Tahoe's Big Macs

by Louis Bignami

In the summer of 1861, Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe, "the fairest picture the whole earth affords." More than 100 years later, Lake Tahoe is still beautiful, but its shoreline waters overflow with windsurfers, waterskiers and recreational boaters all summer.

Well below this surface clutter, massive mackinaw cruise Tahoe's inky depths to provide California's least ex-ploited large trout fishery. How large are these fish? While divers report "monsters longer than their leg", average "big Macs" run four to 10 pounds. Fish up to 15 pounds aren't unusual, and prize winners in the monthly tackle shop contests at the lake often top 20 pounds. So why are not more Tahoe visitors out for these massive mackinaw?

Many don't realize the fishery exists, and most of those who try a casual trip or two on their own simply don't have the specialized techniques, equipment and local knowledge required to dredge the 100 to 300 foot ledges that hold most mackinaw.

When we moved into the area, my wife and I fished Tahoe several times from our skiff. While we trolled up many one pound to five pound browns and rainbows with deep running minnow plugs in the spring and fall, we had to switch to jig and bait fishing to take any mackinaw.

Even then, we managed less that one mackinaw per trip. As a result, we contacted Mickey Daniels, a professional guide who fishes out of Tahoe City on Tahoe's North Shore.

We met Mickey before first light on a cold November day, boarded his large, diesel powered boat and dropped lines only 10 minutes run from the dock. Within 15 minutes, my line snapped out of the outrigger and I hung onto a fish, as Mickey turned the boat toward deeper water. My "small" four pound male Mac came quickly to net before the boat slowed. Note that when trolling with wire line, you never stop the boat to play a fish until all the other lines are in or they snag bottom.

We circled about to make a second pass along the submerged ledge 180 feet below which, according to Mickey, "should hold a larger female" in the spot where we'd hooked my fish. Mickey was right, but as always seems the case when we troll, my wife Annette landed the largest fish of the day, a fat female that later weighted 12 pounds on a certified scale.

We trolled out the remainder of the morning, as the action slowed after the sun hit the water and whitecaps started to build. This is typical on Lake Tahoe where the action usually peaks at dawn or dusk. Still, 15 pounds of fish wasn't a bad return investment. Add the the pleasure of watching the sun tint snowy Sierra peaks and a pleasant cruise repays early risers.

Like most guides, Mickey uses a wire line "deep troll" system. He says, "With outriggers and down riggers spreading lures, and moving a bit faster than most, we cover much more water. Tahoe is so big you've got to move around to probe productive ledges that hold Macs."

Over the last five years we've gone out a number of times with Mickey and Tahoe guides such as Tom Lee who troll with wire or fish jigs. This is usually when we've "downhill visitors" who are always thrilled to catch the largest trout they've ever seen, but lack the skills to take big brown trout in the Truckee River or smaller Sierra lakes near Lake Tahoe.

Our average seems a consistent "fish and a fraction" per rod per trip and, frankly, after one or two trips a year, I'd rather use other methods that require more "angler input." Still, if you've never caught a lake trout, guided trolling at Tahoe is by far the best way to avoid the major outlay for specialized tackle that's needed to troll on your own. Tahoe's a lot closer and less expensive than better-known waters in Canada too!

Note: some guides let non-fishing members of a party come along free if there's room. Most days you find four to six or more fishermen aboard. We like to use a "take a number" system to rotate hookups instead of assigning a specific outfit to each fisherman. That way the action's more evenly spread around.

Trolling On Your Own

Trolling seems the most efficient mackinaw method at Tahoe, and boaters who know the water do well. However, Tahoe's over 300 square miles of "inland sea" averages 980 feet deep. So "big Macs" enjoy lots of room to hide.

Tahoe's inky blue water can whip up some big whitecaps too. careful attention to weather is a must. Coast Guard Stations at the North and South end of the Lake post storm warnings; radio weather reports deserve close attention; and an eye out for storm clouds over the Desolation Wilderness Area at the southwest end of the lake avoids most problems. If you do need help, the Coast Guard (583-4433) monitors 156.8 MHZ on VHF year-round. CB emergency calls on Channel 9 can bring help if you don't own a VHF radio.

Do make a careful check of your floatation gear, stay near shore on the more sheltered California side of the lake if you venture out in a small boat and, most important, in case of upsets, stay with the boat! Shore is always farther than it looks. Swimmers tire fast in Tahoe's frigid waters, and boats in trouble are easily spotted from shore roads.

