Captain of Knowledge: Bob Orsua's science of fishing Flathead Lake
April 07, 2011
By DAVE REESE
Bob Orsua at the helm of a Mofisch fishing boat on Flathead Lake. Dave Reese photo
Lee Selders holds a lake trout caught on a Mofisch fishing charter boat on Flathead Lake, March 31, 2011. Dave Reese photo
There are those who go fishing.
And there are those who fish.
For Bob Orsua, the distinction is great. He chose to make his living as a professional fishing guide nearly 20 years ago, and has spent the last eight years as a guide for Mofisch charters, a guide service in northwest Montana, focusing on Flathead Lake, Whitefish Lake and Lake Koocanusa. When Orsua decided to become a professional guide, he immersed himself in the biology, methods and technology that would make him successful on Flathead Lake.
He shares that knowledge as a professional guide, but he is also free with his knowledge by leading seminars on how to fish Flathead Lake. That kind of knowledge makes the difference between someone who goes fishing — and one who fishes.
While Orsua spends hundreds of hours per year on Flathead Lake and has spent thousands of dollars on professional fishing equipment, he says the average recreational angler can use his same techniques to make them a successful fisherman on Flathead Lake.
One of the keys to fishing Flathead Lake is depth management. Lake trout live in one area in the lake: on the bottom. Knowing that, you know where you have to be and you can present your lures, whether a jig, bait or a trolling lure, right on the bottom.
One way to manage depth is by using a downrigger.
“The whole purpose of downriggers is controlled depth,” Orsua said. “There’s no guessing. If your lure isn’t in the zone, you’re not going to catch fish.”
Lake trout like cold water, and spring fishing is a bit easier on Flathead Lake because of the consistent water temperature, top to bottom. Last week the surface water temperature on Flathead Lake was 37.8 degrees, a figure that Orsua said was probably the same on the bottom of the lake.
Another way that anglers can be successful at trolling is by using steel line. Rather than downriggers, which take lightweight line directly to the depth you want, trolling with steel line requires letting out about 500 to 600 feet of line to reach a depth of around 150 feet. While it takes quite a bit of work to reel in a fish from that depth with steel line, the method is tried and true, according to Orsua. You can do it without the expense of downriggers.
“It’s a very old method, but it works,” he said. “A lot of time it will outfish the downriggers.” In fact, on our trip last week we boated eight fish in four hours, the largest of which was 11 pounds. Of those fish, three were caught on the steel line.
Orsua attaches a six-ounce, banana-shaped lead weight to the leader of the steel line, and tips it with a T-60 Flat Fish, one of the most popular lures for Flathead Lake. Red and white, or glow in the dark, are good colors.
Long-lining with steel line is effective at catching larger fish. This method creates a slow, lazy presentation of the lure — something more attractive to the bigger fish that are over 25 years old.
“Those are big fish that are fat, lazy fish,” Orsua said. “They’re not going to chase a lure.”
Orsua is finding that the larger lake trout at this time of year are feeding on Lake Superior whitefish. Many of the bigger fish he’s catching are filled with whitefish six to 12 inches long. The smaller lake trout are also near the bottom, feeding on mysis shrimp.
Orsua’s techniques produce big fish.
Two years ago he won first place in the Mac Days fishing tournament with a 31-pound lake trout. That same day he caught 12 fish, the smallest of which was 18 pounds. His first-place fish was the largest fish in the history of the tournament, Orsua said.
Jigging is another option if you don’t have downriggers. This method works well in spring, when large amounts of lake trout are congregated at the north end of Flathead Lake where the Flathead River enters, bringing a smorgasbord of food for fish. “Jigging works very well at the delta,” Orsua said. “You can just anchor and fish over the side.”
This area extends from a depth of 10 feet near the river delta, and drops quickly to 150 feet or more. Here, using jigging techniques, the recreational angler can be successful. “The delta offers easier access to a lot of fish,” Orsua said.
Boat position is key on the delta, as you’ll be battling water current and wind. You’ll need two anchors to keep the boat steady, so that you can have a vertical presentation of your jig. “It has to be straight down. You’re just wasting your time if it’s not vertical,” Orsua said.
Many anglers will tip their lure with cut bait, and some anglers use an entire bait fish and fish it off the bottom.
FISHING A LAKE the size of Flathead requires constant adjusting of techniques and depths. If one area is not producing, keep moving. And this is one thing that separates people who fish — from those who go fishing.
“Let the fish tell you what they want,” Orsua said.
Orsua recommends 20-pound braided line for all your uses. This has “zero” stretch, and that’s important for hook sets. It has the same diameter of six-pound mono, so the line cuts through water very easily when being trolled.
In his eight years of fishing Flathead Lake as a guide, Orsua has learned the many moods of Flathead Lake mackinaw.
“It’s a challenging fishery,” he said. “Some days are easier than others. But you’re fishing, and you have to figure out what the bite is, what the attitude of the fish is.”
With his knowledge and professional equipment, Orsua seemed to make it look easy last week for two clients, father and son duo Lee and Jeremy Selders.
“The easy days are easy for everyone,” Orsua said. “On the difficult days you really have to become a fisherman and try to outsmart the fish. Then it’s really gratifying when you catch fish.
“It might look easy, but we’re out here a lot.”
As an angler gains knowledge, they can use this like a favorite lure in their tackle box. “What worked yesterday gives you a good starting point for today,” Orsua said. “Let the fish tell you what they want. Let them be aggressive if they want to or let them tell you if it’s going to be a reaction bite or a bait bite.”
Flathead Lake has undergone many changes in the last 20 years. Kokanee salmon have disappeared from the lake because of certain management techniques, while lake trout numbers have grown. After Flathead Lake for several years was managed for an increased harvest of lake trout, catch numbers have gone down for Orsua, but the quality of the lake trout has risen.
The numbers per trip have gone down from 13 fish average, down to about 8 per charter, Orsua said. “But the quality of the fish has gone up. We have a better lake trout. The value of the meat, it’s a better table fish.
“It’s still a good day if you catch five or six fish in a five-hour charter. This is a great fishery.”
One of the joys of Orsua’s job as a fishing guide is not the biggest fish that someone catches. To him it’s also about sharing the knowledge of how to fish Flathead Lake. “Taking folks fishing, many of whom haven’t been fishing, it’s really a pleasure to show them how it’s done,” Orsua said. “Most of the time these are the biggest fish of their life, so it’s really gratifying to me to see the sparkle in their eyes and the smiles on their faces.
“It’s quite a treat and an honor.”