Lake Trout Fishing in Ontario, by Expert J.P. Bushey
Lake trout are one of the biggest, slowest growing and most beautiful fish found anywhere in fresh water. Anyone who has ever hooked, fought and landed one knows about their raw power, stamina and the level of general violence they show when hitting certain lures. Plus, there aren’t many times you catch a big fish that’s older than you are. But you can if you’re fishing for lake trout. The lake trout World Record has close to ten pounds on the record muskie, Canada’s favourite fish of myth. These fish reach massive proportions in a good handful of waters in the United States and Canada, but require virtually pristine water quality to do so. Not surprisingly, good lake trout waters are some of the purest and prettiest to be found anywhere in the world. You can grow a ten pound bass in an irrigation pond on a cattle farm, but lakers require much higher quality surroundings. The best fisheries are normally associated with big pines, stunning rock formations and clear, deep water. Lake trout really are one of the wild, crown jewels of the northern physiographical regions. They’re rarely written about and when shown on television, the action is almost always from an exotic, far-north fly-in location. Bass and walleye are covered to no end in fishing media, and can be grown and caught just about anywhere there’s enough water to cover their backs. Not so with lakers. Such a wildly coloured, big, strong and powerful fish existing in such obscurity really is one of nature’s greatest ironies. Trips for lake trout often involve an entirely new set of natural experiences that romance people every bit as much as the fishing. Pods of yapping gulls crowded onto a baking rock poking through rotting March ice. Juvenile herring dimpling the surface for insects on a muggy July evening. The sights, sounds and smells of lake trout country are usually very unique when compared to fishing elsewhere. They’re a wild fish from wild surroundings. I’ve been lucky enough to spend my entire life fishing for them, and will always rank them as one of the greatest sport fish you’ve probably never heard much about.
One of the biggest myths is that lake trout are a deep-water fish. During a portion of the season this is certainly is true, but they’re much more accurately described as a cold water fish. And ‘deep water’ and ‘cold water’ aren’t always the same thing. Take a second and think about this. The reality is that water warm enough to push lake trout deep only exists for a fraction of the season, the summer months. The rest of the year, the water ranges from cool to totally frozen, and these fish are free to roam, feed and spawn at any depth they like, with no thermal barriers to fence them in. Understanding this really puts finding and catching lake trout into perspective. Let’s assume that most years the lakes freeze in early to mid January. The water is cold for January, February, March, April and a good portion of May. Then it gets warm for June, July, August and September. By October, the water’s getting cool again, and through November and December it continues to get colder and colder, and the fish are looking to spawn. If you eliminate the fall season when lake trout are spawning and normally closed to fishing, the bulk of the legal fishing opportunities occur when these fish are operating in cold water! And when this is the case, the locations and equipment you need to catch them are very basic. The rigging used is another one of the great myths.