Dawn and dusk, the prime fishing times all year, are always cold; in the winter they're downright brutal! Insulated jackets, wool or insulated pants and, if you own one, a foul weather suit cut wind chill. Gloves avoid frozen fingers, a wool watch cap protects your ears. A face covering like a wool balaclava may be needed to prevent frostbite during high speed boat runs which maximize wind chill.

Fortunately, guides use big cabin cruisers. On a brisk morning there's much to be said for a warm cabin and hot coffee!


The standard Tahoe trolling outfit starts with a stout rod with roller guides and tip, mounting a saltwater reel which holds 300 yards of 30# to 50# test wire line. Braided wire kinks less; solid wire sinks best.

If you own a down rigger, a medium-weight trolling rod with a level wind reel holding 200 yards of 20# test monofilament is a good choice for mackinaw trolling, jigging and bait fishing, as well as topline trolling for browns and rainbows, nearer shore. You avoid the expense, line kinking, guide wear and other problems associated with wire line and, most important, let big macs put on a much better show.

Note: don't use level wind reels or rods with standard metal guides. Wire will rapidly eat them up.

Add a 15 foot leader lighter than your line and buy one or two J-plugs, big spoons or large minnow plugs if you want big macs. For smaller macs in the three to six pound range dodgers plus live minnows seem to produce more, if smaller, fish. J-plugs snag bottom least often; spoons can also be used for jigging; floating minnow plugs don't hang up when you stop the boat to play fish and also work well for browns and rainbows. Rod holders are handy. Cranking in 900 feet of wire puts enough strain on your arms without holding a heavy rod all day. Local tackle shops sell and/or rent gear.

Trolling planes and sinkers, or sinker and release devices used with cannon ball sinkers, seem less effective than either down riggers or wire line at depths greater than 100 feet. So they better suit brown or rainbow trout trolling in shallower water.

A good depth finder is a must. Flasher types work reasonably well. Graph models let you chart the rocky ledges that hold mackinaw and do a better job of separating bottom hugging fish from the sometimes confusing multiple returns off Lake Tahoe's rocky, uneven bottom. Cross bearings return you to productive areas, but only finders let you "zero in" on narrow ledges and jigging holes.

Even if you are equipped to troll on your own, a guided trip lets you take cross bearings for later use. Do note the direction of trolling runs -- an eye on a compass is helpful. Many ledges are quite narrow and should only be trolled along their long axis. Otherwise you get poor coverage and lose lures.

Your next step should be calibrating trolling depth. Using a set length of line -- mark wire with fingernail polish or paint or count turns -- make trial runs, up and down wind over smooth bottom of known depth, so your lure barely ticks bottom while paying close attention to your RPM setting. This establishes the standards you need to work lures just above the ledges where mackinaw dwell. We establish standards for 100, 150, 200 and 250 foot deep runs and vary these slightly for intermediate depths. With down riggers you can skip this if you're willing to risk the chance of an expensive weight snagging bottom.

Until familiar with local weather, you'll probably do best to start trolling the ledges a short run off Tahoe City and the California side of the lake at first light or dusk. As you move south toward Homewood and "Tavern Hole", you'll find productive winter spots fairly close to shore and better protected from storms than offshore spots or the Nevada side of the lake.

Some fishermen troll, jig or baitfish along the drop offs where the lake's color turns from blue to inky blue-black. Most marinas and tackle shops sell inexpensive "yellow wonder" maps that help you locate general fishing areas. A depth finder helps pin-point ledges. Moving after three or four runs makes sense with so much water available. If you do hook a fish, retroll the area, as mackinaw tend to bunch up. Big fish come in smaller "pods" during spawning, smaller macs will sometimes school.

Mark cross bearings on your map so you can return to good spots. Don't rely on your memory; it's easy to forget cross bearings from year to year! Since Tahoe is so huge, even guides haven't found all the prime ledges, so you may locate your own "honey hole"

Playing and landing mackinaw shouldn't present any problems once the fish are off bottom. Turning your boat toward deeper water after a hookup helps assure this. Of course, you need a large net or gaff when the fish reaches the boat.


Our best jig results come in winter and early spring when mackinaw are in water from 75 to 150 feet deep. Any medium weight outfit which holds 200 yards of 12 to 20 pound test works well with a large, heavy bodied, fast sinking silver spoons. Three to 4 ounce or larger Kastmasters and Hopkins spoons are recommended. Some favor the largest Vertical Rappala, an odd-looking metal "plug" with single hooks at each end and a treble under the middle of the lure. These swim round and round when slowly jigged, but can be hard to find in shops. I order mine direct from Normark. Lighter tackle is sometimes used, but often isn't stout enough to move large mackinaw off bottom.

