Lake trout have a bad rap. Well-earned maybe, but lakers, or Mackinaw trout, are a fish prone to doing bad things when introduced to new places. They grow to enormous size. They eat lots of other fish, often the most scarce and rare natives. And since they spend most of their time in the deepest reaches of any water they inhabit, lake trout are rarely available as food for native predators such as eagles or grizzly bears.
But maybe their most undesirable trait is that they possess a fecundity matched in nature only by the wanton ways of the Georgetown University law student. These trout spawn in big schools, underwater orgies if you will, with females broadcasting thousands of eggs across rocky bottoms and any male with the urge (and they all have the urge) swimming in to fertilize them.
Imagine Rush Limbaugh’s fury if he learned we were subsidizing the behavior of these salmonids by paying for their birth control? After all, Mack Days, the twice-a-year derby that awards cash prizes to anglers who kill as many as 100 lake trout a day, is really just a fishy version of the morning-after pill.
It was the impending derby opener that had me out on Flathead Lake recently, scouting some spots with a serious Mack Days competitor. Technology is the key to putting a lot of fish in the boat, and numbers, rather than big fish, are the key to big payoffs at Mack Days. My friend’s boat was equipped with the now ubiquitous GPS enabled fish finder. This allowed us to motor right up to his favorite spots. Once in place, he dropped his bow-mounted trolling motor in the water and the GPS equipped anchorless system held us right on top of the honey hole. We dropped jigs tipped with a bit of cut bait down to the bottom, anywhere from 220 to 280 feet. No-stretch braided line is a must for deep jigging. With it you can feel your jig tapping the bottom at 300 feet.
While trolling Flatfish on downriggers is the preferred method for boating trophy lake trout, jigging targets smaller, more numerous fish. Big trout are actually a nuisance for Mack Days competitors. Rather than spend 20 minutes dealing with a 20-pounder, derby competitors would rather boat a dozen smaller fish as each increases the likelihood of a cash payout.
It’s not the most challenging fishing in the world. You’ve got to have a good feel for the sometimes-delicate strikes. But once you pull the fish off the bottom their swim bladders begin to inflate and by the time you get them to the surface they’re usually belly up. To release these fish you have to either deflate the bladder by inserting a horse needle in the abdomen, or, and this is the preferred method, by connecting the fish to a heavy jig or downrigger weight via a barbless hook, and quickly sending them back down to the depths where pressure deflates the swim bladder. Then you shake them loose.
But Mack Days is all about killing fish in an attempt to slow the growth of the lake trout population, and hopefully give Flathead’s native bull trout a shot at recovery.
There’s another bonus to small lake trout, say 5 pounds or less, that jigging tends to produce. These fish nosh on a diet of mysis shrimp. Unlike the pale, fatty flesh of fish-eating trophy lakers, the filets that come off these “little” fish are bright red and salmon like. The tempting flesh soon had me cooking up a pot of sushi rice for nigiri, despite the conventional wisdom that raw freshwater fish is to be avoided. That was followed by battered fish tacos and smoked lake trout. It was an omega 3 party around my place for a good week.
Are lake trout bad fish? Put them in the wrong place under the wrong set of ecological conditions and they can wreak havoc. But any animal that carries a wisp of alder smoke to the palate as delicately as this can’t be all bad.
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