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Mackinaw fishermen give silent treatment
By Karl Licis, Special to the Rocky Mountain News Published November 4, 2008 at 8:14 p.m.
About the only thing more secretive than a mackinaw is a mackinaw fisherman, and the lake-trout chasers of Lake County are no different.

"They're a pretty tight-lipped lot, but they do catch them," said Greg Policky, the Colorado Division of Wildlife's fisheries biologist charged with managing waters of the upper Arkansas River basin.

Some of the more hard-core - and, reportedly, more-successful - mackinaw devotees ply their trade under the cover of darkness. A belly boat, by moonlight, might be standard equipment for some, along with an assortment of tube jigs complete with strips of sucker meat, anise oil or other assorted potions that seemingly could have come from some Halloween witch's cauldron.

Others prefer a large, diving Rapala-like crankbait smothered with shad or shrimp scent, or a magnum- sized Dardevle.

Though some of the tales might be tall as Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, others have considerable merit. Long-lived mackinaw are the largest members of the trout/char family and a worthy challenge for any trophy fisherman. Catching them through much of the year calls for specialized skills and techniques, and the pursuit can become an obsession - as if for some land-locked Captain Ahab chasing somewhat smaller whales.

But as the man said, they do catch them. Mackinaw, also called lake trout, can be taken year-round, and though consistency might require some dedication and study, more-casual fishermen also can have their days.

Either way, with Turquoise Reservoir, Twin Lake and the Mount Elbert Forebay, Lake County offers an interesting variety of possibilities.

Policky's population sampling indicates an abundance of lake trout in Turquoise. Most are small - less than 20 inches - but are relatively easy to catch. Anglers hoping to land a comparatively rare fish should have plenty of opportunities at Turquoise.

Typically, the lakers are in shallow water early and late in the season. The south and east shorelines usually are productive for shoreline fishermen in late fall and early spring. Sometime in June, the mackinaw move into deeper water and deep-trolling gear usually is necessary.

Turquoise usually is the first to ice over, and ice fishing can be another productive approach for catching mackinaw. Jigs tipped with sucker meat are standard fare among mackinaw ice fishermen.

The bag and possession limit for lake trout at Turquoise is two fish.

Twin Lakes offers somewhat better odds for larger fish. Policky reports the mackinaw fishery is coming back, after a decline in the late 1990s. Don't expect to catch one every day - or every season - but fish approaching 40 inches are becoming more common, according to the biologist. Even so, the average is about 20 inches.

Early and late in the season, likely areas for finding mackinaw are the vicinity of the hydropower plant and the area where the upper lake enters the lower. Casting Rapalas from shore can be effective as anything. The south shore of the lower lake also can be productive, especially through the ice.

During the warmer months, the mackinaw move into deeper water. Deep-trolling with Flatfish or Rapalas, or vertical jigging with sucker-tipped tube jigs, is the way to go.

The lake-trout bag and possession limit at Twin Lakes and the Mount Elbert Forebay is one fish. All mackinaw 22-34 inches in length must immediately be returned to the water.

The forebay, above Twin Lakes, might be the sleeper of the lot and, perhaps fittingly, the least well known. It covers about 250 acres and regularly receives water pumped back from operation of the power plant on Lower Twin Lake.

Policky's data indicates the forebay has the most abundant population of mackinaw in the region and routinely produces some of the best catches of large lake trout. Though the average is about 17 inches, some exceed 40.

A rock structure along the south shore attracts mackinaw, especially in spring and fall. Spawning lake trout still are in shallow water and likely to remain there another week or two.

They'll also be in the shallows in spring, but they might never have left. With pumping continuing through the winter, the forebay rarely forms a solid ice cover. Skims of ice might form during cold nights, but as a rule, open water soon reappears.