Two days ago, I noticed the first tinge of yellow hue encroaching into the of birch tree foliage here in interior Alaska. In less than a week I’ll be staring out on a growing landscape of yellows and reds during my first big game hunt of the year, looking for caribou and lake trout. Yes, it’s still August but already autumn in Alaska—and believe it or not, the dog days of summer across much of Canada and the Lower 48 will be soon gone too. For many human and fish populations, that will be a blessing.
In recent weeks, and for a few more weeks, it has been too hot to fish for trout across many popular destinations in North America. Soon enough, the trout fishing will be what is “heating up” as overnight temperatures finally begin to cool down the water. When fish behaviors and patterns change with the seasons, brief windows of opportunity can be especially productive for anglers seeking both numbers and size of some of your favorite species. Lake trout are no exception. In fact, they’re a prime example.
When most anglers think big lakers, they think big lakes—Superior, Great Slave, Wollaston, etc. This makes sense. As a cold water species, perhaps obviously, mackinaw have affinity for deep, cold water much of the year. This often equates to fishing heavy, deep, and relatively passive methods for lake trout using downriggers, line counter reels, and a lot of lead.
Don’t get me wrong—that’s all good fun in its own right. Still, there’s just something about vast distances between your lure and your reel that can make the strike feel a bit less enthralling. When properly planned and executed, this need not be the case. Lake trout large and small venture out of the deep at certain times of year in certain places. Anglers across the mackinaw’s range have figured out how to catch these fish from shore or small, simple watercraft.
Fighting big lake trout in close-quarters shallow water is an exhilarating angling experience. Better yet, it doesn’t require specialized equipment, or in some cases, even a boat. But when these short seasonal windows usher in shallow water patterns for lakers, you’d be better come prepared for fish often exceeding 20 pounds.
Understanding Lake Trout Before diving too deeply (pun intended) into angling specifics, there’s a few basic aspects of lake trout biology, physiology, and life history that anglers should know in order to dial in their fruitful seasonal patterns.
In northern waters, which have lower overall productivity and generally hold fewer fish species than warmer systems, populations of lake trout often segregate into distinct morphotypes that grow and behave differently based on what part of the lake they live in and what they eat. This means that more individuals of the same species can live in these lakes by spreading out and decreasing competition within the species for both food and habitat.
The delineation of morphs varies from lake to lake, but generally, there are “lean” morphs that are smaller and live in shallower water, and “fat” morphs (also known as “siscowets”) that get big and live in deeper, offshore areas. In one study, researchers caught lakers as deep as 1,300 feet deep in Lake Superior.
For most of the year in big lake trout water, “shallow” might mean anything less than 150 feet. But when I’m talking about big lakers in shallow water, I’m speaking of time periods when the “fats” are less than 20 feet deep or so. Maybe even 4 or 5 feet deep.
Lake trout prefer and require cold water, generally between 40 and 50°F, but they can spend time outside of this range when needed. That said, it’s unlikely to find lake trout in temperatures greater than 59°F.
Cisco Farrero has chased lake trout for eight seasons as a full-time guide at Wollaston Lake Lodge in Northern Saskatchewan. He says water temperature makes all the difference.
“In spring as the ice is breaking up, the lake trout don’t really move shallow until temps are above 40°,” Farrero told MeatEater. “We generally start seeing lakers back shallow for the spawn in fall when water temps are dropping back below 50 to 52°. In my experience, a window between 46 and 48° is the sweet spot for shallow water lake trout regardless of the season.”
Autumn is spawning season for lake trout. Depending on location and latitude, the laker spawn can occur from mid-September in northern waters to later in October at the southern extent of their range in the Rocky Mountains and Upper Midwest. Mature fish congregate on shallow, open-water humps and reefs, anywhere from 6 to 60 feet deep. Softball- to volleyball-sized cobble is their ideal spawning habitat. In some locations, particularly Western U.S. reservoirs that might lack these natural mid-lake structures, spawning can occur along rocky shorelines, point bars, and river mouths. Nonetheless, shallower spawning areas provide easier access for anglers to target fish that aren’t as accessible other times of the year.
