Wanna catch trophy Colorado lakers? The action is heating up at these Centennial State waters.
By Roger Wheaton
Colorado is a blue-chip destination for trophy lakers, which inhabit some 30 lakes or reservoirs within the state
Several have a large population of these outsized fish, and they are an important recreation base for Centennial State anglers.
There are numerous dedicated fishermen and guides that pursue lake trout with a passion. Although shore fishermen can have success, it is a fairly short seasonal opportunity.
Consistent success stalking big lakers is an equipment-rich sport requiring boats, trolling gear, a wide variety of lures, sophisticated lake maps and a top quality fish-finder.
Ice-fishing and ice-out are prime times for lakers, but Nate Zelinsky of Tightline Outdoors tells me that early June or July can also be productive. As water temperatures climb, lake trout start migration to deeper water.
In the summer, fishing becomes more difficult as they descend deeply into the lakes. However, Granby laker guru and veteran guide Bernie Keefe said he considers July one of the most consistent months of the year. Fish are less pressured, as there are fewer boats congregating on the deep locations. And his may be the only boat on one of those small hotspots.
Keefe said some lakes continue to fish well during summer's dog days.
Do your homework to find lakes that generate fishing reports of consistent success, visit with local guides and you may find good dog day fishing.
Keefe sees no particular pattern that promises hot weather success. He only jigs for lakers and has perfected this skill to pure art. Keefe told me he never trolls because it is boring and takes the fisherman out of the game. Jigging fishermen become personally involved as they develop the skill to detect strikes and set the hook. One may get 15 to 20 opportunities a day, and 3 to 5 hook-ups is a good percentage. In his experience, some fish suspend while others tend to hug the bottom. Bernie prefers to target bottom huggers, as they are stationary while suspended fish are usually mobile.
Lake trout are really members of the char family, thus more aggressive than trout. In Colorado, they are commonly known as mackinaws. Rarely reaching 50 pounds, the IGFA recognizes a 72-pound Great Bear Lake (Canada) fish as the rod and reel world record. As a char, mackinaws prefer colder water than trout; thus, winter and early spring are prime time for fishermen as these big fish cruise the shallows looking for an easy meal. As surface water temperatures reach 50 degrees, they vacate the shoreline, heading for the depths. Mackinaws are roamers, moving widely. They may go several hundred feet deep.
Among other things, a healthy mackinaw population is dependent upon a healthy kokanee salmon forage base. Small mackinaws feed on typical trout food, but as they grow they require a more protein-rich diet like suckers, trout or kokanee salmon.For whatever reason, some never switch to this higher protein diet and remain small.
Mackinaws that switch diet grow quite large.
The 2007 Colorado record mackinaw, from Blue Mesa Reservoir, weighed in at 50.35 pounds. Trophy mackinaws will be found where their food is located.
Keefe said that morning trout are hungry, usually aggressive and will move long distances to grab a snack. However, a full belly drastically reduces that acceptable distance. The best fishing usually begins at sunrise and lasts until the belly is full. The length of the feeding period is dictated by the size of the forage base.
Selecting the top two mackinaw lakes in Colorado is simple. I picked the minds of five top guides who all had the same opinion with regard to numbers one and two. However, there was some variance as to the next three. They agree that mackinaw population and forage base are the prime considerations followed closely by lake structure.
Season, climate, altitude and water temperature are also important considerations. Altitude variances impact conditions from lake to lake in Colorado.
Blue Mesa Reservoir is the consensus as best of the best in the Centennial State, followed closely by Lake Granby. Taylor and Williams Fork reservoirs and the Twin Lakes reservoirs complete the list. Others worthy of mention include Green Mountain Reservoir, Jefferson Lake, Turquoise Lake, and Grand Lake.
Blue Mesa Reservoir is a destination fishery for anglers targeting trophy mackinaws. This lake gets top billing because it produces bigger fish more frequently and probably has the highest potential for monster macks. Blue Mesa lunkers are some of the fattest fish in the state because of the huge, diverse forage base, including perch, trout and white suckers. That's in addition to a large kokanee base. Nate Zelinsky said most mackinaws will be found dispersed in the western portion of the lake, especially in the two westernmost basins. DJ Zimmerman, Colorado Adrenaline Fishing, also suggested seeking big lakers in the Cebolla and Sapinero basins.
Blue Mesa Kokanee numbers had dwindled from around 1,000,000 to less than 300,000 recently, largely a result of mackinaw predation.
