I don’t mind saying I’ve had a lifelong love affair with lake trout. While many anglers consider this member of the char family a second-class sport fish, I’ve always admired that they grow to huge sizes, they are abundant and readily caught in all five Great Lakes. Even Lake Erie has a thriving population of lake trout in the Eastern Basin, and in fact, I take pride in targeting lake trout regularly in all five Great Lakes.
Most of the criticism aimed at the lake trout stems from two common complaints. It’s true that lake trout are routinely caught trolling in deep water. Clearly, a lake trout hooked in deep water on a magnum diving planer or 300 feet of copper line isn’t going to provide a world-class fight.
Secondly, lake trout flesh is more oily and not nearly as satisfying on the table as other species. Because some anglers don’t consider the lake trout worthy of cooking, the species has taken on more than its share of bad publicity!
While there are anglers who cherish the lake trout on the table, many simply turn up their nose at the prospect of eating Great Lakes lake trout. Personally, I don’t judge the lake trout on its table fare, and I certainly don’t hold it against the species because they don’t fight as hard as a chinook salmon. Last I looked, catch and release is an option, and what other fish in the Great Lakes does fight as hard as a chinook salmon?
I like the fact that lake trout are an indigenous species. Lake trout were here and providing anglers with exciting fishing opportunities long before the coho, chinook, steelhead, brown trout or Atlantic salmon were introduced to the Great Lakes.
I also like the fact that lake trout can be caught on a wide variety of tackle and common fishing presentations. Clearly, my favorite way to target lake trout is with jigging gear, but I also enjoy trolling for lake trout using downriggers, modest lengths of lead core line or simply long-line trolling with plugs.
What I do try to avoid is targeting lakers using magnum divers, long leads of copper line and weighted stainless wire. All that gear takes the fun out of catching a fish that deserves more respect and less criticism.
Jigging for Lakers
Anyone who has caught a lake trout jigging with spinning or bass action bait casting gear will attest these fish are powerful and more than worthy as a sport species. It’s common to hook a lake trout jigging and have the fish halfway to the boat before it decides to sound and scream line off the reel until it’s back on the bottom. A modest eight or 10-pound lake trout puts up one heck of a good fight on jigging gear. Fish in the 15-pound class are beyond powerful, and lakers that run 15 to 20 pounds are epic in their ability to impress those anglers who target them on light tackle.
My two favorite rods for lake trout jigging are a seven-foot medium-heavy action spinning rod and a seven-foot heavy action flippin’ stick baitcasting rod. Both reels are loaded with 10-pound super braid with about a four-foot leader of 15-pound test fluorocarbon line at the terminal end. The spinning rod handles lures in the 1/2 to 1-ounce range nicely and the baitcasting rod gets the nod for lures in the 1 to 2-ounce range.
A lot of different jigging lures will catch lake trout, but I depend on a rather small assortment that has produced for me time and time again. A lead-head jig dressed with a five or six-inch Z-Man PaddlerZ white swim-bait body is hard to beat, but I also carry a few Eagle Claw Trokar bucktail jigs in white and chartreuse colors. The other bait that goes on every lake trout jigging adventure is the SteelShad XL series blade baits in the pearl color. The vibration of these baits simply drives lake trout nuts, and I can’t imagine not having a few on every fishing trip.
I run a custom-tied stinger hook when fishing bucktail jigs and also when using jigs with swim-bait bodies. The stinger is left loose and tied to present the treble hook about an inch short of the jig’s tail.
Light Line Trolling
Early and late in the year, lake trout can be found using some relatively shallow water. When I find trout scattered over 50 feet of water or less, I’m going to target them with a 3.5 or 4.0 Mag Lip fished using 10-pound test monofilament and a two-ounce Snap Weight to get the bait a little deeper on modest leads. This setup is fished on an Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side-Planer board to spread out lines and cover water.
My favorite rod for this setup is the Eagle Claw Starfire X in-line planer board rods in the 8’-6” model. These reasonably priced rods are ideal for tackling big trout.
Lake trout will crush a wide variety of Mag Lip colors, but some of my favorites include Double Trouble, HammerTime, Grinch, Green Machine, Metallic Gold Flame and Metallic Gold Green Pirate. Each of these colors are “must have” items when targeting lake trout on trolling tackle.
Three-Way Trout Rigs
Another setup I commonly use to target lake trout when I find them in moderate depths is a three-way swivel rig set up with a 3.0 or 3.5 Map Lip crankbait. The main line is 10-pound test monofilament. The leader to the Mag Lip is 60 inches long and tied using 12-15 pound test fluorocarbon line. The dropper line is 18-24 inches long and tied using eight to 10-pound test fluorocarbon. The sinker ranges in size from one to three ounces, depending on how deep the water might be.
This setup is fished on the corners of the boat, much like a diving planer, but with the sinker just ticking the bottom as the boat moves along. A downrigger rod works for this presentation, but I prefer to use an Eagle Claw Starfire X bottom bouncer rod. This rod is an 8’ 6” long telescopic model that features a moderate action and very light tip for telegraphing when the sinker and or bait is ticking bottom. Catching lake trout on this set up is absolutely a hoot.
Lead Core Trolling
I enjoy catching lake trout while trolling spoons on a modest amount of lead core line. When lake trout are suspended in modest to shallow depths, it’s pretty hard to beat a spread of Wolverine Tackle Silver Streak spoons fished using three, five, or seven colors of lead core line.
I always team up spoons and lead core with in-line planer boards to cover a lot of water and also to saturate the depths with as much gear as possible. The perfect rod for fishing lead core and in-line boards is Eagle Claw’s new Starfire X 7’ 6” telescopic in-line board rod.
There are times when lake trout are in deeper water and a downrigger is the ideal tool for catching them. I run an Eagle Claw Starfire X 8’-0” medium action downrigger rod and most of the time, at the terminal end, I’ll be fishing an eight-inch Pro Troll paddle with a No. 2 or No. 0 size Spin-N-Glo rigged 18-24 inches behind the paddle.
This setup is run tight to the bottom, ideally with the downrigger ball skipping off the bottom every few yards as the boat trolls along. The ball skipping off the bottom simulates trout feeding in the sediment and creates a deadly, effective presentation.
If the bottom is covered in jagged rocks, I’ll run my downrigger ball about five feet off the bottom and set the Cannon Optimum downrigger in “bottom track” mode that keeps the downrigger ball cycling up and down so it remains positioned five feet off the bottom as the bottom contour varies. This setup should be illegal as it is deadly effective at triggering quick strikes from lake trout found near the bottom.
The beauty of downrigger fishing is once the fish is hooked and the line is released from the downrigger clip, the angler is free to fight the fish without added weights, diving planers or sinking lines to take away from the enjoyment of the battle.
Summing It Up
Thanks to aggressive stocking efforts and anglers who turn their nose up at the lake trout, the number of these fish found in the Great Lakes region is staggering. Trust me, finding a good place to fish for lake trout is not a problem when you live in the Great Lakes State. If you’re that guy who has nothing but disdain for the lake trout, maybe, just maybe, trying one of the methods outlined here will change your mind?