It's magic time. You just tied on that new AC Plug you've been waiting to try, you're trolling along the shoreline of a lake known for big trout, and just as you run your boat past a rocky point with a quick drop-off to deep water, your rod bends over hard and kicks with the power of a monster fish!
Okay, so it doesn't always happen so quickly and dramatically, but for me it really did. As a fishing guide and avid trout troller, I had heard of Allan Cole's famous lure, but didn't really know much about it. Then in the spring of 2002, I was handed one as a tip from a happy client at the end of a successful day spent targeting brown trout. He asked me to give him the mass-produced, five-dollar lure that had caught some of our fish in trade for a hand-made, striped-rainbow pattern AC Minnow. Sure! I replied. I'm a serious lure collector, always looking for the latest hot bait to add to my tackle box, so after holding up this plug and waving it in the air to watch the jointed body and soft plastic thumper-tail wiggle back and forth, I threw it in among my other minnow plugs, where it sat neglected for nearly a year. Why did I finally pull it out and tie it on my line? Well, in June 2003, I was making my first ice-out pilgrimage to a favorite high-altitude lake, a spot known to produce huge lake trout, and having caught quite a few five-pound class lakers on average-sized lures there over the years, I was looking to target the big boys. So I worked up my nerve and tried the eight-inch AC Plug, then after only a few minutes of trolling, I hooked, netted and released a thirty-four inch, fifteen-pound lake trout!
It's hard to beat an experience like that for gaining instant confidence in a new lure, and also for inciting a desire to learn more about the productive offering. After my big catch, I wrote an article describing the experience (Lunker Lures and Living Legends) for the Fishsniffer website, and seeking background information, I interviewed the inventor of the AC. Mr. Cole shared some great stories about the lure's origins, design, and record catches, then generously sent me some more of his plugs to test.
I quickly learned two things while trying these unique swimbaits. First, the smaller models are just as productive for average lake trout as any minnow plug on the market, and second, lakers will hit every version of the AC; I've caught them on the AC Original, AC Skinny, AC Minnow, Mag Shad and Hatchery Trout. I've also learned a lot about how to use these lures for shallow lakers, which I'd like to share here with other AC users, after I make one more key point: AC PLUGS CATCH THE BIG ONES!
I've hooked my share of large California lake trout, and while ten-pound fish are caught fairly often in the better lakes here, twenty-pounders are much more elusive, even for the most dedicated anglers and guides. I could claim one twenty-pound class fish after trying hard with a variety of lures for ten years, but now after less than two years of fishing AC Plugs, I have several more giant lakers to my credit! Mind you, this is only while using the ACs on my own hardcore, trophy-hunting trips during the off season, since much of my guide business consists of fly-fishing trips and family-style outings where success comes when Junior catches his first twelve-inch rainbow. Almost one year to the day after catching my first big laker on an AC though, I caught a twenty-pound hog on the same lake, trolling a six-inch AC Hatchery Trout! When I cleaned this fish, I found its stomach stuffed with Junior's twelve-inch rainbows, proving to me that rainbow trout pattern ACs are great lures for monster lake trout. Then, just six months later, I was trolling my favorite lake of all, the notoriously difficult Lake Tahoe, and on a cold, windy day in December 2004, I caught my largest lake trout ever, a twenty-five pound leviathan, on the same AC Minnow that got me started with these lures. Coincidence? I think not.
So let's go hunting for California lakers! Known locally as mackinaw (the original eggs and fingerlings came from the Mackinaw Island area of Lake Superior), these salmonids were introduced here over one-hundred years ago and have established wild, self reproducing populations in a handful of high altitude lakes in the state. These waters hold some huge fish, but most are highly pressured by anglers and do not give up the big boys easily. Here's a look at some of the variables to consider when targeting monster mackinaw- Timing: Salvelinus Namaycush is technically not a trout at all, but a char, closely related to the brook trout. This fish is adapted to cold water, preferring lower water temperatures than other trout. Its ideal temperature range is approximately 48 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit, but it will remain active and feed aggressively in substantially lower temperatures, and will also travel briefly into temperatures well above its comfort zone to target prey. In Lake Tahoe, mackinaw are caught throughout the year using specialized deepwater fishing techniques such as vertical spoon-jigging and downrigger or wire line trolling as deep as 300 feet. I prefer fishing shallow with light tackle though, and for much of the year this approach is productive as well. Mackinaw can be caught trolling the shallows here as early as October and as late as June, with the best action starting in December when the fish have completed their fall spawn and are looking to make up for missed meals. Surface temperatures on Tahoe dip as low as forty-degrees Fahrenheit in midwinter, but macks remain active, chasing lures trolled at an upbeat pace, two to three miles-per-hour or even faster.
