Lake trout, often referred to as mackinaw, are the biggest, hardest-fighting trout in most of the lakes they call home.
Catching lake trout in California is a worthy goal for serious anglers, so we’re here to help raise your fishing odds by pointing you to the right places.
Weighing upwards of 20 pounds, they have a reputation for frantic head-shakes and line-stripping runs that leave anglers sore-armed and breathless.
For many anglers, they’re a unique and much sought-after game fish. But for others, lake trout are mysterious and seldom seen.
That reputation stems largely from the fact that it’s rare to catch lake trout from shore. These “lakers” prefer deeper water than most other trout species—often 100 feet or more—and their preferred temperature range is roughly 46-59 °F. They like it cold.
That’s because lake trout are adapted to northern life. They’re native to areas from Alaska to Nova Scotia, as well as the Great Lakes watersheds.
They don’t occur naturally in the U.S. west of the Rockies but have been introduced to selected waters in most of the western states.
The first known mackinaw in California were introduced to Lake Tahoe (from the Nevada side) in 1889. By the 1920s they were abundant in the lake.
They have since been introduced to a smattering of other California lakes, mostly in the Sierras where cool climates allow them to thrive without damaging native fish populations.
Unlike most other trout species, lake trout don’t really eat insects. They’re top predators in the lakes they inhabit, and their diet consists almost exclusively of smaller fish.
For that reason, fly fishermen don’t often catch lake trout. Those who do go after them with flies typically use large streamers and oversized dry flies that mimic the minnows on which mackinaw forage.
For the most part, macks are caught on minnow-imitating plugs, spoons and occasionally jigs.
Lake trout are not technically trout. They’re members of the char family, which is a branch of the trout and salmon family tree, and they can be differentiated from other trout species in California by their deeply forked tails.
Their coloration typically a slate-like gray-green, with lighter colored spots distributed uniformly across most of the body.
If you’re looking for places in California to tangle with big mackinaw, these lakes are your best bets.
Lake Tahoe is the only California lake in which mackinaw truly dominate. They’re more common than rainbow trout or brown trout in this vast inland sea.
Lake Tahoe is also home to California’s long-standing lake trout record. The 37-pound, 6-ounce fish has been unmatched since 1974.
The problem with Tahoe’s mackinaw is finding them. Lake Tahoe sprawls across 122,600 acres and has depths up to a staggering 1,645 feet.
Where does one even begin? There’s a reason why many who fish Lake Tahoe for the first time choose to book a charter.
The key to finding lake trout in Lake Tahoe tends to be trolling along ledges where the bottom quickly drops to 100 to 300 feet.
Mackinaw suspend at various depths over these areas, and trolling with multiple baits on downriggers set at different depths is the quickest way to find them.
Another good tactic is to watch your electronics for schools of small kokanee, which mackinaw feed on, and fish below them.
March through June is arguably the best time to go after lake trout here, and is when many of the year’s biggest fish are caught in 70 to 80 feet.
Summer and fall are often better for numbers of fish, but they’ll be down even deeper, and the true giants seem harder to find.
Named for the ill-fated Donner Party, a group of pioneers who got stuck in nearby Donner Pass in the winter of 1846-47, Donner Lake is one of California’s best lakes for anyone in search of trophy lake trout.
Although this 960-acre lake is dwarfed by Lake Tahoe, just 20 miles away, it has a reputation for producing much bigger “macks” on a regular basis than its neighbor.
A few mackinaw in the 30-pound class have come from Donner Lake over the years, including a 31-pound, 4-ounce monster in 2020.
Deep water around the China Cove area is a favorite place to go after them.
Mackinaw often forage on juvenile rainbow trout and kokanee salmon on Donner Lake, and locals troll plugs that imitate them.
Some of the biggest lake trout at Donner Lake come in winter, but bites are often few and far between when the water is cold and fish are lethargic.
However, with a hard freeze, Donner Lake becomes one of the best ice fishing lakes in California, and the occasional big mack is pulled through the ice along with more common rainbows.
The bite picks up in May, as the water warms past the 50-degree mark, and often continues to early October.
Donner Lake tends to become overrun by pleasure boaters, wind surfers and water skiers in summer.
A word to the wise: your best bet to beat the summer crowds is to arrive as early in the morning as possible, or plan your trip in the spring or fall.
More: Donner Lake Fishing
Bucks Lake is a picturesque mountain lake that spans 1,827 acres and is surrounded by the rocky slopes and lofty pines of Plumas National Forest.
It looks like what you might come up with you were to dream a vision of a perfect trout lake.
Lake trout swim alongside brown trout, rainbow trout and kokanee salmon here, and you’re likely to catch a mixed bag on any given day.
It’s also a great lake for kayak fishing.
The fishing season is relatively short because snow often makes the lake inaccessible from October through April.
Bucks Lake is packed with smaller mackinaw in the 12- to 18- inch range, but there are monsters in there too, with a solid chance of hooking up with trophy macks ranging from 10 to 15 pounds.
Trolling Rapalas and J-Plugs over deep water can be the key to finding big mackinaw, which often suspend over rock piles and drop-offs between 35 and 50 feet early in the season.
