Priest Lake Lakers: Limits & Approaches - Part 2/3

Since Mackinaw hold on structure, the best spots are always just off bottom and, in Priest Lake, at depths between 60 and 150 feet. We took most of our fish in 100 feet of water, but later trips jigged up macks as shallow as 20 feet. It's a matter of temperature and, if you lack a sonar unit to locate fish, it's vital to ask other fishermen about productive levels.

After a hurried launch with sunlight all ready on the water, we settled down to troll off sand bottom near Indian Creek Bay without much action. Only one fish showed where trips earlier in the week had produced more than a dozen. These were released, as the possession and daily limits at Priest are two fish. A move to Reeder Bay produced a couple of hits and some worthwhile action. A bigger fish smacked a Hoochie toward Huckleberry Bay. Then we dropped back down around Four-Mile Island and Steamboat Bay to finish the day.

In four hours on what Rich called, "a mediocre day with a cold front," produced seven lakers in the five to 21 pound range. We did spot another boat with a fish that ran well over 30 pounds. They had trolled big plugs on 30-pound test line, but only enjoyed a single strike all day. That is apparently the price you pay to improve your chances at bigger fish.

Rich seemed understandably put out at the fishermen who had kept the large laker. "You know," he said, "A fish that size is probably 30 years old. You can release them and really improve the stock. We both mentioned the impact on the fishery of retired fishermen. Those who stay out of the water five or six days a week and take home limits nearly every day hurt the fishery."

Rich certainly had his release system down pat. He used a small nick of a knife to deflate the fish's swim bladder that projected into its throat. It could then swim free. We used this system to release all our fish except one that had a hook in its gills. This eight pound laker smoked nicely the next day. Smoke or barbecue cooking improves results with lakers that have heavy fat deposits around their belly so don't freeze well.

Two additional trips in 1991 showed that the number of fish we took was no fluke. On one trip I trolled with downriggers out of a skiff. On another we paddled a canoe with a home-made downrigger arrangement. We wrapped copper telephone wire on a three-pound coffee can and weighted it down with a three-pound ball from my old salmon fishing days off the Golden Gate.

On both trips we averaged a bit over a fish per hour for two lines. The typical size range ran from five to ten pounds. We also landed ten Kokanee -- these near the inlet -- a pair of bull trout quickly releases and five cutthroat flatline trolled with a six-inch-long Rebel minnow plug.

These trips produced great getaway camping too. Kalispell and Bartoo Islands offer a good spot to camp with, naturally, boat access camp and picnic sites just steps from the action. Osprey Campground, at the outlet end of the lake suits the shore bound. Lion Creek, Indian Creek and Tule Bay sites provide additional drive-in camping on the water. The last is just at the mouth of the section of the Priest River that runs up to Upper Priest Lake -- locals call this "the Thorofare." We've taken some decent Kokanee outside the closed fishing area here, and released a few bull trout and cutthroats.

Apparently, this river section eats lower units when it shallows up in the summer. That is fine with us. When water skiers infest Priest, we sneak up to Upper Priest and avoid the waves and wakes. Do realize that this river section is closed to fishing because it’s a spawning area.

Several resorts round out the amenities on the lake. Hill's Resort has won AAA Awards, the Outlet Bay Resort is open again and our favorite Bishop's Marina on Coolin Bay has a batch of slips and other amenities. Food around the lake tends to be simple, but Elkins is a local favorite with its cedar lodge and lively Trapper Creek Bar. Few of these spots are overrun with tourists even during summer.

It's worth noting what locals call "crowding" would in California be called "deserted." Such "crowds" are only likely on summer holiday weekends. If you do happen to visit in July, try to take in the Wooden Boat Club Barbecue, moonlight cruise and fireworks displays. Like other ultra-clear lakes in the area, Priest has more than its share of classic wooden boats.