Some of our other mackinaw lakes are inaccessible to trollers in winter, either due to a cap of ice several feet thick (Silver and Caples Lakes), or a partial ice-skim and/or snowed in boat ramps and access roads (Donner Lake, Stampede Reservoir, Fallen Leaf Lake). On these lakes the first few weeks of access in the spring, when ice breaks up or roads become passable, provide the best shallow lake trout action of the year. Mackinaw prowl the shoreline, feeding voraciously, with the largest fish seeming to forget for a short while about the previous year's lures, boats and water-skiers.
As on Tahoe, mackinaw can be targeted on these smaller lakes in summer by anglers fishing deep, but for the best sport and the biggest fish, it's hard to beat early spring. A close second would be the last few weeks of the season, as anglers brave early snowstorms and growing sheets of ice to catch mackinaw that have again moved shallow to fatten up for winter.
Another important aspect of timing when pursuing shallow water lake trout is time of day. This species is negatively phototropic meaning they generally avoid light. My favorite time for targeting shallow macks is just before first light until an hour or two after sunrise. Yes, we're talking about tying your lure on in the beam of your flashlight, but the effort pays off. Many of the mackinaw's prey species, from crayfish to kokanee salmon to freshwater shrimp, are also photo-sensitive, going deep or hiding when the sun is high.
Anglers should take note of areas where shoreline hills and trees create shaded areas on the water throughout the day as well. On Tahoe, I've found that the east shore often fishes better in the morning, as the low-light period of sunrise is extended until the sun ascends the eastern mountains, while the west shore gets an early twilight when the sun dips beneath the western peaks. In the coldest days of winter, the sunset bite can be even better than sunrise, but again you should be out there trolling until full dark for the best chance at a big laker.
On sunny, calm days, the best shallow fishing may last for just a brief period at dawn or dusk, after which trolling deeper with downriggers or lead core line may be more productive. In overcast, breezy conditions though, the shoreline bite can last all day, so zip up that coat, put on the ski-gloves and keep at it! You can also expect many exceptions to these guidelines, as I've caught mackinaw shallow at every hour of the day, in all weather conditions. Technique: Oh, I don't know, maybe you should try an AC Plug! Okay, you probably guessed that already, so let's get specific. My favorite method for trolling these lures is to pull them behind the boat on a flatline or topline, which means simply to use straight monofilament (or one of the newer super lines) and troll without additional weight so that the plug's depth is achieved solely by its diving lip. Although AC Plugs float at rest, and run fairly shallow when cast and retrieved, they dive deeper when trolled on a long line, as water resistance pushes against the clear plastic lip at the lure's front, or in the case of the AC Original, against the lower half of the cut-plug face. There are many factors involved in the depth achieved with your plug when trolling topline, and you'll have to do some experimenting on the water to establish a working knowledge of your lure's trolling depth, but here are some factors to consider:
Lure Size: In general, larger AC plugs will run deeper than smaller ones, due to the larger diving lip and overall lure weight. You can get as little trolling depth as three to five feet with the smallest plugs, while my twelve-inch Hatchery Trout will bump bottom in twenty feet of water. These numbers can vary quite a bit though, based on the next important factor-
Line size and amount of line out: Write this down and live by it- the thinner the line, the deeper your lure will troll. Eight-pound-test will give you a few more feet of trolling depth then fifteen-pound line, due to decreased water resistance against the smaller diameter line. Another important factor is how much line you let out behind the boat. Many beginning trout trollers make the mistake of letting out a trolling line that is much too short, scaring most fish away, due to the lure's close proximity to the noise, vibration and visual disturbance of the boat. If you want to catch big trout on your AC plugs, don't even think about trolling only a hundred feet of line. Start with fifty yards of line at least; on Tahoe we will troll up to one-hundred-and-fifty yards, which is 450 feet! While this is not practical on all lakes in all situations, do yourself a favor and learn to handle at least two to three hundred feet of trolling line (Am I far enough past that rocky point to turn in yet? Did I cut too close to that boat mooring buoy?) The advantage of this sort of line control lies not only with your ability to distance the lure from your boat, but also to more precisely control the lure's depth. A given AC Plug may troll only five feet deep on 100 feet of line, yet when let out on a 300 foot tether, it will bump bottom in ten feet. Once maximum depth is achieved, you can let out close to 450 feet with light line, after which you reach a point of diminishing returns where the water resistance pushing against so much line begins to actually send the lure shallower.
