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Top-Lining Tahoe's Trout

Top-Lining Tahoe's Trout

Winter is the best time to catch big mackinaws and rainbows near the surface of this magnificent lake. (January 2009)

It's midwinter, and the world-famous resorts ringing the Tahoe basin are packed with skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. There are lines for the craps tables. The slope-side bars are standing-room-only, and the hotels all have their "No Vacancy" signs lit.

The lake itself is empty, though, except for a few gritty dedicated anglers who are toughing out the cold and enjoying some of the most exciting fishing Tahoe has to offer.

Sure, summer fishing for mackinaw in 100 to 250 feet of water is fun, but it's not exactly pulse-pounding. You'll occasionally hook a double-digit fish that will give you a battle. But the typical 3- to 5-pounders aren't exactly drag-burners when hooked on a long line in deep water.

But winter fishing at Tahoe is a whole different story.

The cold surface water brings the mackinaw up from the depths to eat minnows and crawfish in the shallows. Big wild browns and rainbows feed aggressively right alongside them.

Hands down, the most productive tactic is trolling diving plugs or rigged night crawlers or minnows on long, light lines in just 10 to 80 feet of water.


Locally known as "toplining," this style of surface trolling yields violent strikes and white-knuckle touch-and-go battles with huge trout.

But it's not only the fishing itself that makes Tahoe exciting in the winter. Even calm, sunny winter mornings on the water are cold, but the best fishing days are blustery and overcast, often with a two-foot wind-chop and flurries of snow. At 6,225 feet, this is truly hardcore fishing, but the payoffs can be tremendous.

There are two basic approaches to toplining Tahoe:

1) Trolling very slowly with rigged night crawlers, live minnows or lures behind dodgers or flashers, or

2) Trolling somewhat faster with diving plugs, swimbaits or spoons.

Toplining master Mike Nielsen of the guide service Tahoe Topliners -- who has put 11 Tahoe browns over 10 pounds on his boat, including the current lake record of 15 pounds, 2 ounces -- prefers the latter method.

He drags a wide variety of plugs, including Bomber Long As, Rebel Minnows in the F40 size, Rebel Jointed Fastracs, AC Skinnies, Rapala Original and Jointed minnows in 11-, 13- and 18-centimeter sizes, Rapala Shad Raps and Cotton Cordell Grappler Shads.

Nielsen runs a range of colors, favoring "natural" patterns like rainbow and brown-trout imitations, black-silver (to imitate Tahoe's abundant kokanee), black-gold and blue-silver. Frequently he adds a predominantly orange or chartreuse plug to his spread, too.

The old adage of "Big bait, big fish" certainly holds true at Tahoe. Lure size plays a major role in how many fish you catch and how big they'll be.

Trolling smaller plugs -- Rapala F11s and F13s, smaller Shad Raps and Grappler Shads -- produces more hookups, but smaller fish, at least by Tahoe standards.

Occasionally, a big fish will grab a small lure, but if you're serious about pursuing wallhangers, Nielsen said to go with larger lures in the 6- to 8-inch range, such as Long As, AC Skinnies or even the large trout-patterned swimbaits popular for largemouth bass in Southern California.

Bites come more slowly, but your chances of hooking a real monster are far better.

Lake Tahoe lies at 6,225 feet, so in winter, even a calm sunny morning can be bitterly cold. Bring warm clothes and reliable PFDs.
Photo by Zack Thomas.

Scent is extremely important at Tahoe, and every local expert has a favorite commercially available formula or a homemade cocktail -- usually a mixture of one or more commercial scents, with a few secret ingredients.

Nielsen uses Pautzke Liquid Krill, slathering it on every plug before it hits the water.

Another skilled topliner, Gerald Scholl of Sierra Fin Addicts guide service, favors trolling rigged minnows or worms on 18- to 24-inch leaders of 6-pound fluorocarbon behind small dodgers and flashers.

