Numbers, size and good diets: There’s no better way to rate the best waters for Colorado lakers.
Colorado is a world-class trout destination with 14 waters designated as Gold Medal trout waters by the Colorado Parks & Wildlife department.
Anglers travel here from around the globe to test their skill on brown, rainbow and native cutthroat trout each year. Less known, but equally phenomenal, are the monster lake trout, or Mackinaw, that swim the cold, deep lakes and reservoirs of the high country. Some 30 Colorado lakes hold fishable populations of “Macks” making it difficult to select only five as top destinations.
But two are stand-outs — Blue Mesa and Granby lakes. Selecting three more to round out the top-5 fishing destinations in Colorado for Macks becomes a subjective issue. Based on discussions with guides and outfitters, as well as interviews with the CPW officials, Taylor Lake, Green Mountain Reservoir and Twin Lakes qualify as well as any lakes to be included in the top-5 Mackinaw lakes in Colorado.
WHAT DO WE HAVE
AND HOW DO WE FIND THEM?
Mackinaw are char, not trout. As such, they are among the more aggressive members of the Salmonidae family of fishes. Depending upon diet, they are a slow-growing fish that prefers water temperatures colder than trout — 55 degrees seems to be the upper comfort level for lakers. DJ Zimmerman, owner and guide of Fish Head Outdoors (phone: 719-696-1089 or online at ColoradoAdrenalineFishing.com), is a Colorado laker expert.
He told me Macks can be found from the depths to shallow shorelines, wherever their prey is located, as long as water temps don’t exceed 55 degrees. By June, they tend to migrate to deep waters. In any lake, they may feed on kokanee, suckers, perch or trout. Kokanee usually congregate in deep water while the other prey species tend to inhabit shallower waters, so Mackinaws may be found at different depths especially in lakes with lots of kokanee.
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Prime-time fishing for Macks occurs in early spring from ice-out to early summer, during late fall, and under winter ice when water temperatures are colder. Even the largest Mackinaw may cruise the shallower waters as ice recedes and again late in the fall as surface temperatures begin to fall. This is the best time for shore fishermen to score on trophy lakers. Ice fishermen take many big lakers throughout the winter where fishing seasons are open.
But as lakes warm in the summer sunshine, Macks move to deeper, cooler water and may be found as deep as 200 feet. It is then difficult to effectively pursue them without expensive, dedicated boats and equipment to find the fish and get effective lures down to them. June becomes a transition period which can be a hit-or-miss situation for trophy lakers most likely taken while deep trolling or vertical jigging.
A lake’s population of Mackinaw are also subject to an anomaly that defines the size of individual fish. As smaller fish, they feed on typical trout forage — insects, small fish, crayfish. However, this limited protein forage precludes them from growing large, and some, not all, eventually switch to a diet of larger fish. These fish will grow much larger and more quickly than others that seldom grow longer than 25 inches.
Zimmerman recommends shoreline casting or trolling with big stickbaits like Rapalas, Huskyjerks, or Rattling Rogues and Flatfish where the prime forage is likely to be trout. He also recommends large spoons, like Daredevils, in fish colors or bright shiny finishes. Jigs should run from around 3 inches long to big 7- to 10-inch tube jigs that run from 1/4-ounce to 2 ounces in weight. Moody fish can be selective on any given day, but Zimmerman considers white to be a dominant lure color. He says to be sure hooks are strong enough for large fish.
Lake trout guru Bernie Keefe owns Fishing with Bernie guide service (phone: 970-531-2318 or online at FishingWithBernie.com). Most of his lake trout fishing taking place on Lake Granby. His philosophy is that not all Mackinaw lakes have a good summer bite. He uses online tools to research lakes to identify those that fish well in the summer. Unlike others, Bernie doesn’t necessarily focus on the forage base; rather, he looks for large fish populations, fishing reports, and forums to find lakes that fish well in hot summer weather.
Each of the top-5 lakes presented here were selected based upon the numbers and size of Mackinaw caught over the years and its resources for good Mackinaw diets. The most important factors in Mackinaw size and numbers include lake structure and population density, but the forage base — the type and availability — is the primary determinant of the size potential for individual fish. In Colorado, Mackinaw seem to grow larger where they can dine on kokanee salmon. Suckers, yellow perch and trout are also important components in Mackinaw diet.
Two hours southwest from Denver, the 2,700-acre Twin Lakes are located in the heart of Colorado’s spectacular “Fourteener Country” (14,000-foot peaks) near Leadville. Named for two glacial lakes in the valley floor, the lakes were enlarged to provide water storage for Colorado’s Front Range. (Mount Elbert Forebay and Turquoise Lakes, also great mackinaw destinations, are nearby in this historic Leadville locale.)
Aquatic biologist Mike Atwood of the CPW told me the local laker population is down a little, but fish size is increasing annually. Currently, the average length of Twin Lakes lake trout is 19 inches, but fish in the 40-inch class aren’t rare. Fishing reports indicate that June and July anglers find Mackinaw commonly hiding in the depths, but big fish will cruise the 50- to 55-degree shallows in pursuit of trout and suckers overnight and early in the morning. Rapala lures imitating rainbow or brown trout are a good choice then.