Have I confused you yet? Then let's simplify and sum up: heavier line, less trolling depth, lighter line, more depth. Shorter line behind the boat, less trolling depth, longer line, more depth, to a point. Finally, consider how close to the water your rod tip rides, whether in your hand or in a rod holder. I like to keep my rod tips low to the water, two feet or less- anything higher than that, and you are stealing depth from the AC plug at the other end of your line.
And why is depth so critical? Why can't you just get out there and buzz these killer lures around the lake until a monster hits? Because most big trout, most of the time, hold tight to underwater structure. There are exceptions of course, such as when mackinaw or brown trout feed offshore, chasing schools of kokanee salmon suspended at mid-depth, but in general, your lure needs to run within a few feet of the bottom to catch fish consistently.
So, why can't I just offer a complete depth chart, giving the exact trolling depth for each AC plug? Well, I'm working on it. Field testing the many sizes and styles available is quite a task (though I can't complain about my job, which involves catching big trout while running these tests), but here are at least a few numbers to go by:
The five-inch AC Minnow and six-inch AC Skinny can be trolled on 100 yards of eight pound test monofilament in as little as eight feet of water. The seven-inch AC Minnow runs ten to twelve feet deep on 100 yards of ten pound mono, and the six inch Hatchery Trout will bump bottom in twelve to fifteen feet, due to its increased weight from the denser wood used in its construction. You'll notice I'm calling for eight-pound-test for the smaller plugs and ten-pound for the larger models. A rule of thumb here is to use the heaviest line you can get away with and still get a bite on the lake you re fishing. I've always advocated light line, and in fact have caught some of my largest lake trout on six and eight-pound-test. I recently had a wake-up call on Lake Tahoe though, when a big fish snapped my eight-pound leader and stole my favorite AC Minnow. So now I've switched to ten-pound fluorocarbon leader for all my rigs when trolling the big plugs on Tahoe. This is still fairly light line when we're talking about hooking twenty-pound mackinaw, but due to the extreme clarity of the water here, heavier line will greatly reduce the number of bites you'll get from wary, wild fish in the shallows. On a lake with less water clarity, I'd advise anglers to play it safe when trolling big plugs for big fish; consider twelve to twenty-five pound line. Heavier line will also help you retrieve lures that become wedged in the rocks, and as I've already stated, most fish will be caught near such underwater structure. If your lure never bangs bottom, you're not fishing deep enough.
Location: If you're looking for big mackinaw, picking a lake that is known to produce them frequently is the obvious starting point. Once you've chosen your lake however, it would serve you well to learn as much as you can about the body of water before starting out. How clear is the water? What are the forage species? What type of underwater structure is most prevalent? Are there a lot of stumps or boulders, or mostly mud and sand?
Let's use Tahoe as an example- most of the middle of the lake is over 1,000 feet deep, so rule that out right away. Much of the shoreline has a bottom of flat, featureless sand, so skip this as well, unless you are fishing the very edge of a steep drop-off to deeper water. Underwater rock piles and boulder fields however, hold crayfish, baitfish, and small rainbow trout, a veritable buffet for large mackinaw. Any such spot should be fished thoroughly, and if this rocky structure is also in close proximity to deeper water, all the better. A great strategy in such areas is to zig-zag, swooping in to bring your lures right over the rocks, then out again so they travel over the lip of the drop-off, where deeper mackinaw are looking up, waiting for just such an opportunity to pick off a rainbow trout or baitfish foolish enough to stray into open water.
On any lake, main lake points are key areas for hooking shallow mackinaw, as are shorelines that drop quickly to deep water. Dams, especially those constructed of rip-rap boulders (such as those found on Stampede Reservoir and Caples Lake), are also worth a trolling run. If you're not catching fish along the shoreline though, don't be afraid to look for shallow areas and abrupt depth changes away from shore as well. Stampede has several such areas, and Caples and Silver Lakes are quite shallow in general, with depths barely approaching seventy-feet in the deepest holes. I've caught enough mackinaw in the middle of these lakes to know that trolling open water with shallow running plugs can be worth a shot when the shoreline bite fails to materialize.