Tell people you’re after lake trout and they automatically think you’ll be running heavy levelwind gear off downriggers, dragging miles of steel or leadcore line with giant cowbells or using heavy jigs to plumb the deepest hole in the lake. All of this stuff works, and to be clear, this is how many earlier generations learned the shoals and caught trout. Short, heavy poles with large, ‘knuckle buster’ reels and miles of steel or copper line are an old timer’s classic. My Dad and his Dad used them long before even the most primitive sonars were even conceived, and they’re very much a part of our fishing history. The good news is that with the aid of downriggers and sonar, lake trout can be easily and sportingly caught on lighter tackle when they’re deep. It’s no wonder that ‘lake trout don’t fight’ is another of the big misconceptions. Early tackle and techniques were geared around fishing very deep with heavy gear. With any one of today’s basic brands of downriggers, you can have a lot of fun catching these fish on long, soft spinning or levelwind outfits with ten to twenty pound test monofilament with no additional weights or diving devices on your line whatsoever. And when you can flatline troll, drift, cast or jig for fish that are much shallower, a whole other set of commonly used gear becomes usable. The bottom line is that for much of the year, these fish can be caught on equipment and at depths that most people are much more familiar with. If you do any amount of bass, pike, walleye or salmon/trout fishing, you already have the tools you need for lake trout. I’ve caught hundreds, maybe thousands, of lakers deeper than fifty feet and easily that many or more fishing down only 1/10 that far.=
The winter fishery for lake trout is excellent. Lakers are very active under the ice and some of the season’s biggest fish are caught at this time. They are very good eating and pike, whitefish, walleye or panfish don’t even rank in the same class as fighters. That’s a pretty well-rounded resume. Without any thermal barriers to fence them in, lakers are free to feed as deep or shallow as they want. They’re totally tuned into their environment, and exploit any and all available sources of food. On big bodies of water especially, it’s very common for differing populations to feed in differing zones and on differing items. And these populations will sometimes intersect. Some groups stick mainly to deeper, basin-type areas where massive schools of smelts, herring , alewives or freshwater shrimp flood through. Lakers will wait for the bait to come their way or trail in behind it. Other populations patrol shallower structures, like shoals, islands, sandy bays or points grubbing up perch, suckers, insects and assorted minnows like darters, sculpin and stickleback. Being able to target fish in totally different parts of the lake is a really interesting phenomenon. Fish taken out of the deep, open-water areas tend to have small heads, thick, heavy bodies and show brilliant silvers, greys and whites. Some of the most gorgeous fish we catch are those taken from shallower structure, with massive heads, deep golds, olive and orange accents. One class of lake trout looks more like a salmon or steelhead, while the other a brook or brown trout. Lakers aren’t actually a member of the trout family. Like brook trout, they are a char.
Most of our focus in winter is on aggressively hunting for fish with jigging techniques and sonar. Fish can move all over a spot and also travel between spots. Plus, they’re notorious for feeding much higher in the water column than most people realize. Using a sonar allows you to see, understand and react to exactly what’s going on underneath you. No matter what level of success you’ve had in the past without sonar, I can guarantee you that this one tool will improve your fishing instantly and dramatically. Knowing how deep you’re fishing and the structural layout of the area is only part of it. Set up correctly, units with lots of power show where your lure is at all times. They’ll also show you any and all fish activity. In eighty feet of water, a three inch tube jig shows up very clearly. When a three pound fish rushes in for the kill, it looks like a jumbo jet on the screen. There is zero guesswork. The key is to learn as much as you can from every fish encounter. Some days, laying your lure near the bottom and pounding it is all it takes to get a fish to come over and strike. Other days, you might have to tease that fish up eight, ten twenty, even thirty or forty feet to make it hit. You might be jigging at sixty five feet and watch a big fish cruise by ten feet under the ice. You can reel up to it and catch it. Without sonar, you’d never know any of this was going on. If you ask a hundred ice fishermen to list their most valuable piece of gear, I bet you nearly all of them will say ‘the graph.’ Both liquid crystal and flasher-style units work. You wouldn’t go out in the summer to downrig or jig blind, so why would you do it in the winter?
Many companies now make models specifically designed for icefishing. Eagle, Lowrance, Vexilar and Humminbird are all very big into icefishing. You can regularly find Eagle’s little portable Fishmark 320 for less than $250. This is a fantastic unit, with great separation and lots of power for good detail and real-time readings. I use mine on Lake Simcoe as deep as 104 feet with lures less than two inches long and they show up clear as a bell. The key to any sonar is having the transducer perfectly level and the Sensitivity dialed in. I also like to max out the Chart Speed to read what’s going on while I’m fishing from a stationary position. Once you’ve jigged under a good sonar, you will never fish without one. It took me all of about two hours to become totally sold on them walleye fishing on Lake Nipissing with my buddy Cory Millard several years ago. We were catching a few fish here and there, but Cory was using a Vexilar to not only move his lure to the fish, but to change his jigging stroke enough to make each one hit by watching what they did once the lure came near. No print ad or TV commercial sells a product as effectively as watching it work, in the field.
