For several weeks, my wife and son have been asking to plan a fishing trip. And Theo was not just asking for any fishing trip, but a trip where he would have a chance to add new species and preferably a new size record to his fishing list. Last summer, he caught his personal record in Montana – a good-sized whitefish out of Flathead Lake. The whitefish was not huge, but it whet his appetite for bigger fights. And while he enjoyed catching the whitefish, it was bothering him that his biggest catch was an out of state fish. He was looking for a Colorado fish to be his “personal record.”
Over the summer, we had many conversations about fishing for Mackinaw or Macks (commonly known as lake trout). Our discussions usually revolved around the challenges of going after these fish when they were close to shore. Theo was well aware that much like the spring ice-out, the fall spawn brings Mackinaw within reach of the shore angler. And with the spawn beginning in October, we knew this past weekend could be the perfect opportunity to catch a big fish from shore – a temptation that none of us could resist.
With a big Mack as the target, the only thing left to do was to pick a lake. We had never fished Twin Lakes in Leadville, but I knew the waters were home to a wide variety of fish, including Mackinaw. And the high country lake is at the base of Mount Elbert, so the scenery was sure to be spectacular. We decided to head up to a hotel in Buena Vista after work on Friday so that we could be out on the lake early Saturday morning.
For this outing, we were expecting cold temperatures and winds, both manageable with a little preparation. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my son, there are two factors that can quickly derail our outdoor adventures – getting cold or getting hungry. And you never want to see both elements in play at the same time. We overpacked warm clothes and bags of snacks to ensure we could handle the temperatures and fight off the never-ending appetite of a ten-year-old. The only remaining question was whether there would be ice on the lake.
We were up and out of the hotel early. The weather had changed overnight, with some frigid air moving in. There was even a dusting of snow as we approached the lakes. Driving along the shoreline, we were excited to see ice-free water. The winds were whipping and the white-capped water was looking more like an ocean than a lake. Yet we were surrounded by a sea of sage and snow-capped mountains. So even if we didn’t catch a fish, the scenery alone had made the trip a success.
Now we were down to picking our fishing location. Knowing that Mackinaw prefer to lay eggs in rocky areas close to the lake shore, we scanned the lake in search of a rocky point or rocky shoreline easily accessed from one of the many day-use parking lots. Managing the difficulty of getting to a fishing spot, with hands full of gear, can pay dividends for the entire family. We pulled into an empty lot and saw just what we were looking for. Theo, Helaine and I were all in agreement; we had identified the “perfect” hot spot.
I set up Theo’s rod with a 1/4 oz gold Kastmaster, an easy and fun setup for kids to handle. I typically make the first cast with his rod, just to make sure that the reel is in good order and that the spool of line hasn’t developed any tangles in storage. The spoon sailed flawlessly out into the lake. I started the retrieve, reviewing some of the basics with Theo and joking about the big fish we were going to catch.
WHAM! I quickly turned my focus out to the water. Theo noticed my change in expression and said, “Stop messing with me!” Maybe my history as ‘The Dad who Cried Fish’ had finally caught up with me. I assured him it was a bite and I successfully pleaded for a second cast. Again, the spoon sailed out into the lake and with less than two cranks of the reel, we had a fish on. With the drag set fairly light, the spool began to sing as the fish stripped out yards of line. “We have a big one,” I yelled out to Theo, and he quickly jumped up to grab the net. The pressure was on. The first fish of the day was going to be big and landing it would put this day in the family record books.
As I fought the fish into shore, Theo jumped onto a big rock down by the water and readied the net. As the big mack emerged from the water, we knew we had an issue – we needed a bigger net! Theo scooped the net behind the big Mack and corralled the fish into a pool between the rocks. With half of the fish hanging out of the net, he managed to confine it in shallow water between a couple of rocks. “I need some help here,” he shouted. And with a team effort, we retrieved the monster from the water. Our first fish of the day was a beautiful Mack that was just over 30 inches in length. We admired the fish for a moment and then quickly returned it to the lake.
After the fish was safely back in the water, the three of us looked at each other and simultaneously started laughing out loud. The laughter was followed by a conversation about how crazy it was to catch a Mack this quickly. And finally, the reality hit us that we may be in for an epic day. Helaine set up her rod and headed down the shoreline. Theo grabbed his rod and asked if I could “spot him,” just in case he hooked a big one that might pull him into the lake. I chuckled but agreed. The first fish had set the bar high, so I understood his apprehension around taking a Mack on solo. I assured him that I had his back.
A few casts in and he had a fish on. I could tell from the bend in the rod that this was not going to be his record breaker. With rod tip up, he quickly battled the fish to shore and reeled in a pretty little cutbow trout. I joked that it was closer to bait than the big one he was looking for. We snapped a quick photo and slid the fish back into the water. The cutbow was followed by half a dozen hungry rainbows, but his Mack was nowhere to be found.
With it looking like we would be catching smaller trout, I headed down the shoreline and started fishing. A couple of casts in and I heard Theo shouting again, “I’ve got a monster on. Help!” I told him to fight the fish down the shoreline so that we could land the fish in a nice sandy spot. With rod tip up, he battled the fish beautifully, guiding it to shore where I was able to grab his monster Mack – a beautiful fish that I bet he’ll never forget.
It’s rare that you get a day when it seems like you can’t pick the wrong lure, but this was that day – a day that produced multiple Mackinaw, rainbow, and cutbow trout. This day turned out to be a day most anglers dream of. As Helaine and I packed the gear and prepared to head back to the car, I caught Theo looking out at the lake. I can only imagine that he was wondering what else was in those waters – a look that made me think I better start researching our next trip. Despite the snowy and windy weather, this was one of those days where a young angler gets hooked for life!