He rigs minnows on size 6 or 8 Gamakatsu Extra-Wide-Gap treble hooks, using a standard rigging needle. One point of the treble is buried near the anal vent and the leader passes through the mouth. Worms are rigged on size 4 or 6 bait-holder-style single hooks.

Scholl favors the lightweight dodgers and flashers from Sep's Pro Fishing, which are designed specifically for ultralight tackle.

Specifically, he likes Pro Dodgers in the 4-inch size in watermelon and silver with silver prism tape, Sidekick Dodgers in the same colors and, in the large size, silver with silver prism Colorado-blade Pro Flashers.

Similar rigs from other manufacturers also work well.

Minnows used for bait on Tahoe must be caught from the lake. You can easily trap them with commercially available wire minnow traps, baited with dry dog food or cat food.

One popular spot to catch bait is the boulder bottoms off Sand Point just south of the Sand Harbor boat ramp and off the point forming the southern headland of Emerald Bay. But almost any boulder-bottomed area in 15 to 40 feet of water will work.

If you don't have a baitwell, freshly dead minnows are virtually as effective as live ones, especially behind dodgers, which give them plenty of action.

Scholl also uses Berkley Gulp! Earthworms in the brown color almost interchangeably with live worms.

Scent figures big in his technique, too. Scholl uses a variety of formulas, especially Pro-Cure's Anise Crawfish scent and Smelly Jelly's salmon egg scent. He uses them on plugs, dodgers and on the keels of flasher rigs.

Presentation, of course, is just as important as lure and bait selection. For Tahoe toplining, Rule No. 1 is

to use ridiculously light leaders.

Even though you're targeting powerful wild trout that frequently exceed 10 pounds, 6- or 8-pound leaders are a must in Tahoe's famously clear water.

Yes, on those light leaders, you'll lose a lot of fish. But with heavier leaders, you won't even hook them in the first place. Eight-pound is a good starting point, but if you're not getting bites, step down to 6-pound.

Sunny days and calm water typically require 6-pound, while you can likely get away with 8 and maybe even 10 in choppy, overcast conditions.

On his bait rigs, Scholl uses 6-pound fluorocarbon leaders exclusively.

Long limber rods are best suited to protecting such fragile leaders while fighting big fish.

Salmon/steelhead-type rods in the 8- to 9-foot range are ideal.

Reels should have extremely smooth drags. You don't need a lot of drag pressure, but a sticky or inconsistent drag will snap a leader before you can say, "Fish on!"

Either a spinning or a casting reel will work, but for toplining Tahoe, line capacity is much more a concern than for most other types of freshwater fishing. When trolling plugs, you may have out as much as 100 to 130 yards of line when a strike comes, and you'll be fishing with a fairly light drag. So you need a reel that can hold a good 250 yards of whatever main line you've chosen.

For trolling plugs, Nielsen and Scholl both prefer baitcasters loaded with 20-pound braided main line and a topshot of 100 feet of 8-pound mono.

For trolling baits, where line capacity isn't as important, Scholl uses spinning reels loaded with straight 8-pound mono.

Trolling with extremely long lines is just as important as using light leaders.

Nielsen runs the lures on his two outboard lines 300 to 400 feet behind the boat. His inboard lines are shorter -- about 100 feet. Likewise, Scholl runs his lures about 300 feet back, but trolls baits rigged behind dodgers or flashers about 100 feet back.

Especially if you use straight monofilament rather than braided line with a mono topshot, such long lines make it critical to get the rod out of the holder, wind the stretch out of the line and set the hook quickly. Otherwise, you'll lose a lot of fish to shaken hooks.

With dodgers and flashers, Scholl trolls very slowly -- between 1 and 1 1/2 miles per hour. With lures, he pushes the speed up to about 3 1/2 mph, the same speed that Nielsen likes for "general-purpose" trolling.

