow-up question when laker fishermen get back to the dock.
Flaming Gorge produces the best crop of trophy-class lake trout of any lake in the lower 48 states. Sure, there are lakers in other waters from east to west, but nowhere will you find the resident population as large and cooperative as within the 90 miles or so of azure blue water that is Flaming Gorge.
Management philosophies have changed over the years as the Flaming Gorge’s food base has evolved. The chub was the primary forage fish for lake trout until the mid 80’s when a combination of laker predation and a changing environment caused chub numbers to crash. Kokanee salmon have now become the basic prey and recent trend studies indicate lake trout growth is rebounding from some down years in the early ‘90s. In short, the lakers like salmon even better than chub.
Anglers have had to adjust to new regulations as well over the past 5 years. In 1994, Utah dropped the 2 fish, none between 26-and-36 inch regulation. The new limit is 3 fish with one over 28 inches, but no slot limit. The old limit allowed just one fish over 36 inches.
The more liberal regulation wasn’t without controversy. Wyoming kept the old standard until 1996 and for those two seasons, anglers found themselves in the midst of a state tug-of-war. Recent surveys show the intent of the regulation change is being achieved. Roger Schneidervin, Utah DWR biologist at Dutch John, says the new growth on lakers points to more healthy fish. There may be a hole where the 40 pounders would normally fall for the next few years, but Schneidervin says there appears to be room to stock more kokanee salmon without the fear of them stunting. As he points out, aside from continued great kokanee fishing, that means more food for the macks.
A popular maxim has it that 100 hours of fishing are required for each trophy laker. Don’t you believe it. If your heart is set on landing one of the Gorge’s monsters, it only requires some patience and a willingness to get into your wallet. Like any other body of water, Flaming Gorge has large areas of unproductive water, or at least water where no self-respecting lake trout will live. Conversely there are much smaller areas that provide perfect laker habitat — a healthy population of forage, holding areas and ample ambush points. Your challenge is to find these relatively small areas in a huge lake, locate the fish in them and offer just the right bait with the right presentation at the appropriate time.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds, provided you do your homework or enroll in laker school. My suggestion is hire a guide!!!! Its the best investment you’ll make when it comes to chasing record lake trout for the first time. You’ll spend a couple of hundred dollars for a 4 hour trip for two people but that’s cheap tuition for a degree in where and how to fish for macks.
Trophy fish don’t get that way by accident, and Flaming Gorge macks take 20 years or more to grow to bragging-class proportions. Fooling a 20 year-old fish is no easy task. Techniques vary with each guide but most veteran mack fishermen employ one of two or three methods of angling. Steel or copper line is one of the oldest Gorge techniques. It consists of dragging a large Flatfish, Rapala or similar fish-imitating lure through a school of fish until one finally has had enough and thumps the offender. Steel line allows the angler to fish right along the bottom with the lure rooting through the rocks and sagebrush, but in order to get the lure right on the bottom great lengths of line are required. During certain times of year, mack runs can be jammed with dozens of boats. Maneuvering through the maze with a hundred or more yards of line behind your boat can be frustrating for long-liners and those not fishing steel.
Downriggers have quickly become the equipment of choice at Flaming Gorge. They allow for much more control of the lure as the ball takes the offering down without the need for all that line behind the boat. With downriggers, anglers can troll over the top of a school and turn quickly, keeping the lure in the potential strike zone much longer. Many boats can work a small area with downriggers and keep out of each others way.
Jigging is another effective mack technique. After locating a school of fish, a vertical jig is bounced virtually off their heads until a fish decides to forcibly remove the irritant. Most mack strikes are annoyance strikes, no matter the method used to fish for them. Like the proverbial fly at the picnic, sooner or later someone or something will snap. Jigging is perhaps the most effective harassment method available.
In the late ‘80s, Flaming Gorge mack fishermen discovered a new downrigging technique. It wasn’t really new, having been used for salmon along the west coast for years, but it hadn’t been tried for lake trout. The flasher and squid approach has changed mack fishing forever. Large flashers or dodgers are attached to a swivel, followed by about 4 feet of heavy leader. At the end is a rubber-skirted hood that resembled a small squid. As the rig is pulled behind a downrigger, the flasher rotates in circles, dragging the squid in a larger arc behind it. Gorge lakers find it all but irresistible.
The early flasher and squid anglers had a field day. These fish had never seen such a bait and their response was predictable. A decade later, the flasher and squid remains my favorite mack technique. In this case, familiarity with the method continues to breed lake trout contempt.
Flaming Gorge macks will bite year-round. Ice fishing has produced its fair share of trophy-class fish. Want a thrill? Try landing a 25-pounder through an 8 or 10-inch auger hole. Just after ice-out is one of the best times of year for the biggest and most fish. There’s about a one week window at the end of March or first of April when the fish are highly aggressive. At that time, Cedar Springs Marina owner Bob Linville likes to use a huge wooden plug called a Slammer. He swears by it and has pictures to prove its effectiveness. Linville says the southern end of the lake doesn’t always ice over, so most ice-out opportunities are up north.
July is a good month for numbers, but the fish don’t run as big as in the early spring. In September fish begin to stack for the spawn and females carrying eggs will bend the scales to record levels. The spawn takes place in October and November and can produce very good fishing in certain areas.
Post-spawn fish provide good action during the fall. Needlefish or other small spoons can often produce on a brisk autumn day.
So don’t put away the fishing rod for the rifle or shotgun just yet. There’s still plenty of time to land one of Flaming Gorge’s monster macks.