Be prepared to try different depths as you work on locating fish.
More: Bucks Lake Fishing
Hell Hole Reservoir
Despite being a mere 10-mile stone’s throw from Lake Tahoe, Hell Hole Reservoir is pretty well off the beaten path and receives relatively little fishing pressure compared to similar lakes.
Maybe it’s the name that scares people away.
Spanning 1,253 acres in the Eastern Sierras, Hell Hole Reservoir hosts mackinaw approaching 20 pounds.
It’s also notable statewide for its brutish brown trout and also has lots of feisty rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.
Like a lot of the smaller Sierra lakes in California, Bucks Lake lends itself very well to fishing from a kayak or float tube.
The lake trout here love to gobble up the fingerling rainbows and kokanee that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regularly stocks.
Many locals locate mackinaw by trolling Apex spoons, Rapalas and Flatfish lures that imitate this forage.
Once you find the macks, it often pays to switch to casting these lures, or even drifting live bait.
The mackinaw in Hell Hole Reservoir tend to suspend above points, drop-offs and rock piles in 60 to 100 feet of water. Jigging is often a great way to fish vertically and nail down the right depth.
Stampede Reservoir lies just east of Donner Summit, at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet. It’s a beautiful High Sierra Lake that spans 3,450 acres and is home to mackinaw in the 20-pound class.
The lake is probably best known as one of California’s top kokanee fishing lakes. These fish run on the small side here but are great on the table, and the lake trout agree with that assessment.
Mackinaw spend the warmer months in deep water—about 70 to 80 feet—and the easiest way to find fish at that depth is trolling with a downrigger.
Once you’ve pinpointed the depth, the fish often fall for jigs and jigging spoons.
In cooler seasons, you can catch lake trout much closer to the surface, often by trolling with lures like Stingfish, Rapalas and Matrix Minnows.
Lakers feed heavily on fingerling kokanee salmon in Stampede Reservoir. The key to catching them is often locating a school of kokanee, and fishing directly below them with silver-colored lures.
Thanks to its northern latitude and high elevation, Stampede Reservoir is one of the few California lakes in which ice fishing for lake trout is possible.
The lake freezes over most winters, and jigging through the ice for mackinaw is popular.
A handful of other Sierra lakes have stable lake trout populations.
While mackinaw tend to be outnumbered by other trout species in these lakes, they still offer some great opportunities to get out on the water in pursuit of these deep-dwelling fish.
Lower Bear River Reservoir
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 5,800 feet, Lower Bear River Reservoir is a beautiful mountain lake that offers a range of fishing opportunities.
The 727-acre lake is heavily stocked with rainbow trout, making them the main attraction for many who fish here. But there are huge mackinaw out there too.
Lake trout over 30 pounds have been caught at Lower Bear River Reservoir, and you have a solid shot at a 10-pounder.
The periods immediately after ice-out in spring and right before the freeze in fall are best.
Many locals troll live nightcrawlers or trout-imitating plugs over deep drop-offs.
Spanning a little over 60 acres, Caples Lake is a jewel of blue water in the High Sierras south of Lake Tahoe.
Rainbow trout are the most abundant fish here, but the lake is home to a decent mackinaw populations, including some confirmed giants weighing 10 pounds or more.
At an elevation of 7,800 feet, Caples Lake freezes over reliably every winter, making it one of California’s most popular ice fishing lakes.
Ice fishermen commonly drop jigging spoons, nightcrawlers and minnows through the ice for chunky mackinaw and pan-sized rainbows.
Gold Lake is the centerpiece of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, a mountainous area in Plumas National Forest that includes dozens of fishing lakes.
Any of the basin’s lakes can be rewarding, but Gold Lake is the largest and arguably offers the best fishing, with populations of mackinaw along with rainbow and brook trout.
Trolling usually works best for mackinaw, as the lake is prone to winds that can make it challenging for kayaks and float tubes.
Roughly 20-pound lakers have been caught here.
Shore access and tent camping are available at the Gold Lake Campground, and boat launch facilities are just up the road from there.
Fallen Leaf Lake
One of Lake Tahoe’s smaller neighbors in the Easter Sierra, Fallen Leaf Lake is an often-overlooked trout lake that spans 1,560 acres and is home to lake trout as well as rainbows, browns and kokanee salmon.
Mackinaw tend to stay deep here, suspending at various depths, often up to 100 feet of water. Bring downriggers.
Trolling along the eastern shore of Fallen Leaf Lake is often productive, particularly the northern portion. J-Plugs, Flatfish and Apex spoons are popular trolling lures.
The lake has steep drops along much of the shoreline, and the water is usually exceptionally clear.
Union Valley Reservoir
Union Valley Reservoir is a popular destination for camping and hiking as well as fishing in El Dorado National Forest.
Rainbow trout and kokanee salmon share the water with mackinaw, which tend to be the deepest of the three.
Rapalas and Flatfish are often used to tempt strikes.
Downriggers are often required to get your lure down to where the big macks hang out. Catches at 100 to 120 feet are common in summer.
In fall, the prime depth is closer to 60 feet as waters cool down.
Productive areas for trolling include along the South Shore and on either side of the peninsula.