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In search of Tahoe's big macs

Fishing Lake Tahoe in winter is something most anglers don't consider, but should. Think in terms of lake trout (also called Mackinaws) in deep water and brown trout around the shoreline.

"When people think of wintertime fishing, they mostly think of North Coast rivers and foothill lakes," said Dan Bacher, editor of the Fish Sniffer tabloid, which cover recreational fishing news from southern Oregon to Baja California. "But (anglers) will have a pleasant surprise at Lake Tahoe. Winter and spring are the most consistent times of year to catch fish there.

"The weather can be surprisingly mild, and the solitude (on the water) is incredible."

That was enough for me to call my fishing partner Bud, who lives in South Lake Tahoe, and book us on two very different excursions with two of the handful of charter companies that operate year-round.

"I'll even let you pose for pictures with the fish I catch," Bud generously offered. Now, that's a true fishing pal.

On a recent Thursday, we showed up at 6 a.m. at the Sierra Boat Co. dock in Carnelian Bay on the north shore. There, in the dark, we boarded the Big Mack II, a 43-foot sportfisher skippered by veteran fish-hunter Mickey Daniels. He moved to Lake Tahoe from Sacramento in 1959 and opened a charter business in 1969. Around the lake, he's the acknowledged master of the Mackinaw.

On our way into Agate Bay off Cal-Neva Point, Bud and I met some of the other anglers on board. Russ Wickwire of Markleeville is a retired inland fisheries biologist who spent 40 years with the California Department of Fish & Game, most of it in the Sierra. Ron Perrault of Truckee retired after 29 years with the same agency.

Shane and Kimberly Booth were out from Oklahoma on their honeymoon, as were Kyle and Martha Kelso from Texas. Though the newlywed couples were not acquainted, their stories were the same: Not enough Sierra snow meant no skiing, so they opted for another outdoor sport when they saw ads for Big Mack Charters.

Back home, the four are avid bass anglers. But going fishing during a honeymoon?

"I talked with my mother-in-law last night," Martha Kelso joked, "and she said I'm a better woman than she is."

Once into the bay, Daniels put the boat on automatic pilot and set it up to slowly run in a wide circle. He rigged eight rods, hooking live minnows and tying lures beneath strings of metal flashers. Mackinaws are deep-water fish, so we trolled at depths ranging from 165 feet to a surprising 500 feet ("I fish deeper than most guides," Daniels noted). It's dark at those depths, so it's the sound of the flashers spinning around that attracts the fish, and not sunlight reflecting off of them.

The weather that day was nearly springlike, but we kept our jackets on. The sky was clear and blue, the lake flat and nearly empty of other vessels. In the summertime, a crowd of charter boats operates lake-wide; in winter, maybe a half-dozen do business.

As our boat cruised along, many of the 10 anglers drank coffee and ate pastries inside the comfortable cabin (yes, there's a head). Others gathered on the stern to wait for fish to strike.

Mackinaws are voracious feeders and will eat practically anything - redside shiners, suckers, mysis shrimp, tui chubs, crawfish, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon - and sometimes each other. Even squirrels and ducklings have been found among their stomach contents.

Years ago, Daniels was involved in a tag-and-release program for the DFG. When he was told that the agency had no more use for that data, he instituted his own tagging program and now shares his findings with a research group at the University of Nevada, Reno. It's putting together a computer model about growth rates and travel patterns of Mackinaws.

"I've tagged probably 10,000 fish," Daniels said, watching the rod tips for signs of a strike and keeping an eye on the depth-finder/fish-finder. "Three times I've caught five of my tagged fish in one day, but then I've gone months without getting any, too.

"I tagged one in 1989, then caught him again in 1999, and caught him again this summer. He was probably 25 years old. He looked like an old fish."

Daniels glanced around and raised his voice to include biologist Wickwire, standing nearby.

"I told Russ about it and he asked, `What's an old fish look like?' I said, `He's about 6-foot-5, weighs 240 pounds and has a pot gut on him!' "

We weren't out a half-hour before the Mackinaws began hitting. Twice during our five-hour trip we had three fish hooked at once. Everyone on board took turns reeling in fish, which were from 20 to 25 inches.

If an angler didn't want to keep a fish, Daniels would tag it and release it. The Mackinaws were beautiful, with dark-gray skin marked with paler spots. The honeymooners caught the action on their camcorders.

During all this, Daniels tended the rods, assisted anglers and kept up a jokey patter.

"You've got to be an entertainer," he said during a rare break. "Most of the clientele is inexperienced, especially the tourists in the summertime. In winter, I get a lot of locals who want to go out because there are fewer people onboard and on the lake. When the snow skiing is good, I'm down the line to second place. But when the skiing takes a dip, like now, then they come fishing. The weather controls everything."

Suddenly, a rod tip began twitching. Daniels grabbed it and set the hook. He handed the rod to Kimberly Booth and coached her during the 10-minute struggle. The fish was netted, tagged and released.