The rods and reels we use are matched to the size and weight of the lures we’re using. About the biggest lures I commonly use are between three and a half and four inches long and around half an ounce. We also use lures that are much, much smaller and lighter. Year in and year out, panfish-sized jigs have proven to be simply deadly. Obviously the rigging for a one inch crappie tube is a lot different than what you’d use to pump big spoons. One common denominator is that rods and lines need to be strong and reels need to be smooth and in top working condition. Lake trout are relentless fighters and commonly make several long, powerful runs. Near the hole, they twist, thrash and roll. They never stop moving. Once a twenty five pound pike is done, you can get their head up into the hole and gently put the grab on them. Lake trout just never quit, and your gear has to be able to take it. Icefishing is very hard on rods, reels and lines, so it’s even more important to use the best quality you can and keep things in good working order.
St.Croix’s Premier jigging rods are good quality and they come in some great actions for the bigger baits we use for lake trout and pike. For spoons, having enough backbone to work the lure and set the hook is really the only consideration. Spinning and baitcast reels with either monofilament or braided line need to have good line capacity and smooth drag. Shimano’s Stradic is a time-proven spinning reel, and their Curado is a great baitcaster. Daiwa and Garcia also make a quality reel. Braided lines obviously increase the amount of feel and power you have with any lure style. I also like the shock absorption of monofilament for keeping the fish on when they roll. Most of the spinning reels are in the 2000 to 3000 size and can handle monofilament between ten and twelve pound test. I really like green line, like Berkley’s XT. This stuff’s great for icefishing because it’s visible, lower stretch and has a tough, hard skin. I think no-stetch line has benefits and I also think springy line has benefits. I have outfits rigged with both. Braided Power Pro or Tuf Line in fifty pound test and mono from fourteen to twenty works well on casting reels. The outfits we use for spoons and heavier plastics or swimming lures are about the heaviest we use. They handle the lures easily and allow you to really pressure big, hard-running fish. Williams Whitefish, Toronto Wobblers, Cleos, Swedish Pimples, Mr. Champs large Chubby Darters, Rapalas and overweight tubes and other rubber jigs are all near the upper end of the size and weight we use. Again, all these baits fall in between three and four inches long and around one ounce.
Mid-sized to smaller baits catch fish in any depth, but we really do well on them in water that’s less than about forty feet deep. Little baits take longer to sink, but it is amazing to watch how fish respond to their slow descent and subtle footprint in the water. It’s common to see a big streak coming rushing up off the bottom to pick off a little bait that’s only down half way down. The super-slow fall of the tiny baits is one of their biggest triggers. And lake trout suck them in like candy. Rods are almost always shorter, softer and reels are smaller. Monofilament keeps small hooks from bending out, and they basically set themselves when fish pick up the lure. Smaller Williams Whitefish and Wobblers along with a few lead head and plastic combos are normally one to two and a half inches long and most weights are around one quarter ounce. Inside a heated shelter, you can get away finessing the small baits no matter what the wind and temperatures are like outside. If you’re finding that the lakers aren’t hitting larger or ‘louder’ baits, a smaller one can be all it takes to make them bite. Most of our medium to small stuff is just downsized versions of the same baits fished on heavier gear. A deadly little wrinkle we’ve stumbled on the last few years are ultra-light rigs baited with perch and crappies sized plastic jigs, like little tubes, twisters and fork-tailed minnows, like the Fin-S-Fish. We fish these on four pound mono or ten pound braid and little ultra light spinning reels. You’ll miss the odd fish on larger spoons or swimming lures, but hooking percentage on the baby plastics is almost 100 percent. And of course, the fights are out of this world! Remember that lakers are an opportunistic gorge-feeder. Balls of freshwater shrimp or other tiny insects represent an abundant food source that’s very easy to hunt. I’ve seen fish close to twenty pounds regurgitate fist-sized wads of this stuff at the hole. I think those small, rubber jigs really represent it well.