AC Plug Lure Choice: Well, I thought I had this subject all figured out, but then my world was turned upside down on another trip to Lake Tahoe just last week. I was going to advise anglers to use AC plugs in the six to eight-inch range for California lake trout, as these are the sizes that have brought me the most success. Allan's always telling me to go big though, and has sent me lures up to twelve inches in length, advising that the biggest lakers are not shy about hitting monster baits. Of course, he fishes Utah's Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Canadian lakes where twenty to thirty-pound lake trout are common, so I ve had a hard time working my nerve up to try these lures on my heavily fished local waters. I finally gave the nine-inch AC Minnow a try on Donner Lake recently though, fishing hard for eleven-hours to catch and release one mackinaw around ten pounds on the huge lure.
AC Plug This inched up my confidence level, and I was ready to go big on the big lake, but I couldn't get back out for a week or two, and in that time I received reports of Tahoe charter captains catching ten to twenty pound lake trout in the shallows, on trolled plugs. Then I saw the new report posted on this website's chat forum, of a Carson City, Nevada angler catching and releasing a twenty-pound class mackinaw on Tahoe, after fishing for just a few minutes with a seven-inch AC original, the first time he tried it! Maybe this beginner's luck thing with AC plugs is more common than I thought! Maybe it's not luck! I contacted this angler, a Mr. Ed Walton, and he turned out to be a very nice guy who was happy to discuss the details of his catch. He told me that he bought the lure and trolled it after reading my Fishsniffer articles on the subject, and he actually thanked me for helping him with his big fish! Of course in talking with him I found he was already an experienced, knowledgeable fisherman, but it still gave me a big head, big enough to tie on the largest AC Plugs my next time out. And here's where all the rules went out the window.
I've told you to go out at dawn; that much I did, but I also advised anglers to fish tight to structure and I was over 50 feet of water with a flat, sandy bottom, trolling my lures near the surface. I had just let out the nine-inch AC Minnow on 100 yards of line, and was starting to feed out line to try the twelve-inch AC Minnow for the first time on my outside rod. My plan was to get both lures out on long lines, then swerve in tight to a rocky, shallow area several hundred yards ahead. I had let only 100 feet off the casting reel, with my thumb pressed down to control the rate at which the spool turned, when the rod kicked hard and my thumb burned while the line flew out as if I d hooked the bumper of a race car.
Whoah! And there I was, one minute into trying out this giant lure, fighting a huge fish. It didn't pull that hard at first, but I figured no trout under about ten pounds would even have the nerve to attack such a formidable opponent, so I reeled just fast enough to keep the line tight, waiting for trouble. As often happens with big mackinaw in extremely cold water, my fish suddenly woke up, thrashing at the surface and rolling over and over before diving hard and peeling more line off my reel. I thought I was in enough trouble as my rod-tip telegraphed the bump-and-scrape of a fish tangling itself up in the line, but then, as I kicked the motor in and out of gear to keep my fourteen-foot boat moving forward in a fairly straight trajectory at the slowest pace possible, another fish slammed the "small" nine-inch AC minnow on my inside rod and ran hard toward shore!
So now I had a double with two of my largest lures and probably two of my largest lake trout. I had to work on the rod already in hand, and I did the best I could while watching the line bleed off the reel on my other rod sitting in the holder. Will it throw the hook? Will it empty my spool of line? I thought about every such contingency for several minutes as I continued to fight my first fish, finally bringing it up as I expected, in a tangle of line, with the twelve-inch AC Minnow at the center of the bird s nest. At this point the big mackinaw came easily to my long-handled, jumbo net (this is another tip for would-be lake trout anglers), and I turned to see that my second fish was miraculously still hooked on the other rod, still pissed-off and pulling line from the reel.
