“Uh, I think we’re out of gas.” I was 13 years old, finally old enough to take the boat out on the lake at my family’s cabin. My 10-year-old brother and I had decided to celebrate this newfound freedom by going out to catch a limit of walleye and were on the return trip when the engine sputtered to a stop and we were left drifting in an ominous silence in the middle of the lake. Without a paddle and long before the days of cellphones, we were left with no hope of rescue.
The breakdown happened in a part of the lake we called “The Deep”—an abysmal section of water that we’d left largely unexplored since it was too deep and empty to hold any bass, walleye, or other gamefish that interested us. The wind was blowing the boat towards shore, so once the panic subsided, we satisfied ourselves with drifting in and walking 5 miles home carrying a cooler full of walleye.
I figured I might as well keep fishing while we drifted. After tying a heavy spoon to my line, I let it sink to the bottom of The Deep and started trolling and jigging as the wind blew us along. I didn’t have much hope, and was completely surprised to feel a colossal thump on the line and see the rod double over in my hands.
The Greatest of Trout Lake trout stand out among salmonids. Also called Mackinaw, these are the largest members of the char (Salvelinus) family. They inhabit oligotrophic lakes, those that are low in nutrients and high in oxygen, all over North America—from the Great Lakes in the East to the waters of the Brooks Range in Alaska—and for many anglers they are the ultimate freshwater prize. These gigantic super predators can grow to over 40 pounds, fight like Mike Tyson on a bender, and when paired with the right recipe, are among the best-tasting fish on the continent.
As their name suggests, lake trout prefer to live in lakes and large reservoirs, yet they can be found in some rivers during certain times of the year. They are a coldwater fish, which means that though they can be found in shallow water on occasion, lake trout mostly prefer the deepest and darkest parts of the waterbody where the temperature is consistently around 50 degrees. In their northern range, the fish spend the bulk of their time in 20 to 80 feet of water, while in the southern portion of their range where the water is warmer, they can be found in depths of well over 200 feet! So, catching them means anglers have to get down and dirty, pursuing the trout down in the dark depths where they live.
To get down to the fish, lake trout fisherman use all sorts of techniques—from trolling with downriggers, to clipping heavy banana weights to their lines, to spooling their reels with lead core fishing line. Of course, getting down to the fish is only half the battle, because once you figure out how to get down to the fish, you still have to pick the right baits and lures to catch them.
The Best Baits for Lake Trout Lakers live on a variety of forage fishes depending on how big they are and where they live. In places where they have been introduced, the big char can have drastic effects on native fish populations, such as the cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake. These gluttonous feeding habits means that anglers after lake trout don’t have to be too particular about which baits they use, so long as they bear in mind that the larger the lake trout, the larger the prey it eats. They will devour almost any fish that they can fit in their cavernous mouths. Deepwater dwelling baitfish such as alewives, suckers, whitefish, ciscoes, and smelt are lake trout favorites, but big lakers will also eat gamefish such as walleye, kokanee, or even other trout.
Lake trout can be caught on all the same basic types of bait that other trout species are caught on, including nightcrawlers, salmon eggs, and small minnows. However, to target the truly trophy lakers in a lake system, larger, meatier offerings are required. Baits of 6 to 10 inches long such as large suckers, gold shiners, and other baitfish that you’d use to tempt other predators such as pike, are the best baits to use for a truly monstrous lake trout. Even small panfish like perch and sunfish will work just fine so long as they’re legal to use in your state.
There are several ways to rig up your baits which depend on your preferred fishing method. The simplest and probably most common method is to rig a single circle hook through your bait’s nostril and then clip a single heavy egg weight to the line about 12 to 24 inches above it. Drop into the depths and let the bait sink to the bottom where it can swim around in circles and struggle, waiting for a laker to come along and devour it. It’s a great method if you already have a good laker spot located and a lot of time to wait for a bite.
If you’re a more active angler and want to search for fish, then rig the bait with a treble hook just behind the head and a weight a few inches above the hook and just jig it. This is best done from a boat equipped with a fish finder where you can spot lakers and fish to them individually. It’s an efficient method for covering water by traveling from likely spot to likely spot, dropping the bait down to the bottom and then jigging it until it is slammed by a passing lake trout.
The Best Lures for Lake Trout While bait can be incredibly efficient for catching lake trout, lures are often more effective. This is because the flagrant and flashy action of big laker lures can really trigger the aggression in these giant super predators, causing them to attack with little hesitation. Lake trout lures can be cast and retrieved, trolled, and jigged in a menagerie of ways that will call up a big laker, so long as you know which lures to fish.
Through the history of all the giant lake trout ever caught, I’d be willing to bet everything I own that most of them were caught on spoons. Whether being trolled deep with a downrigger, dropped into a deep hole and retrieved rapidly back to the surface, or simply drifted behind the boat in the wind, spoons have been catching big lake trout since the lures were invented. I’ve always preferred to use large spoons in a double troll set-up. I use one fluorescent colored spoon with a lot of action such as a 2 1/2-ounce Red Eyed Wiggler in fire tiger or hot pink colors on one rig, and a magnum sized Michigan Stinger in natural colors such as gold, silver, or bronze on the other. I’ll fish both colors at the same time until I catch a few fish on one or the other, then I’ll change both rigs to the spoon that draws more laker love.
Aside from spoons, I also won’t head out to a lake trout lake anywhere without a few flatfish in my tackle box. These wobbling, dashing, flashy plugs can dive incredibly deeply and are fantastic lake trout catchers. I prefer to use flatfish of at least 5 1/2 inches in length in natural silver or white colors or with color patterns that imitate a laker’s natural prey such as rainbow trout or perch. These lures can be trolled just like spoons but can also be cast and retrieved slowly back to the boat in colder water or when pursing more lethargic fish.
Sometimes though, lakers get so lethargic or are so stacked up on schools of baitfish that they simply won’t chase down a moving lure. When this happens, I turn to jigs. Large 1- or 2-ounce bucktail jigs designed for saltwater species like the Spro Prime or the Offshore Angler XXX Baitfish are deadly on macks too. Jigging these lures in deep water either by themselves or tipped with a baitfish or other piece of live bait have rarely failed to connect me with a big laker on days when few other things won’t do the job.
With all of that being said though, if I only had one lure to catch an absolutely monstrous lake trout, it would be a soft-plastic swimbait. Soft plastics are the ultimate lake trout lures. They can be trolled, cast and retrieved, or jigged. They have life-like, big angry lake trout-attracting movements at no matter what speed they’re fished, which means they can produce an absolute hog of a laker whenever and however they are fished. I like to use big and heavy soft-plastic baits that attract a lot of attention like a 9-inch Bull Dawg or a 10-inch Mini-D Swimbait.
Just like when fishing spoons, use combinations of gaudy bright colors like chartreuse and hot pink or red, as well as natural colors like ghost grey or cisco. Soft plastics seem to produce best when they’re being sluggishly trolled, but also catch a lot of fish when you cast them out and slowly bring them back to the shore or boat with a deep, slow, jigging action. No matter which method you choose, remember that lures of this size don’t draw a hell lot of strikes, but when they do get hit, it will be by a behemoth. So, be patient when fishing them and brace for impact.
A Whale of a Tale Lake trout are among an elite group of fishes—a special club of gigantic, hard-to-find, and hard-to-catch species that create their own level of obsession, just like to steelhead, muskie, and Chinook salmon. But lake trout have their own mystique. Their own magic draws us back to lakes where they live. Lakers are a fish that can come out of nowhere and change any average day of fishing into an epic fish tale, one worth reliving over and over again.