A Winter's Day on Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

Looking east across Lake Tahoe at dawn.
Photo Credit: Denis Peirce

by Denis Peirce

On some of these dreary wet days it may not seem like a good fishing season, but if you take a longer term perspective this is close to a perfect winter.

We depend on winter to provide the water the fish need to swim in. It is the Sierra snowpack that stores the water for the coming year. The winter of 2018-19 is shaping up to be just a bit above normal for water. It gives us what we need and a bit to store away for a dry year in our future. In between the storm systems, we have been getting runs of dry days that allow the barometer to stabilize and the waters to clear enough for us to get out on the water to catch some fish. The two most notable fisheries close to Grass Valley have been the Lower Yuba River a few days after a storm and Bullard's Bar for bass and for kokanee.

Two weeks ago during one streak of sunny days, Shaun Rainsbarger (www.shaunsguideservice.net) and I headed up the hill to fish Lake Tahoe. Shaun had been up to Tahoe a few days earlier and did well fishing for mackinaw close to Tahoe City. He extended an invitation for me to come along and fish with him.

Shaun is one of those guides that wants to be on the water fishing at prime time, the break of dawn. That necessitated us meeting in Grass Valley at 4:30 am to arrive at Lake Forest launch ramp when it opened at 6:00 am.

Now Lake Tahoe rivals Yosemite when it comes to bureaucracies. To launch your boat there you have to be inspected and a myriad of rules must be adhered to. Shaun had been inspected on his previous trip and his boat had been "sealed" to the trailer with a wire cable to show it had not been off the trailer. It still took 20 minutes to get to the ramp to begin the launch process.

We had the boat in the water in the dark with a south east wind pushing 3' waves toward the dock. It was tough trying to rig up my rods on a boat rolling so much that I could not walk without holding on to something. Both Shaun and I were having second thoughts about being out on the lake in these conditions.  Once the lines were out and fishing we felt more confident. As the sky started to get light in the east we noticed the wind decreasing and the waves laying down. It was going to be a nice day after all.

Lake Tahoe is not one of the premier fisheries in the state. The water is clear because it does not have a lot of biomass. It is biomass that is the basis of the food chain in lakes like Stampede Reservoir that produce great fishing. Now there are good fish in Tahoe but the catching can be a challenge. The mackinaw, which normally are found deep in the lake, are plentiful. There is also a population of rainbows and browns that get large on a diet of minnows. On this day we were hoping to cross paths with a good sized rainbow or brown.

Prior to this trip I did not realize that Dollar Point is a flat extending well over a mile off shore. Most of the "Point" is 25 to 40 feet deep.  Other areas of the lake's shoreline drop off quickly. We concentrated our efforts here early in the day because Shaun's previous trip had produced half a dozen mackinaw on the point. When we did not get any cooperation from the fish on Dollar Point, we headed east along the north shore.

We were trolling minnow imitations.  I was rigged with trolling flies running wide of the boat off planer boards. There are times when the trout are in close to shore hunting minnows.  My flies were running a few feet below the surface on sink tip fly lines. These top lines which were aimed at browns and rainbows, did not produce a thing this day. In areas without docks and mooring buoys I was able to get in close to the bank in shallow water. Otherwise my gear was out over 20 to 40 feet of water.

Shaun was fishing plugs off downriggers near the bottom in 30 to 40 feet of water. It was the plugs run close to the bottom that got the interest of the mackinaw.  He rotated through a number of plugs up to 8 inches long. It was J-Plugs that the macs would hit.

Browns and rainbows are most active when the water is in the 50 to 60 degree range. On this day the water was 43 degrees. I will take that as an excuse for not catching trout on top, while Shaun was hooking mackinaw near the bottom. Shaun is a good angler.

Fishing Lake Tahoe from a boat is more than just another fishing trip. Being out on that lake is an experience in itself. If you have an appreciation for architecture and craftsmanship Tahoe is best seen from the water. Many of the beautiful structures are meant to be seen from the water and are hidden from the road.

This weekend promises to be wet again. Mother nature will be stacking up more snow in the high country.   But wet days are a sign that dry days are coming. Next time you get a few days of no rain try getting out on the water. I think you will be glad you did.

Denis Peirce also writes a fishing column for "The Union Newspaper" Outdoors section and is host of "The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report" which airs 6 to 7 PM Friday evenings and 5 to 6 AM Saturday mornings on AM 830 radio. You can contact him through his website, www.trollingflies.com.

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