When Nielsen targets big browns specifically, he trolls as fast as 5 or 6 mph. As when dragging larger lures, the faster trolling speed reduces the number of strikes -- but it seems to favor the trophy-size fish that are accustomed to chasing down smaller trout and kokanee.

In winter, nearly all toplining is done in 80 feet of water or less -- and sometimes in as little as 10.

Scholl, for instance, who primarily fishes the northeastern part of the lake, likes to troll his baits or lures as close to the rocks as he can, typically zigzagging between about 12 and 30 feet of water.

Along most of the northeastern shore, the gradient is very steep, so Scholl believes it's important to troll lines rigged with dodgers -- which run shallower than flashers -- on the side of the boat closest to the shore and flashers on the offshore side. That way, he can keep all lines as close to the bottom as possible.

Nielsen fishes mainly the western and southern shores that generally don't drop off quite as steeply. Most often, he concentrates on 30- to 40-foot depths and sometimes fishes all the way out to 80 feet.

There is no magic depth, though. You can find fish at different depths and in different parts of the water column as they follow favorable water conditions and food sources.

Unfortunately, the only way to find them on any given day is to experiment. Unless you have reliable information about where the fish have been in recent days, zigzag in and out and troll lures at different depths until a pattern becomes apparent.

Keep a close eye on your sounder, too. Locating game fish with a sounder is easier on Tahoe than on most other lakes because there's little else in the water column to confuse them with.

Another key to increasing your strike rate is maximizing the width of your trolling spread, the number of baits and the number of lures in the water. You'll likely be fishing in 40-degree water, so it's important to put your offering close to the fish. The wider the swath of water you can cover, the better.

For topliners, a second rod stamp is a sound investment. Tahoe straddles the Nevada-California line, and a license from either state is good for fishing anywhere on the lake. Both states offer second rod stamps, which allow any one angler to fish two rods.

Trolling two lines instead of one -- or four instead of two -- not only doubles your chances of putting a lure or bait within striking distance of a hungry fish. It also gives you more leeway to experiment with running depths, colors and sizes.

To cut a wider swath, Nielsen use 15-foot saltwater-style outriggers for his outboard lines. But for the average angler, the simplest approach is the one Scholl favors: Just point your forward rod-holders directly out away from the boat and parallel with the surface.

Using a boat 8 feet wide and 8-foot rods, your two outrigger lures will be 20 to 22 feet apart.

Regardless of how many lines you troll and how you spread them, each angler on board should be "ripping" one of them.

Ripping is a term coined by trophy brown trout specialists in the West for sweeping the rod tip forward and then letting it fall back, rhythmically, to make the lure surge ahead and then nearly stop. It's a proven method for triggering strikes from big browns, but it also works for Tahoe's mackinaw and rainbows.

One of the most challenging aspects of fishing Tahoe is its sheer size.

Along its 72 miles of shoreline, where do you start?

In the winter months, almost any one of those 72 miles can produce fish. The mackinaw and browns have finished their fall spawns, and the rainbows haven't yet started to prepare for their spring spawn. So all three species are widely distributed around the lake.

In winter, your choice of fishing grounds may be limited by weather and by where you can launch.

The ramps at Cave Rock and Sand Harbor on the eastern shore are often your only options.

Fortunately, the stretches of shoreline between Sand Harbor and Incline Village and just to the north of Cave Rock are both good bets for winter toplining. Other proven stretches are those around Dead Man's Point, Meeks Bay, Rubicon Point, Sunnyside, Dollar Point and Brockway.

Underwater humps and rockpiles, abrupt dropoffs, points and holes all concentrate fish, but Nielsen cautions against passing up seemingly featureless sandy bottoms because many of his best fish have come from sandy-bottom bays.

There's no question that winter toplining on Tahoe isn't for everyone. It takes grit, wits and a good bit of patience. But when you tie into a 10-pound brown or 20-pound mackinaw for the first time, you'll be just as hooked is it is.

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