Wallowa Lake is northeastern Oregon’s largest natural lake and one of its favorite vacation destinations, located in postcard-perfect country near Joseph, beneath the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Most anglers target the lake’s plentiful rainbow trout and record-breaking kokanee, but Wallowa Lake is one of the best spots in Oregon to land a trophy mackinaw. It’s not a high-volume fishery – a great day for most anglers would be a fish or two – but the big trout that are landed here often weigh well into the teens.
Rules to Fish By
Wallowa Lake is open to year-round fishing. Lake trout are counted with rainbow trout in the five-trout daily bag limit (kokanee are counted separately). There are no size limits for lake and rainbow trout. Bull trout must be released unharmed. Check with ODFW for regulation changes.
Timing Your Trip
It’s possible to catch lake trout year-round at Wallowa Lake – even through the ice during the coldest winters – but the better fishing starts up in late March or early April. Throughout the spring, mackinaw will prowl varying depths for forage fish such as kokanee and whitefish.
Starting about mid-June, as water temperatures rise, lake trout tend to hunker down in the depths, where they are tough to find and tougher to entice into strikes. Things are especially tough in the late summer and early fall. Wallowa Lake’s maximum depth is about 285 feet.
In the spring, the lake “turns over,” with nutrient-rich but murkier water coming to the top of the lake, over a layer of gin-clear water down deep. In fall, it reverses so that the upper layer is crystalline.
Where to Catch Them – Go Deep
Mackinaw will roam the entire lake, wherever they can find depths suitable to the time of day and season.
It’s close to a necessity to use a boat to go after mackinaw, which are seldom found on the shallow shelf rimming Wallowa Lake. There are launches available at both ends of the lake and boat rentals available.
The north end of the lake is popular for the small band of regulars who target lake trout, particularly when the big trout are at more moderate depths found there (about 150 feet) and reachable by trolling with lead-core lines.
The center part of the lake is deeper but actually more consistent throughout the season, particularly for anglers with the right equipment and knowledge.
Sometimes the mackinaw will rise out of the depths to feed at night and can still be found at moderate depths for the first morning hours before returning to deeper water.
How to Catch Them
Besides a boat, a fish-finder and a downrigger are extremely helpful to locate and target lake trout. Moncrief equips his boat with a sonar system powerful enough to monitor when a fish moves toward his lure, and he sometimes lowers a camera on his downrigger to learn what triggers an attack.
Trolling is the most common method of fooling lake trout.
Most people troll too slowly. Moncrief’s camera has shown that a faster troll with lure such as Luhr Jensen J-Plugs, Silver Horde spoons or Rapala Minnows produce more quick strikes. Trolling 3 to 5 miles per hour feels fast but can be very effective at enticing lakers to make a sudden attack instead of indulging their habit of leisurely trailing a slow-trolled lure before losing interest. For these fast-troll lures, choose models between 4 and 6 inches to imitate forage fish. Use gold or silver colors in clearer water and dark colors in lower visibility.
At times a slower troll will be the ticket, and may be the only option without a downrigger. Bring along some smaller Luhr Jensen Kwikfish, Worden’s FlatFish or similar lures that wobble at slow speeds, especially in the 2- to 4-inch range.
Without a downrigger, try early-season trolling with lead-core line until the macks move into water below 150 or 200 feet, which is too
deep to reach with this method.
Fishing with various types of jigs is another option. In fact, kokanee anglers working Buzz Bombs and other metal jigs occasionally find themselves battling a big mack on light tackle.
Tube jigs and various “swim baits” more often associated with bass fishing work surprisingly well for mackinaw. Use 2- to 4-inch rubber jigs (or cut to length); brown seems to work as well as any color. Berkley and many companies make a variety of these lures.
For any style of jig, locate the fish with your electronics. Drop the jig on a free fall but stop it 5 to 10 feet above the targeted laker. This is most likely to entice a fierce attack from below. Dropping the lure right into the fish’s face, as anglers typically do, is likely to result in retreat.
Lake trout sometimes will take a jig gently; watch for subtle changes and strike whenever the movement changes.
If the fish doesn’t hit immediately, work the jig around awhile to try to annoy your quarry into striking.
If All Else Fails
If you are a newcomer to Wallowa Lake mackinaw fishing, particularly one without all the gizmos, try the following simple approach.
On days with a breeze, work jigs as you drift across deep sections of lake. Start one angler at 100 feet deep, another at 150 deep and so on. Work the jigs with hearty pulls to try to provoke the more aggressive lake trout. (If there’s no wind, jig in one spot for a short while, pull up your lines, then motor 50 yards away and try again. Repeat.)
This method is more haphazard than Moncrief’s studied approaches, but it can produce for novices.
Mark Moncrief owns Tri-State Outfitters, which offers custom trophy fishing and big-game hunting trips. Moncrief also holds the Wallowa Lake record for mackinaw with a 36.5-pound lake trout.
He has been guiding on the lake since the late 1980s and also takes clients after smallmouth bass, crappie, catfish and trout on Oxbow, Brownlee and Hell’s Canyon reservoirs on the Snake River.