The lake trout’s lateral line is their number one feeding sense. And nowhere is this clearer than jigging little, subtle, rubber and swimming baits in the winter. On the sonar, I’ve watched fish rise over forty feet to pick off a little baby bait spiralling softly down. They can’t see it. They feel the water displacement. It’s remarkable. A deadly trick with baits like tubes and Chubby Darters or Rapalas is to simply shake or hold these baits twenty or thirty feet above bottom. Trout will slide in underneath, along the lake’s floor, and will come get the bait. As they approach, try slowly lifting the bait away, like cat and mouse. They’ll smash it. If they lose interest, let the lure fall all the way to the bottom or pull it right out of the hole and start all over. These are little tricks you can only dial in once you’ve looked and learned down there with sonar. And don’t hesitate to intercept fish that are cruising high. Our hook-up percentage on fish that we mark and then rush up (or down) to is excellent. You’re going to catch most of them.
No matter what the season, top-quality leaders and swivels are a must for lake trout. Many of the baits you’ll be using in any season twist up your line badly, and the strong, rolling fights will knick, fray and torque it into coils quickly. Fluorocarbon has proven to be outstanding as a leader material. It’s very, very resistant to frays, it holds a good knot and on top of all this, it’s totally invisible. Through the ice, we use leaders about two feet long, with a good Sampo or Spro ball bearing barrel swivel on the top end. We tie plastic jigs direct and use small, Cross-Loc or Stay-Lok snap on the bottom end for spoons and other jigs. For the heavier outfits and larger baits, twenty pound Seaguar works great. On the lighter outfits, we’ll tie with six to ten pound. There are leaders on my ice rods that have hundreds of fish on them.
Once the ice comes off, the same spinning reels we used all winter get rigged on the long rods and we troll and cast for lakers. The water is still cold, the fish are still roaming and they’re still actively feeding and hunting. Only now, you can cover huge pieces of water, in the boat. Flatline trolling early in the spring lasts well into June on some bodies of water. While most fishermen are still on the couch or playing with panfish, you can be out there hammering big, wild fish without another boat in sight. In the spring, we get a lot of lake trout as well as some very big ones. Talk about a great way to start your season! Big fish on light tackle before most fishermen are even out of the gates. Just like a couple months earlier, there’s fish from top to bottom and they’re willing to hit. Trolling for lake trout at any time of the year is usually done at low speeds and with lots of speed and direction changes. Flat lining with or without small, in-line planer boards, it’s not uncommon to have ninety to two hundred feet of line out and fish from the shallows to very deep water. There are also lakers that will continue to hang deep, and these can be reached with in-line diving devices. Even right at ice-out, many fish are still available down twenty to forty feet. Because you’re travelling so slowly, you have lots of time to follow structure and make adjustments. The trolling patterns are not complicated, and neither are the baits used. But like anything else, there are lots of tricks and subtleties that you can use to catch more fish. Lake trout are not a particularly cunning predator. Certainly nowhere near as cautious as their relatives in the streams. But there are certain things about your presentation that you can dial in to really put a lot of fish in the boat. We’ve had thirty and forty fish days spring trolling before, and it’s almost always one set-up that does all the damage.
Flatlining and board trolling are basically the same thing. We let out a lot of monofilament and then either put the rod into the holder or add a planer board and then holder the rod. The running depth, amount of line out and lure selection is all identical. The only difference is that boards allow you to stretch lines out away from the boat. This helps when you’ve got a couple lines running and especially if you want to pull your lures along more than one type of structure or depth at the same time. You can use a board to run up tight to structure or to carry your line way out over deep, open water. Being able to check different zones in one trolling pass makes a huge difference when you’re trying to figure out where most of the fish are. Lakers are as scattered in spring as they’ll be all year, and these wide, varied trolling spreads fit the bill perfectly. Running the board right along ice edges and shallow shorelines from a safe distance is actually very simple to do.