This fish was fighting harder than the first one that sat thrashing violently in the net on the floor of my boat, but I felt good about the way the battle was turning until the big laker started another powerful run, and my line suddenly went slack. I did it again! I yelled to myself. I snapped off another one! But when I reeled in I found that my line had not broken at the knot attached to the lure. The entire 100 feet of ten-pound fluorocarbon leader was gone, and the twenty-pound test swivel I had used to attach the leader to thirty-pound superbraid main line was split wide open! Do the math! I claim equipment failure, but I still expect friendly harassment from Allan Cole for the next ten years, for losing another one of his handmade, monster-catching plugs. When I finished fighting and losing this fish, I turned my attention to the one already in my boat. Wow! With four or five minutes elapsed since it had been in the water, and several more before I could remove the hooks and cut away all the line wrapped around it, I knew the mackinaw could not be released. I measured it to find that it was between thirty-four and thirty-five inches long, which would mean a weight of fourteen or fifteen pounds for an average fish, but this one was incredibly fat, and I was not surprised when my scale told me it weighed eighteen pounds. I was quite amazed though when I took it home and cleaned it to find a rainbow trout nearly eighteen inches long in its stomach! Check out the photo, in which I've included two twelve-inch AC Plugs for scale.
So, it was just a fifteen pound lake trout, yesterday! The rainbow trout was chewed up by the mackinaw's teeth, but still looked fresh, not white and soft as fish will turn after spending much time marinating in digestive juices. This glutton had choked down a huge meal just a day or two before, and still had the appetite or aggression to engulf my twelve-inch lure. I've read that mackinaw will eat fish up to half their length, and I think my guy just broke the record!
So get out there and try your AC Plug for shallow-water lake trout; this is one of the most exciting opportunities you can find for big fish in fresh water! Some final things to think about:
Speed: Although most of my big mackinaw have been hooked at a trolling speed of two to three miles-per-hour, I've caught macks at up to five miles-per-hour, and as I just described, I lost a huge one that hit a barely moving AC Minnow. Experiment! As with all minnow-plugs, you should examine your AC s action in the water next to the boat, at your intended trolling speed. If the lure runs to the left or right then flips over, you may need to tune it by using pliers to bend the metal ring at the lure's nose slightly in the opposite direction. If you're using an AC Original, don't be surprised when you see your lure start out with a uniform wobbling action, then suddenly swerve to the left or right every few seconds as you increase speed. This is part of the unique action of the Original, and these darting movements trigger following fish to strike. Although you can tie your line directly to the lure, adding a split-ring or a snap (not a snap-swivel) can increase the lure's action. Just make sure any hardware you add to an AC is strong enough to hold a big fish without breaking!
AC Plug Lure Color: In clear water natural patterns such as gold, silver and rainbow trout work best, while on green, murky lakes, wild colors like fire-tiger sometimes draw more strikes. Strange as it may seem, the dark or purple rainbow pattern also works well in off-color water, as well as on the darkest days or at night. The AC Hatchery Trout is great when mackinaw are feeding on dull colored, recently stocked rainbows, and the AC Minnow in rainbow or striped rainbow excels where there are wild and holdover bows. Many mackinaw lakes contain large chubs, suckers and whitefish, which can have either a gold or silver coloration, so both gold and silver patterns should be in your box of AC Plugs. On lakes with kokanee salmon, large, silver ACs can be especially deadly; I tried out the eight-inch black and silver Mag-Shad for the first time yesterday, and caught a small five-pound mackinaw. Try this model or the new AC Kokanee on your favorite lake.
Fishing Deep: The information in this article is meant to help anglers using AC Plugs to target lake trout in shallow water. In a future article I will discuss downrigger and lead core trolling. With any wooden lure, caution should be exercised sending it deep, as increased water pressure at depth can crack, warp and deform lures. I have a good friend, a charter captain on Tahoe, who routinely fishes dodger-and-minnow rigs over 250 feet down; he tells me he doesn't like to use any wooden lure deeper than 100 feet, switching instead to plastic or metal. My AC of choice for deep work is the Hatchery Trout, which can better withstand water pressure due to its construction from a denser wood than the other AC models. I have trolled the Hatchery Trout down to 80 feet off a downrigger without problems, but I'm pleased to report that Allan has developed a new finish process for all his lures, that will allow them to run deeper than ever before. He just sent me a batch of these lures to field test on downriggers, and I will report my results on this website, as soon as these darn mackinaw stop smacking the AC in the shallows!
Pro Staffer Mark Wiza is a licensed fishing guide offering a variety of highly educational trips and seminars on lakes and streams in the Tahoe area. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for guided trip details.