Priest Lake Lakers: Basics - Part 1/3

Priest Lake seems the Teddy Kennedy of North Idaho waters. It lurks in the shadow of its two larger brothers, Pend Oreille and Coeur d'Alene. I suspect the only reason it's written aboutis it's the only one of the three lakes some outdoor writers can spell! Priest does offer a singular fishery. Lake trout are it as catch and release regulations limit the scarce cutthroat and prohibit bull trout take.

Even with massive restocking, "blue backs" or kokanee haven't recovered from the introduction of the mysis shrimp introduction in the mid-1960's. So why the fuss about lake trout? It's mostly a matter of timing. Priest Lake lakers fill that uneasy gap between the end of steelhead season and the opening of stream trout action and, for those who don't mind going deep, they offer reliable action all summer.

Last trip with guide Rich Lindsey, who specializes in boat and stream fishing in the Idaho Panhandle, changed my opinion about lakers. When we lived near Lake Tahoe I didn't think much of these fish when we dredged them up with J-plugs from 200 to 250 feet of water on wire line. A fish a trip seemed average for six hours on the water and my largest laker, a 26-pound fish, was hardly a thrill and not much of a fight. So I moved to deep jigging with cod drails on windless days. Even so, fish brought up from deep water were kept. Conventional wisdom claimed the would die if released because their expanded swim bladders would not allow them to return to the deep. Lakers over eight pounds or so weren't much to shout about in the pan too.

When Rich offered to show me his improved methods on Priest, I almost turned him down. Still, the end of March in the Idaho Panhandle isn't exactly overflowing with fishing options so, why not. My wife and I stayed at the Gregory's McFarland House, one of the better bed and breakfast spots in the town of Coeur d'Alene. The town is easy to reach from Spokane via Interstate 90, and offers a convenient central location for the superb fishing in this area; so the drive up through Spirit Lake and Priest River only took Rich and me a bit under two hours.

My wife slept in before polishing off a huge breakfast to fuel up for the 200 antique shops in Coeur d'Alene. These, plus Coeur d'Alene's beach action, the theme park at Silverwood, water slides and dozens of other activities make the area a great family vacation destination.

When Rich and I rolled up to the lake, the Selkirk Mountains loomed to the north and Chimney Rock still wore its snow hat. Priest Lake gets three to five feet of snow pack most winters and may be one of the purest water lakes in the United States. It's not as cold as you might expect for the 2,434-foot elevation either. By summer you can find 70 or 75-degree temperatures on top. So most summer fishermen go deep to find mackinaw. We arrived the week after ice out, so the lake was just coming up into the prime 43 to 50 degree range.

These ideal conditions have produced some notable records. The U.S. record Mackinaw trout at 57-pounds, 8-ounces and the record Kokanee at 6-pounds, 9 3/4-ounces testify to the big fish in the old days. Now smaller fish seem the rule. Such seems likely to remain the case until enough Kokanee inhabit the lake to broaden the food base as now the mysis shrimp compete for the algae both eat. So Rich selected lighter, more sporting gear than seems usual for lakers. He mounted flexible Loomis steelhead rods with medium-size bait casting reels filled with 15-pound test line. A Hoochie and dodger setup with the Hoochie about 15 inches behind the dodger offered solid action. A strip of "magic belly meat" sweetened the setup. Then it was a case of trolling slowly off downrigger balls three to seven feet off bottom areas where Rich knew fish lurked. Most strikes were tipped off by fish that