As is the case with other fish, macs sometimes take a spoon on the drop, so it's wise to follow the sinking spoon with your rod tip and strike at any unusual pause. Drop your lure to the bottom, reel up a foot or two and then use a three to four foot slow pumping action.

If you do own an electric trolling motor, use it to keep your boat in one spot on breezy days to avoid a big bow in your jigging line. Anchors don't work well in water deeper than 100 feet. One anchor won't keep the boat from swinging; two will, but hooked macs often break off on anchor lines. This is the reason locals favor flat, windless days and, as winds are usual after the sun hits the water, usually fish at dawn or dusk.

Bait Fishing

Some locals do extremely well with bait on shallow "jigging" ledges and in sandy holes. Most run a 12 to 24 inch long leader off the main line, a foot or two above a two to 16 ounce sinker and hook a live minnow through the lips or the back below the dorsal fin with a size 4 or 6 hook. The smallest weight that will put your minnow on bottom without excessive slack line is recommended. Heavier weights suit deeper water or days with a breeze.

Slowly lift and drop the rod tip after the sinker ticks bottom. This seems most productive with just enough wind to slowly move the boat. Knowledge of bottom topography helps line up wind drifts along ledges.

We don't fish bait much, as we would rather troll or jig, but the method isn't complex. Local bait shops can sell you setups and bait.

Don't bring minnows from the valley! They are not legal in Tahoe.

Additional Mackinaw Lakes

Fallen Leaf Lake -- West of Tahoe between Emerald Bay and Camp Richardson -- produces fair mackinaw fishing. The bottom is quite rough and uneven, so watch your trolling depth closely and bring lots of extra lures or use bait or jigs.

Donner Lake -- South of Highway 80 between Donner Pass and Truckee -- is most productive in February and March, and the boat ramp at the east end of the lake is open all year. Most troll Donner Lake ledges along the North shore next to "Old 40." The area around "the islands" near Truckee off the South Shore is also good. According to Fish and Game biologists, the "big macs" in Donner Lake eat a healthy percentage of small rainbows and browns, so trolling just off the boat ramp, where stocking is done during the summer months, is especially productive.

Both Fallen Leaf and Donner usually stay calmer than Lake Tahoe. The best fishing is at first light during the winter, when trolling also produces big brown trout on deep running rainbow trout finish Rebels. In the summer, you must go deeper to find fish, and can expect to fish only until the light hits the water before waterskiers wake up the lake. There are often too many boats on Donner Lake during the summer for evening trolling. So jigging or bait fishing off the inlet stream sandbar at the East End, or the excellent catch and release cutthroat action in Martis Creek Reservoir near Truckee Airport, or the stream fishing in the Truckee River downstream from Hirshdale off I-80 are good alternatives.

You can find a very large number of streams and lakes in the immediate area. Check on the topographic CD below to get a couple of hundred topographic maps that you can use to find the best stream sections. Mybook North Tahoe Trout is available at some local shops, and it has specifics on the area that dovetail with the topographic information.

Why Not Tahoe?

Now that we've moved away, we don't fish Tahoe as often as we used to, but still manage a trip or two in search of a "Christmas Mac" for our annual holiday open house. But just watching the sun hit the snowy winter Sierras seems enough to justify our visits. Then too, if you're a skier, you'll find morning guided trips end just in time to enjoy a warm breakfast before the lifts open.

While deep water trolling, jigging and bait dunking aren't as much fun as fly or spin fishing for most, these methods do offer your best chance to consistently take large trout in California. This is especially the case with kids or beginners who can be turned on to fishing with a single successful guided wire line trip. Even light tackle specialists should find a guided "sample"trip well-worth their time and cost. This is such a unique California fishery that, unless you "try Tahoe" you'll never be certain that you are not missing out.

Recommended North Tahoe guides:

  • Mickey's Guide Service, Mickey Daniels, 916-583-4602 or 800-877-1463.
  • Kingfish Guide Service, Tom Lee, 916-525-5360.
  • Clearwater Guides 916-587-9302 or 800-354-0958


  • North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau, 1-800-TAHOE 4U
  • Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, 1-800 AT TAHOE

South Lake Tahoe Trips leave at first light and last until mid-morning or from mid-afternoon until just after dark. Combination topline trout and deep line macs are usual -- $40 the rate. Both the above guides have new 43 foot boats on order for maximum comfort.

*For South Tahoe guides check for referrals at The Outdoorsman or other South Tahoe sporting goods shops