Deciphering Big Blue: One Fish at a Time

Mickey Daniels. | Mark McLaughlin

Lake Tahoe is one of the most intensively instrumented bodies of water in the world, constantly monitored by an intricate network of sensors that reveal the subtle pulse of this special place. Scientists and researchers from around the globe study Big Blue, searching for clues to its changing ecological health. Limnology is the study of inland aquatic ecosystems and the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), associated with the University of California, Davis, focuses on science-based information to promote responsible action and stewardship in the Tahoe Basin.

Instruments are vital for compiling specific data, but scientists will tell you that personal interaction and observation over long periods of time are also an important tool in sensing environmental change in the Tahoe fishery. With 50 years of near daily, year-round excursions, Carnelian Bay-based sport fisherman Mickey Daniels is the epitome of that personal observation. Not only has Daniels brought the exciting pleasure of fishing to anglers young and old for half a century, his dedicated efforts to tag and track fish in Lake Tahoe has earned him the respect of the most noted researchers studying this unique alpine lake. In 2007, Dr. Charles Goldman, a distinguished environmental scientist and limnologist at UC Davis and a pioneer in the study of Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem, gave tribute to Daniels and acknowledged his contributions to our understanding of the Tahoe fishery.

Daniels has been tagging and releasing fish for decades, keeping records that track and document the movement, growth and lifespan of the big mackinaws and flashy trout that prowl Tahoe’s depths. In his peak year, he single-handedly tagged more than 1,000 fish. Over the years, his measurements indicate slower growth rates for fish that feed in deeper off-shore water, but good growth rates for fish who feed near shore where the food chain is more robust. Daniels shares his extensive data with biologists working for the California Department of Fish and Game, an agency for which he is a board member. He also cooperates with TERC-affiliated scientists. That agency’s efforts have led to establishing Lake Tahoe as a preeminent environmental research laboratory. Their program supports a spectrum of work essential to resolving environmental issues at Tahoe and throughout the world. Daniels’ many years of fish observation and tracking provide scientists with a rare glimpse into a changing, at-risk fishery on a protracted time scale.

Michael “Mickey” Daniels was born on Oct. 3, 1937, in Los Angeles. His family later moved to Rio Linda in Sacramento County where they operated a gas station store. For a period of time, his father worked as the captain of a ferry boat on the Columbia River in Washington, which may explain how Mickey acquired his nautical genes. The family next settled in Sacramento where his father ran a small business until his death in 1949.

Over the course of 36 years, Daniels served in law enforcement in the Tahoe Sierra while earnestly pursuing his true passion: fishing. In 1969, he purchased his first commercial sports fishing boat, a 15-foot tri-hull and earned his Merchant Marine Captain certification. He quickly earned a reputation as an entertaining and knowledgeable skipper who knew where to find the elusive lunkers that lurk in the vast lake. Word spread across Northern California that his Big Mack Charters was whom to call for Tahoe’s best sports fishing. Business grew. Today, a plethora of competing outfits operate at Big Blue, but Daniels believes that the more people who enjoy sport fishing the better.

Capt. Daniels has long been active in local service groups that raise money for charities. He’s been a Rotarian for nearly 40 years.

In 1978, Daniels and his brother-in-law organized a Tahoe City “Big Mack Feed” to raise money for his successful election to constable. The next year they established the popular fish feed as an annual charity event to support local needs. For 26 years, he supplied mackinaw and trout for this crowd-pleasing event that attracted hundreds of local families. For many participants it was the first time they had ever tasted wild fish caught in Lake Tahoe — another lure for future customers.

In 1978, Daniels bought a 32-foot Sportfisher that he christened “Big Mack I.” He upgraded to the “Big Mack II” in 1985, a spacious 43-footer designed for Lake Tahoe and equipped with the latest in electronics and fishing gear. It may not be as new and shiny as it once was, but “Big Mack II” remains in active service under his command. His personal best for a mackinaw is 31 pounds, 4 ounces; the boat record is 32 pounds. (The all-time mackinaw record for Lake Tahoe is 37 pounds, 6 ounces.)

Summer 2019 represents the 50th anniversary of Daniels’ Big Mack Charters. Skipper is turning 82 this October, but he still greets everyone who boards his boat with hot coffee and a humorous sparkle in his eye. The man is an inveterate jokester who will pull a set of fake human teeth out of a fish belly to get laughs. Kids especially are enthralled with his comedic antics. Sometimes, if the fish is big enough, a human hand made of rubber may emerge. These pranks lead to instructive conversations about what fish eat and how they live. Long after the trout have been enjoyed for dinner that evening and become a distant memory, Daniels’ gags and lessons are told again and again — a priceless lesson.

Customers return years later with friends, family or their kids or grandchildren to enjoy one of the humorous shockers they may get. Over the past half century, Daniels has entertained and educated more than 60,000 anglers. This master guide may be entering his twilight years as a commercial sports fisherman on Lake Tahoe, but there is no doubting his impact locally, regionally and, when it comes to the scientific study of freshwater lakes, even globally. For half a century this straight-shooter has upheld the highest principles of the industry with exemplary dedication to education and sport, environmental awareness and conscientious conservation of the fishery.

Daniels succeeded by applying personal attention to every individual’s angling experience. By doing so he has enhanced that essential and vital fraternity, which embrace the values of responsible fishing on America’s beautiful but fragile, freshwater rivers lakes and streams.