Regular flatlines are normally long, soft spinning rods in the eight to nine foot range, with 2000 to 3000 sized reels and at least three hundred yards of six to ten pound monofilament. Sometimes we’ll set these into rod holders along the gunnels or transom, other times they’re held and actively worked. Reels that have a good, smooth drag and lots of line pickup are the key. Reeling in a bait that’s back a couple hundred feet with a small, slow reel gets old fast. Larger models with high gearing make the job a lot easier and faster. Daiwa’s Castor and SS Tournament series are two very reliable reels that work well for flatlining. They have really loud, tinny-sounding drags too. When a laker nails the bait, you’ll hear the reel go off. There’s really no need to get to a rod fast with this style of fishing. By the time all that line is stretched out and the force of the fish reaches the end of the rod, the hook is already set. When you look at how hard and toothy a lake trout’s mouth is and the size of the lures being used, it really is amazing how well-hooked they get. Over a couple months of flatlining long lines with small spinners, spoons and plugs, landing percentages are very close to 100%. You’re just not going miss many strikes or lose many fish using this technique. If a rod does go off and the fish doesn’t stay hooked, sweep the bait forward, jump on the throttle or put the boat in neutral. Do something that quickly changes the lure’s speed or direction. Lake trout will stalk a lure a long distance and will usually keep taking shots at it until they get it. They’re also a schooling fish, and they will work each other into an aggressive state competing for food. Usually if one fish takes a shot and misses, another will dart in to grab the bait. Once again, watching fish on the sonar all winter really makes this clear. A couple winters ago, we were baffled by watching two, even three or four streaks on the graph following a hooked fish to the hole. We later learned that the hooked fish were sometimes regurgitating smelts and other fish, and the swarming fish were rushing around, sucking them up. Amazing.
With planer boards, the cat and mouse game trout play with baits is really evident. And you can dial in what the fish want simply by watching the board. It’s a lot like trolling with a float or bobber. Sometimes they’ll nip the bait and the board will skip or suck back slightly. Start a powerful turn or stop the boat completely and the board normally gets buried hard. Board trolling is the most effective spring technique we use and accounts for hundreds of fish every year, and almost all of our biggest ones over twenty pounds. On an outside turn, they dig right in and slice through the water. On the inside, the board will stall and bob around as slack develops in the line. Fish will hit in both cases, and being able to actually watch the difference really reinforces what speed is best. Some days the lure whipping through a fast, outside turn is what’s getting the most action. Other days, it’ the total opposite. With spoons like Cleos, Williams Wobblers or some of the Lucky Strikes, you can really get a good range of actions and triggers, because these lures not only interest trout when they’re being pulled straight ahead, but also when they flutter down on a dead stop. Spoons are highly versatile. Spinners and plugs are also very effective longlined, with or without boards.
Colour, size and speed are actually very important for lake trout. And I’d argue, many of the trout/char/salmon show the same behaviour. It isn’t that lakers are a finicky or selective fish, they just have a real tendency to lock onto specific presentations. Once you find a hot one, you can basically ride it until the fish stop biting it. It’s that simple. If you don’t have the right size, colour or type of lure that day or you’re trolling too slow or too fast, don’t be surprised if you get out-fished by a wide margin. Because lakers can be caught in such abundance this time of year, you’re getting a lot of feedback from the fish and patterns or preferences jump right out at you. I’ve seen it over and over again. You might need a bait with a lot of flash that runs high in the water at very slow speeds at one time. Then the fish simply stop biting that and you have to go with a brightly coloured, jointed minnowbait trolled much faster. When they’re active, these fish will smash anything. But when they get selective, little adjustments can be all it takes to start making the rods go off again. Slow trolling from 1.5 to 2.5 miles an hour has proven to be the most productive. Lake trout get lots of time to track lures with their lateral lines overtake them. There are situations when lure style is the biggest key. Really early in the spring, jointed and straight minnow baits like Rapalas, Rebels and AC Shiners really produce well. Spinners catch fish early also, and really shine once the water gets into the mid forties and bug hatches start occurring. Spring spawning runs of smelts can really concentrate trout, and we normally do well with larger spoons and plugs. Try laying out a handful of lures types at the start of the day and rotating through them, seeing which are hottest. Glow in the dark is a colour we’ve been using for years flatlining and in winter, jigging. It can be deadly at times, in shallow water, deep water and on bright or dark days.