In order to reduce predation while maintaining the trophy mackinaw fishery, Parks and Wildlife imposed a one mackinaw over 32 inches limit and an unlimited bag for macks under 32 inches. This has resulted in a kokanee population growth. Robby Richardson, owner of Sportfish Colorado, as well as other guides, endorses catch and release for all mackinaws over 28 inches.
Filled with a variety of trout, this 9,000-acre water has two marinas, multiple boat ramps and several access points. Campgrounds and restrooms abound along 96 miles of shoreline fishery.
Second in popularity is probably Lake Granby. Approximately 7,000 acres when full, Granby is one of the largest cold-water reservoirs in the state. This popular recreation site has three marinas and boat ramps, restrooms, picnic areas and camping.
Lake Granby is home to one of the most productive mackinaw fisheries in the entire country.
Conditions for reproduction of mackinaw have been good in recent years, producing large numbers of small fish. In order to maintain the predator-prey balance in Granby, anglers are encouraged to harvest a daily bag limit of four small mackinaws as often as possible. Mackinaw predation and mysis shrimp gobbling up zooplankton, which is the kokanee forage base, have worked to reduce the kokanee population in recent years.
Robby Richardson said Granby is the most popular lake in the state with lots of smaller fish and big fish also. Less structure there sometimes makes it harder to find them. He believes trolling rainbow trout imitations with down riggers or big spoons is the best tactic and should work well in June.
Taylor Park Reservoir is a 2,000- surface-acre reservoir managed for trophy mackinaws. It offers a great fishing experience in picturesque Taylor Park, a high elevation park partially surrounded by towering Collegiate Peaks.
Kokanees are stocked primarily to maintain a forage base for big mackinaws. DJ Zimmerman noted that Taylor is one of the few reservoirs that will continue to produce big mackinaws throughout June, dependent upon spring temperatures. DJ told me that many big lakers have been landed just in front of the marina and the upper end of the lake where the Taylor River enters.
A marina and paved boat ramp provide boat access, boat rentals, and fishing gear as well as several additional access points. Campground facilities and restrooms are available at several locations. The Taylor Park Trading Post has cabins, a restaurant, and general store — a welcome addition to this semi-isolated destination.
Williams Fork Reservoir is a 1,600-acre storage reservoir owned and operated by Denver Water. It provides good structure fishing for mackinaw and their prime forage — kokanee salmon which prosper on plentiful zooplankton. Williams Fork supports a large self-sustaining population of mackinaws, and trophy specimens are not rare in this lake.
The kokanee egg operation here is important for stocking other lakes; thus, maintaining kokanee population is critical. A large year class of small mackinaws was first observed in 2010, and harvest of these small mackinaws is encouraged in order to maintain the predator-prey balance.
There is only one boat ramp at Williams Fork. Camping and picnic sites are available at Williams Fork. The nearest services are about 10 miles in Kremmling.
Twin Lakes Reservoirs are located at the base of Colorado's highest mountain, Mt. Elbert, and the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area. Totaling over 2,700 acres they offer excellent trophy mackinaw potential. Despite a somewhat limited forage base of small lakers and rainbows, Mackinaws average 19 inches, with fish in the 40-inch class becoming more abundant. Twin Lakes are once again yielding large, fat trophy mackinaws.
Fishing for large mackinaws in the inlet area of the lower lake and near underwater structurewas productive in 2016. Fishing early and late in the day with large Rapalas has worked well. The best action here can be found near the hydropower plant, where the upper lake enters the lower lake, or around submerged rock piles. DJ Zimmerman concurs with the power plant area being a good site for big fish.
Robby Richardson reported that in the summer months boating is the best way to go after giants, trolling deep water along the shelves. Fishing from a boat with downriggers using rainbow imitation lures works well, although limited structure can make finding fish difficult. Deep water jigs tipped with sucker meat are also successful.
The bag and possession limit for mackinaw is one. Mackinaw 22-34 inches long must be returned to the water immediately. Amenities include boat ramps, campgrounds and restrooms at most sites. Trails provide excellent fishing access.
Successful fishing for mackinaws is a special skill that often requires special equipment. I recommend using a guide once or twice to learn the tactics, techniques and procedures to locate and attract these outsize "trout." Since they are on the water frequently, guides are up on the current situation — usually taking clients onto the water ready for immediate success. Having the right lures fished correctly in the right places is invaluable. Catching fish is only part of the value — it is the learning process that lasts and can ensure the rest of your trip has a great chance at success.
Mackinaws are slow-growing and take years to reach trophy size. We must preserve this precious resource by practicing effective catch and release to ensure the future of these incredible fish. Save the memory of your catch by taking a quick photo, then carefully revive and release all large mackinaws to live another day and create memories for others.