Atwood says the Mack’s more comfortable water temperatures of about 49 degrees are found in June in water 20 to 30 feet deep. He has caught late-spring lakers when the upper lake dumps turbid runoff water into the lower lake by fishing the edge of turbid and clear water. He says the lakers hide in the discolored water to ambush prey.
Zimmerman says the lower lake inlet, near the hydropower plant, and around submerged rock piles are good areas to locate fish. Flume Point is a likely area for big fish. Robby Richardson of Sportfish Colorado (phone: 719-649-3378 or online at SportFishColorado.com) recommends trolling deep water along shelves, using downriggers and rainbow-trout colored lures or using deep-water jigs tipped with sucker meat. No boat ramps means boats must be carried to the water.
GREEN MOUNTAIN RESERVOIR
CPW has put in place a management objective to provide a quality Mackinaw fishery at Green Mountain Reservoir, a 2,125-acre reservoir on the Blue River, about 13 miles south of Kremmling.
Nate Zelinski, owner and guide with Tightline Outdoors (phone: 720-775-7770 or online at TightlineOutdoors.com), says the Blue River channel cuts 80 to 100 feet deep down the center of the reservoir and is surrounded by flats from 20 to 60 feet deep. He says fishing pressure is low, and there are a lot of big fish.
An overabundance of small Mackinaw in poor condition led the agency in 2011 to increase the Green Mountain daily creel limit to eight fish. At that time, Macks longer than 24 inches were observed in good condition, and gill-net surveys in 2015 showed numbers of lakers longer than 24 inches had significantly increased. CPW aquatic biologist Jon Ewert says the state also stopped stocking trout and kokanee salmon because of a gill-lice infestation. As a result, it appears, Mackinaw are hungrier and more willing to bite. However, the weight of lakers has degraded as the forage base is largely suckers, which yields fewer calories than kokanee.
TAYLOR PARK RESERVOIR
Taylor Park Reservoir provides a great fishing experience in picturesque Taylor Park. It is located about 30 miles northeast of Gunnison in an isolated high-elevation basin surrounded by spectacular peaks. Aquatics biologist Dan Brauch of the CPW says the agency manages this 2,000-acre lake for big Mackinaws. Kokanee are stocked to provide a forage base for the lakers. Rainbow and brown trout, and a growing yellow perch population, also provide forage for the Macks.
DJ Zimmerman says Taylor is one of a few lakes that provide good laker fishing through June, especially if there is a cool spring. Taylor is one of the best for trophy fish, he says, and many large fish are taken in the upper end of the reservoir at the Taylor River inlet and also right in front of the marina. The Taylor Park Trading Post just off the lake offers cabins, a restaurant, and other goods — a welcome opportunity is this isolated area.
Lake Granby, at approximately 7,000 acres when full, is one of the largest coldwater reservoirs in the state, located 95 miles northwest of Denver in one of Colorado’s busiest tourist centers. Ewert says it is probably the most productive Mackinaw fishery in Colorado. Positive reproduction conditions have created large numbers of smaller fish. In order to maintain a favorable predator-prey relationship, fishermen are encouraged to harvest full limits of smaller Mackinaw. The kokanee population is currently facing problems with predation, and dense mysis shrimp numbers are depleting the zooplankton upon which kokanee feed.
Ewert says great fish habitat here includes lots of humps, cliffs, basins and a great diversity of structure. The many structural depths, he adds, create a variety of water temperature levels and perfect sites for downrigging with big spoons or rainbow-trout imitating jigs.
BLUE MESA RESERVOIR
The best fishing destination for Mackinaws in the U.S., arguably, is Colorado’s largest lake at some 9,600 acres in size. Just west of Gunnison on the Gunnison River, Blue Mesa Reservoir offers every attribute for producing a plentitude of trophy lakers. Well-fed, these fish are extremely fat. Colorado’s state record Mackinaw —50.35 pounds and almost 45 inches long — was taken here in 2007.
Besides perfect habitat for Macks, Blue Mesa offers an extremely diverse forage base. A solid kokanee population is complemented by a healthy community of rainbow and brown trout, suckers, and yellow perch. In fact, different tastes may find lakers feeding at different depths at the same time as they dine on different fare.
Zimmerman and Zelinsky agree that most lakers will likely be found in summer in the depths of the Blue Mesa’s westernmost basins — Cebolla and Sapinero. Check local fishing regulations for the latest size limits. Mackinaw predation recently endangered kokanee salmon numbers, leading CPW to liberalize catch limits on fish less than 32 inches long. Blue Mesa guides highly endorse catch-and-release fishing for all fish longer than 28 inches. Boat ramps, marinas and access points are plentiful.
IF YOU GO
While winter, fall, and early spring are opportune times for shore anglers to score on trophy lakers, June through September are really the dog days of summer when lakers generally burrow into the great depths of our lakes. As a result, greater success is usually awarded to anglers with top quality, high-tech equipment. The task at hand is to first explore the lake bottom, locate the fish, and then get your bait or lure down to the proper depth. Without a doubt, the best option would be to hire a guide for a day or two before trying to solve these problems on your own.