I’ve come to respect experimenting with your baits for lakers because they all run in basically the same chunk of water, the upper ten or twelve feet. So it’s not like one bait is hot because it’s running at a magic depth that’s totally different than all others. Flash, colour, vibration and even scent are what these fish lock onto. One deadly little wrinkle we use is adding plastics to our baits whenever possible. Normally the same panfish-sized tubes and twisters we use in the winter. Adding a little bit of extra colour, action and scent to spinners especially is very effective. If you’re seeing a lot of bug hatching going on, try a dull-coloured spinner with a smoke or brown twister on the back end. White works very well , too. In 2007, we caught three or four really nice fish using firetiger #2 Mepps Aglias with a hot chartreuse tube. One of them was pushing thirty pounds. We experiment with all lure types and offer them to the fish in both hot and natural colours over a range of speeds. Playing lake trout on planer board gear is a riot. We use ten foot steelhead action triggersticks with ten pound monofilament and small, line-counter reels. Dawia’s SeaLine in the LCA27 size is a tiny little reel with solid guts that has worked for me for years. Use the counter to experiment with lead lengths from fifty all the way to two hundred feet. With the line counter, you can notice hot patterns that much faster.
There’s always fish that remain deeper in spring, and as surface temps slowly rise, trolling down a level or two can put you right back into consistent action. With longlines and boards, adding splitshot or keel weights will pull your baits deeper. Sometimes diving crankbaits work very well, set back to run down fifteen or twenty feet. #9 Shad Raps, Rapala Tail Dancers and Deep Diving Husky Jerks all get deep without any weight. With all of our lures, we do not use treble hooks. They just do too much damage to lake trout because of how hard they fight and roll. These are a delicate, wild fish and it’s just so much easier to pop out a single hook while the fish is in the water. If you’ll be netting them, trebles are even worse. Every trolling lure listed so far will run perfectly with single hooks. Eagle Claw and Mustad make excellent ‘siwash’ style singles that you can add to anything from a tiny spinner to large spoon or jointed bait. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our hooking percentages are so high and all we use are single hooks. They need very little pressure to set and once they’re in, they’re not coming loose. Not only do singles hook and hold better, they’re easy to remove. Using them is a no-brainer. And once again, I’ve yet to run a spring trout lure that won’t have proper action after the trebles have been dropped for singles. On most of our plugs, we’ll only add one single hook to the tail, leaving the others hangers empty.
Casting can also be very productive, used as a primary technique and also to pick off bonus fish while trolling. Heavy, compact spoons and leadhead jigs with plastic are about all you need. Over key spots like points and saddles, long, countdown style casts work the best. Get that bait out as far as you can and work it back to the boat. Lakers are just like muskies. They’ll follow and are not shy about hitting at the last minute. Seven or eight foot flipping-action baitcasters with fourteen to seventeen pound mono or fifty pound braid are all you need. Spinning gear in the same class works fine too. The keys are long casts and being able to get the hooks driven home at a distance. Large Little Cleo and Gibbs Ironheads are two great casting spoons. They throw like a bomb, and look great steadily reeled as well as worked almost jerkbait, with smooth pulls and slack-line drops. Jensen Crocodiles are another good one.
Whenever a trolling line goes off, especially when flatlining, have somebody begin long bombing casts back in the direction of the hooked fish! It takes a while to play and land fish with that much line out, and lakers definitely school up and will become excited. Smallmouth bass do the exact same thing. Double headers are not uncommon, and we’ve even had triple headers before. Just like in the winter, lakers really do love plastic jigs. Three to five inch tubes, shads, twisters and forktail minnows are all deadly. Rig them on a jig heavy enough for long casts, and use large, premium hooks. The basic retrieve is a yo-yo type of pattern, allowing the lure to swim as well as settle. There will be no confusion when a fish hits, they normally hammer the bait. Catching these fish casting is really fun. Variations of pearl, grey and white are about all we use. Chartreuse works, too. Because you’re often trolling slowly, don’t hesitate to throw casts at good-looking pieces of water as you drive by. You’ll have plenty of time to work. We get lots of bonus fish in the spring casting this way.
