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Have you ever caught a fish that was older than you? Most people would think not. And that would be true for most species, but it may be possible when it comes to lake trout. Lake trout, also known as mackinaw, are among the longest living and largest fish in Wyoming. In fact, the largest fish of any species ever taken by an angler in Wyoming was a lake trout. The current state record is 50 pounds, actually held by two fish, one from Jackson Lake and the other from Flaming Gorge.
For this reason, lake trout are a highly prized game fish among Wyoming anglers looking to land the trophy of a lifetime. However, few anglers realize how rare large lake trout are and how difficult it is for them to reach such an impressive size. Recent research done on Jackson Lake by Wyoming Game and Fish biologists demonstrates the many obstacles lake trout must overcome to become a ıtrophyı class fish. These obstacles also present challenges to the biologists who manage these important game fish populations.
The most obvious hurdle facing lake trout managers is their extremely slow growth. A typical 16- to18-inch lake trout, found in the creel of many anglers, is about 7 years old. This is older than most cutthroat trout, which typically reach their peak at 3 to 4 years and rarely live to be 6 or 7. A lake trout approaching 24 inches could easily be 10 to 12 years old, and lake trout longer than 30 inches could be well into their 20s, or even 30s.
The slow growth exhibited by lake trout is an evolutionary trait they developed to withstand the extremely cold water and short growing seasons of their native range in Canada. Though these characteristics have suited them well for the lake environments of western Wyoming, they also create circumstances that can make managing them difficult. Such slow growth means it takes a long time for a lake trout to become sexually mature and reproduce. In most Wyoming lakes, female lake trout are not able to spawn until they are about 10 years old. And larger females capable of producing large numbers of healthy eggs may be 20 years or older!
Consequently, adult lake trout must endure 10 to 20 years of angling pressure before they are capable of reproducing and contributing to the wild lake trout population. Lake trout populations can begin to suffer if angling pressure is too high and removes too many sexually mature adults.
The other obvious concern among biologists is the simple fact that it takes a very long time to produce those trophy class fish. Getting one of these highly prized fish to live into its 30s is no small task. When these fish are harvested, anglers may wait several years, or even decades, for younger fish to replace them. Research has shown that generally, less than five percent of a lake trout population is made up of fish larger than five pounds and lake trout greater than 20 pounds, trophy class by most standards, generally represent less than 1% of the population.
Fisheries biologists use a variety of methods to ensure that trophy lake trout continue to lurk in Wyoming lakes. Tight fishing regulations are often used to offer large lake trout some protection. Almost every lake containing lake trout has a regulation that allows anglers to harvest only one fish over 20 inches. This helps to reduce over-harvest of the larger ıtrophyı lake trout and encourages more harvest of the younger fish, which are far more abundant.
Biologists will also frequently stock prey species of fish to augment the forage base available to lake trout. Species, like kokanee salmon, are frequently stocked to help improve lake trout growth. In Wyoming, lake trout are usually found in the big, deep lakes in the western part of the state. Jackson Lake and Flaming Gorge are the most popular, but lake trout can also be found in all of the ıfingerı lakes on the western slope of the Wind River Range: Fremont, Halfmoon, Boulder, Willow, New Fork and Green River lakes. Lake trout are most accessible to anglers at shallower depths during the cold months by fishing through the ice and near shorelines soon after ice-off. As surface waters warm, lake trout head deeper for the colder water. During the summer months, they may be at depths of 100 feet or more, which means a boat and down-riggers are a must.
Ice anglers usually find success using a jig tipped with sucker meat. Just after iceoff, anglers should try any kind of flashy lure in the shallower waters along the shoreline. When the fish go deep, downriggers with pop gear (cow bells) or flatfish are the most popular.
As Wyoming anglers, we are fortunate for the opportunity to have such a large fish on the other end of the line. It also is important we understand the delicate balance of managing lake trout populations and the challenges they present to our fisheries managers. Lake trout can be relatively easy to catch and are good eating as well. We should all take the opportunity to land one or two. And the next time you have one in hand, think about just how old that fish actually is and the many obstacles it has overcome to get to that ripe old age.
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