Of course, there’s much debate over the ethics of fishing for spawning fish. During fall, it’s important to be aware of how and where you are fishing for lake trout—if you’re casting or trolling and happen to snag a fish, that is a good indication to move off the area and target fish that are slightly deeper and/or actively feeding. Whether pre or post spawn, lakers targeted in the fall should be actively striking your lure or fly. It’s those active strikes that are the heart of a shallow water lake trout battle. If you seek out the right areas, you might start that battle from shore.
How to Catch Lake Trout from Shore To be fair, in some or maybe even most lake trout waters, a boat is at least beneficial and possibly mandatory for accessing even shallow lakers. However, this isn’t universally true. Hot tip: marinas with rip-rap and nighttime lights that attract forage fish can provide easy bipedal access for shallow water macks. Dams can do the same. Moreover, fishing the spawn isn’t the only strategy to tussle with lakers in shallow water—so when the time is right, lace up your wading boots and get to stepping.
As we’ve established, catching lake trout from shore requires proper thermal conditions. Spring and fall provide these opportunities. Regardless which season you’re fishing, one effective technique for shore-bound fishers is to target areas with current. That is, lake inlet and outlet rivers and tributaries.
In fall, lake trout often stack up near current to gorge on an all-you-care-to-eat buffet of adult and juvenile fishes, such as trout and grayling, that are returning to lakes to overwinter after summering in nearby streams. Suckers, whitefish, and ciscoes may also venture into these areas to spawn in the spring or fall. Due to the movement and mixing of the water, these nearshore habitats are also usually the first to cool down, which provides favorable conditions for fish to pack on the pounds before the spawn and long winter.
“We do the best in current areas where you can get a proper swing. Just like steelhead and salmon, the lake trout will often strike at the end of a swing,” Farrero said. “You might have to weed through a number of more aggressive 24-inch fish first, but then, bam, there’s a 36 incher or a 40 incher.”
In these situations, Farrero and his clients are often throwing big spoons, including the classics: white-and-red Daredevles or yellow-and-red Five of Diamonds. Big fish are eating big bait, so don’t be afraid to feed them with a big spoon.
Similarly in spring, areas with current are the first to break up during ice-out. This provides sunlight to stimulate the base of the food chain, brings up water temperatures, and the moving water carries prey into the lake. Like autumn, lakers again will assemble in these shallow areas with current where suckers, whitefishes, and arctic grayling are staging to move out of the lakes for summer or to spawn.
“Sometimes we can do well with big swimbaits during that time, but they seem to like lures that appear more wounded, so big spoons are still good,” Farrero noted.
If chasing lakers on the fly, Farrero suggests going big and avoiding monochromatic patterns. “Big streamers that are black but have something else, like purple or pink, or that are mostly white, but again, have some other color. In spring, it seems like the gaudier the better. The more erratic the better.”
And, almost always, “bigger lures equal bigger lake trout,” Farrero said.
In spring and fall, shallower shorelines with nearby access to deep water can be productive as well, especially when there are transitions between lake substrates, like sand to rock. If you have access to a boat, or the luck or experience, you can really focus on shallow areas where these fish are located.
Laker from a boat via Clayton Schick.
How to Catch Shallow Lake Trout with a Boat As a guide, Farrero does much of his lake trout fishing from a boat. “We catch a lot of big lakers in the early season by pounding shallow sand flats with slow-trolled Flatfish or fast-trolling spoons, up to 4 miles per hour, over the same areas.”
Casting these areas, which can be as little as 10 feet deep, is effective too. As you can imagine, witnessing the strike from a 40-inch lake trout trailing a spoon or streamer is a sight to behold.
Obviously, a serious boat can help get to mid-lake spawning areas during fall, but boats don’t need to be elaborate for nearshore, shallow water areas. In spring and fall, a relatively short paddle might get you far enough out or over to proper shore fishing locations, especially inlet and outlet areas. A canoe or kayak might be all you need. From there, if you’ve timed the seasons and conditions right, you can have a helluva time fishing for big lake trout, from shore, in shallow water.
All told, no matter your means and style, bring a stout rod, study the local conditions and lake features, and get ready for your next potential angling addiction—big lakers in shallow water. It’s a battle worth fighting.