"I go for numbers of fish," Daniels said. "When I take a lot of people out, I've got to produce. The big ones? My biggest mac was 43 inches, and I've netted three over 30 pounds. The big ones come when you least expect it."

On the way in, Daniels slowed the boat and chugged close to shore. He called out to small flocks of mallard ducks and Canada geese, which he has apparently conditioned to fly to the boat for handouts of kibbled dog food.

"It's a photo opportunity," he said.

Everyone smiled as they disembarked at the dock. A perfect day, a nice boat ride, lots of laughs, a chance to meet new people. Oh, and catching fish was part of it, too. What wasn't to like?

The next morning, Bud and I met guide Gene St. Denis at the boat ramp at Cave Rock State Park, outside of Zephyr Cove. He's guided anglers via his Blue Ribbon Charters for nine years and has fished and scuba-dived the lake since 1980.

We boarded his 20-foot aluminum boat, the PT 109, for a much more personalized trip than the previous day's. St. Denis started the 90-horsepower Honda motor and we were off for more Mackinaws. Again, it was a springlike day and we had the water to ourselves.

It became clear during our trip that the bearded, intense St. Denis has studied the ecology of the lake and the fishery, the habits of our prey and the geography of the bottom.

"My becoming a guide was actually my wife's idea," he said over the motor's roar. "Word-of-mouth (about his expertise) got around to the point where (casino officials) were calling me to take their VIPs fishing, so I got licensed and made it official.

"Catching fish is not luck. It's skill and knowledge," he said. "You can be proficient at fishing, but if you make the transition to guiding, the trick is to get fish consistently for others. That's the difference between a pro guide and somebody doing it as a tax write-off."

We motored into an area known as the Tahoe Tavern Hole, offshore from Tahoe City, and put out two lines. We zigzagged back and forth, working underwater ledges and shelves and moving over thermal springs at depths from 150 to 300 feet.

St. Denis rigged the rods with flasher blades, minnows and big lures, which he smeared with a paste of homemade scent to attract the fish (it had nine ingredients in it).

One trolling technique was to use downriggers to drag lead weights on the bottom, below the "presentations" of rigs and baits. The object was to create a trailing mud cloud.

"With the mud cloud, the macs see that something's going on in their territory and they want to know what it is. They're inquisitive and territorial," St. Denis explained.

Suddenly, one of the rod tips began to twitch. "We're getting a hit on this rod!" St. Denis said, tensing. I set the hook and reeled in the fish.

"Here he comes, easy, easy!" St. Denis coached. "These macs are the great white sharks of the lake system. The biggest I've netted is 29 pounds, 15 ounces."

This fish turned out to be 21 inches - just fine for dinner - and was joined by two of his brothers within a couple of hours. The count: two macs for me, one for Bud.

"The macs are coming off the fall spawn, so they're hitting but they're wary," St. Denis told us. "One day you can limit out in a half-hour, the next day it might be two hours. One day they'll slam a bait, the next day it's a real tentative bite. They know the hook; they'll mouth it and spit it out, so you've got to be on it really quick. They're a worthy foe."

During the trip, I asked St. Denis about other charter companies.

"It's real competitive," he said. "In the summer you might have 50, 60 guys on the lake. Some areas are jealously guarded secrets. There are a handful of us who are always looking for new things that will work. Because you have older, wiser fish that are used to seeing the same baits, you have to change your presentations often."

As for clientele, he gets "everybody from painters and plumbers to actors, ballplayers, politicians and stressed-out CEOs. Two days ago we took out a VIP from Harrah's. I treat everybody just like I'd want to be treated - I want to go out with somebody who's going to try to get me some fish."

Later, headed back to Cave Rock, he explained the attraction of his profession: "We never know what we're going to hook into. And I love the lake, she's different every day. I feel like I'm part of her. I dive in her, I fish in her. She has many moods, which you have to respect. One minute she can be like Stevie Nicks in a diaphanous dress singing `Bella Donna,' and at the snap of a finger she can turn into Godzilla raging through downtown Tokyo."

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Though lake trout - or Mackinaw - can be fished year-round, the best time is now through spring, advises Dan Bacher. He's a veteran angler and editor of the popular bimonthly Fish Sniffer tabloid (800-748-6599; www.fishsniffer.com).

Most of the charter boats that fish Lake Tahoe are in dry dock for the winter, but a few charters operate year-round. For a sampling, go to www.tahoebest.com, www.boattahoe.com and www.tahoeangler.com.

The two charters we took were with:

-Mickey Daniels, owner of Mickey's Big Mack Charters, c/o Sierra Boat Co., Carnelian Bay; (800) 877-1462, (530) 546-4444, www.mickeysbigmack.com.

-Gene St. Denis, owner of Blue Ribbon Fishing Charters, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 544-6552, www.blueribbonfishing.com.

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