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Deepwater Trolling Lake Chelan

Anton Jones - 4/11/2011
The fish and me…

I fish for a living on Lake Chelan for Mackinaw (aka:lake trout). These unique fish were introduced into Lake Chelan around 1982 to capitalize on the lake’s burgeoning Mysis shrimp population and to provide additional big fish recreational opportunities beyond what the existing landlocked Chinook provide.

Mackinaw get big in Lake Chelan. Really big! The lake and state records currently stand at 35 pounds 7 ounces. Most fish average two to seven pounds. What defines a big fish at Lake Chelan? Personally, I believe 10 pounds qualifies and anything over 15 pounds on Lake Chelan is a trophy. There are a few fish caught over 20 pounds every year and on rare occasions some lucky angler will even reel in one weighing 25 pounds or more.

I fished for Mackinaw on Lake Chelan for the first time in 1993. It marked a time when Mackinaw were surpassing Chinook as the pre-eminent fish on Lake Chelan. I began guiding for Mackinaw in 2000. I estimate between recreational and guided fishing, I have fished over 2,000 days on Lake Chelan.

In 2001 WDFW removed the limit on Mackinaw in an effort to keep the fishery in balance. Since that time, we have averaged between 1 and 2 fish per hour per boat. Although there is a large variance in that number, the consistency of this fishery on a day-to-day basis is amazing.

Basic Principles

While there are a variety of ways to fish for Lake Trout, I specialize in deepwater trolling. This allows me to contact more fish than jigging or still fishing. The first and most important thing to remember when fishing Lake Chelan is proximity to the bottom. No matter how you choose to fish, what you choose to use to entice fish or what geographic location you choose to fish on in Lake Chelan, you must fish close to the bottom to consistently catch fish. The depths we troll make everything about it more technical than most other recreational fishing. Over ninety percent of my fishing is in depths from 120’ to 350’ deep. Most days that I fish, I am fishing within five feet of the bottom in depths over 200 feet. I rarely fish in depths shallower than 100’.

The second most important thing for this deepwater trolling application is speed control. Because of the depths we fish, it can be difficult to maintain that correct “fish catching” speed. Drag created by the gear you are trolling and wind can greatly affect your speed. Remember each lure or bait that you troll with has an optimal speed. To consistently and effectively troll them you must be at that speed. Some lures have a very narrow range of effectiveness.

Not the first or even the second most important thing, but something else to keep in mind is scent control. Remember that over 200’ deep there is no light penetration. Therefore, Mackinaw must use their sense of smell to locate and attack prey. Don’t let your trolled lure or bait have a “bad” smell on it!

Tools of the trade:

A boat that is laid out well, and is seaworthy enough to handle three-foot waves in windy conditions is what you want. The boat should be equipped with a high-powered depthfinder, electric downriggers and a way of monitoring your speed. While not necessary, a TR-1 Gold kicker Autopilot will make your life a lot easier. I have a Lowrance X-111C depthfinder with 8000 watts of power and a 10.5-inch screen. This allows me to identify fish and bottom density well below 400 feet with a high degree of certainty. Electric downriggers are the most efficient way to help you maintain that proximity to the bottom, which is the prime directive on Lake Chelan. I have used Scotty electric downriggers since the mid ‘90’s and have found them suited to the task. I spool them up with more than 500’ of 200# test Tuf Line XP, attach a 12-pound downrigger ball and a Silver Horde, Sam’s Pro Release. You must constantly touch the bottom and raise the ball to maintain that tight proximity to the bottom. Other methods such as manual downriggers or using heavy weight attached to your fishing line will tend to fatigue you.

I use the GPS portion of my X-111C to monitor my speed. Newer GPS units have finally achieved reasonable accuracy below 2mph. It’s additional capability of showing your map location, marking “hot spots” and allowing you to precisely return to them are additional advantages. The less expensive option is a mechanical speed indicator. The TR-1 Gold Auto pilot allows me to set a heading and a speed thereby allow me to focus more of my attention on keeping the lures near the bottom by making more downrigger adjustments.

I believe in long limber rods with a parabolic bend. I have used 9’ light action Ugly Stik rods for years and believe them well suited to the task. A reel should have a smooth drag and large cranking handle. We have used Shimano Charter Special and Tekota reels with great success. A large number of Mackinaw manage to get away because they shake their heads as well as twist and turn which can tear hooks out of poorly hooked fish if they get the leverage to do it. A long limber rod and a light drag setting can prevent fish from getting that leverage.

I spool all our trolling reels with 30# test Tuf Line XP. Because of its small diameter and low stretch, this super braid is the line we choose. The low diameter reduces the resistance in the water, which lessens “blow-back” from the rod tip to the downrigger ball. The lack of stretch allows us to “read” what is happening very accurately. I have found that by attaching a stiff mono leader to the braid before attaching a lure we increase our bite rate. We choose 30# P-Line Fluroclear for this task.

Almost any lure or bait that you can catch other game fish on can be used to catch Mackinaw. The trick is to precisely present that lure at its optimal speed near the bottom in great depths. I highly recommend that you initially use lures that function well at speeds less than 2 mph with low drag. This lessens “blow back” and makes turning less complicated.

I would start with Worden’s Flatfish in three sizes and two colors. The sizes that I use are: F7, U20 and T4 in colors of luminous chartreuse (LUCH) and purple glow (GPLX). The smaller F7 operates best at about 1.2 mph. The mid-sized U20 works best at about 1.4 mph. The larger T4 operates works optimally at 1.6 mph. Silver Horde’s Kingfisher Lite spoons in splatter back glow designs are another great option. Rushin’ Salmon Wobblers by Critter Gitter in purple glow are another staple of ours and Mack’s Lures Cha Cha Squidders in glow colors are also a great choice. Finally, I would recommend Silver Horde’s Ace Hi flies. These will all be effective at speeds between 1 and 2 mph.


Remember, proximity to the bottom is more important than geographic location on Lake Chelan. With that being said, we fish primarily in the lower basin of Lake Chelan, the bottom 15 miles of the 53-mile long lake. Our three primary areas are:
Mack Bar just off the Mill Bay boat launch; the trench, which is the centerline of the lake that extends downlake from Rocky Point for approximately 1 mile and in the Narrows near the Yacht Club. That will give you a start. The trench is the kindest bottom for this style of fishing. The area around the Yacht Club will cost you the most gear due to a rocky and obstruction-laden bottom. As you get confidence, there is plenty of fish and space to develop your own locations.

If you follow the outline presented here, you should be able to have some success, begin to build confidence and hopefully come to embrace deepwater trolling for Mackinaw on Lake Chelan.

I’ll see you on the water.

Anton Jones, Darrell and Dads Family Guide Service