Spring fishing upon us, with annual spring Mack Days tourney
April 14, 2009
By DAVE REESE
Dick Zimmer stands behind a string of perch caught in South Bay on Flathead Lake last April. With warmer weather approaching, the perch fishing on the south end of Flathead Lake should good by next week, Zimmer says. Perch are a non-native species.
The lake is awake.
Flathead Lake has shrugged off winter, and after months of their boats sitting idle, anglers are heeding the call to the big lake. Hordes of anglers are taking part in the spring Mack Days fishing tournament, a derby designed to help reduce populations of non-native lake trout and Lake Superior Whitefish.
Since March 18 more than 3,000 lake trout have been caught and turned in to tournament officials, who then distribute the processed fish to local food banks.
The tournament has 250 registered entrants, an increase of about 100 anglers over last year's spring tournament. Mack Days runs two versions: one in fall and one in spring. The spring tournament is March 18 to April 16, and has $10,000 in cash and prizes. For each mackinaw that anglers turn in, they receive one ticket for the tournament's lottery. More fish equals more lottery tickets and a better shot at the $2,000 first prize. Paul Haines is the defending 2004 spring and fall Mack Days winner. He turned in 249 fish last spring and 128 fish in the fall to claim his winning ticket.
Fishing is hotter than in past Mack Days, angler Dick Zimmer says, with more limits of lake trout being turned in this spring than ever before.
Zimmer said the best fishing in the last week has been at Rocky Point.
Painted Rocks was good fishing earlier in the contest, with the biggest fish of the tourney caught there.
In the last two weeks the fishing has slowed down at Painted Rocks, but it's producing bigger fish, Zimmer said. At Rocky Point, most fish that anglers are turning in are averaging about two pounds. Fishermen are having to vary their technique throughout the day, but the fishing has been solid, Zimmer said.
In the morning, anglers are able to hook up with fish that are feeding higher in the water column, at about 160 feet. But as the morning progresses, the lake trout move deeper, almost to the bottom of the lake, where Zimmer figures the fish are following food - mysis shrimp. The shrimp, he said, lie along the bottom of the lake, and the schools of lake trout actively pursue them by foraging. This is where the fishing gets challenging, because anglers are fishing in 220 to 250 feet of water, using baited jigs. "You want to stay deep," Zimmer said.
Deepwater trout are also harder to find on your electronics, as they feed close to the bottom, Zimmer said. "You can't read them," he said.
This feeding pattern was noticed last year in McGregor Lake, also. Zimmer said the fish would feed within 10 feet of the surface "then they'd just disappear."
Although there's a $500 prize for the largest fish caught in the Mack Days tournament, "Most everybody goes for the numbers," Zimmer said.
Anglers turn in their catches at Blue Bay on the east shore of Flathead Lake. This means that most anglers at the north end of the lake don't enter their fish in the tournament, because of the "commute." That doesn't mean that fishing hasn't been good up north. According to the fishing department at Snappy's in Kalispell, anglers have been doing well at the Flathead River delta in depths from 40 feet to 180 feet.
Zimmer, owner of Zimmer Tackle in Pablo, is an avid Flathead Lake fisherman. He's fishing as much as he can in the tourney, but since he's having to supply local anglers with his popular tackle he's not getting out as much as he'd like. "I'm just trying to keep all these guys in tackle," he said.
He's also looking forward to one of his favorite spring activities on Flathead Lake: perch fishing.
In spring, when the temperatures start to rise and the water in South Bay near Polson warms up, the perch fishing gets hot.
"This next warm weather ought to turn them on," Zimmer said.
Yellow perch, another non-native species in Flathead Lake, are tasty delicacy that anglers like to pursue. When water temperatures reach 55 degrees, that's when the perch start feeding actively.
South Bay is the best bet this early in the season, but by July, Elmo, Big Arm and Dayton will be good bets, Zimmer said. With the water level in Flathead Lake staying higher this year, that increases the volume of water that has to heat up, so you're going to have to fish a bit shallower, Zimmer advised.
"You might be in two feet of water," he said. "There should be plenty of macks and whitefish in there, so you might pick one of those up too."
Zimmer said he noticed a "ton" of mackinaw in South Bay this winter, which he thinks might help thin out the yellow perch population. "It shouldn't have affected the bigger ones very much," he said. "There's a good chance it will be very good."
Anglers wanting to pursue perch will find the closest boat ramp at the east end of the Polson city docks next to Kwa Taq Nuk resort. It's about a three-mile jaunt over to South Bay. Zimmer said you should search for perch in the weed beds, using a perch fly, which is a weighted fly with a flasher on the bottom hook. He puts another colored fly above that, and baits them both with nightcrawler or perch eyes.
Many anglers also use a two-inch Twister Tail, a rubber lure attached to one-sixteenth or one-eighth ounce lead head. The best colors are white, yellow or chartreuse.
Flathead Lake generally can be a dangerous lake to fish, because of the weather and water conditions. However, fishing South Bay is relatively safe because it's bordered on by land on the south, north and east sides. "You can generally be out of the waves, unless the wind's coming out of the west," Zimmer said. "If it is, it can get a little rough out there."
This is where good anchoring technique comes in. Zimmer uses a mud anchor, which has a flat plate and tines attached to it.
When he's fishing the deep water for macs, he uses two anchors attached to one rope. Wave action on the boat tends to lift and move the bottom anchor, so he attaches an anchor above that, which puts a "bow" in the anchor rope. This takes the pressure off the bottom anchor.
If the water's not that rough, you can use a single anchor with a stopper above that; if the water gets rough, attach a carabiner to another anchor and slide it down.
"The more bow in your line, the better your anchor effectiveness is," he said.
This spring, he said, weather has been battering anglers at times in the Mack Days tourney. "It's a real trick," he said. "It's been real windy out there, and some people have had a miserable time trying to get an anchor set.
"It's a science to catch those lake trout, but if you get it down, you do pretty well."
Anglers can register online at www.mackdays.com. Adults cost $10 and kids are free. In the youth division, Keegan Noyd has turned in 110 fish; Mitchell Decker, 46; Austin Moran, 30; Emma Decker, 28; Cindy Vaughn, 26; Kyleigh Tripp, 21, and Benton Spears, 21.