Dipsey Divers and other diving planers that attach to your line can easily put you down into those fish from 20 to 40 feet. We fish deep using both a bottom-grinding style and also target fish that are suspended. Watching the tip of a long Dipsey rod get rocked is really fun. The same triggers and techniques that work on shallow fish work on the deep ones. Interruptions to speed, direction and vibration not only make fish hit, but also help them find your lure. Many of our best ‘Dipsey spots’ are lips around islands or other structures. Areas from 30 to 40 feet that allow lakers to mill around on the edge of deep basins are very consistent. The basins are the runways for smelts and other food, and the shelves along their flanks give the trout a place to wait. In these situations, hitting the bottom regularly while thoroughly raking through key features is how we have the best luck. Once again, the sonar-plotter really makes it easy. Run through a spot marking up the high spots and other details. And of course, mark any groups of fish you drive over. Trust me, pods of twenty six to thirty six inch fish over a rock bottom in forty feet of water will show up on your graph plain as day.
Once the route is established and you’ve seen some likely spots or fish, simply set your depth and attack the key spots using different speeds, baits and angles. It really is that simple. Fishing with Dipseys and a good sonar, you can really start calling your shots. I like having new fishermen on board crack open a drink or sandwich right before I know a rod’s going to go off. The rod will skip the bottom right where the fish are, I’ll gun the throttle of drop it into Neutral, and watch the snack go flying when they’re running for the rod. Large, jointed, shallow-diving plugs like J-18 Rapalas are excellent for grinding structure. They’ll float off trouble and really have good thump for attracting trout in deep water. While the Dipsey bumps and grinds, the lure follows in behind and is easy for fish to find. We rig them with a pair of 3/0 Siwash hooks. Flatfish and salmon-style plugs like Lymans are also good. The Lyman is a cedar bait, and needs a little more speed to achieve its dopey, wandering action, but trout love ‘em. A range of spoons work too, but our most productive seem to be the ones that run slowest with the most thump. Lucky Strike Toronto Wobblers, Lizard Spoons, Half Waves and Williams Wobblers and Whitefish are all standards. In deep water, we traditionally do better on bigger lures. Many of the spoons listed come in five to seven or eight inch models and lakers hammer them. On a big spoon, Siwash hooks from 5/0 to 9/0 match well. Down deep, blue, silver, gold, brass, purple, green and white have been our best colours. I could easily fish all spring with a blue-silver lure or plain old half silver half gold.
Dipsey rods are long, bouncy and they don’t need anything in the way of bells, whistles or sensitivity. Good ones are like a downrigger rod on steroids. They have a soft tip to eat up the pull of the diving device and for keeping pressure on the fish. The bottom of the blank is typically heavy. We’ve had our best success using monofilament on medium to large linecounter reels. I use seventeen pound Berkley XT on Daiwa’s SeaLine LC47. Stretch is your friend with this technique, and this line seems to strike a good balance between toughness and stretch. For bottom bouncing, make sure you run a couple feet of heavier line to the front end of the diver. I use forty pound XT. Just like trolling a muskie crankbait, that last few feet of line takes a beating from the rocks. Behind the diver, my leads are normally six feet long, and made from twenty five pound Seaguar fluorocarbon. Finish it off with a good snap and you’re in business. Pulling these fish from deep water gradually is important. Give them time to adjust their internal pressure. When you get into areas where you’re marking good numbers of fish, you’ll almost always pick off a couple of the active ones the first couple passes. After that, they normally scatter a bit or become harder to catch. This is when you’ll want to start pulling tricks from the trolling playbook.
Two of the fastest ways to get the rods going again are changing lures and by changing how you deliver them. One time, we had eight trout landed on five passes over a spot, all on large, blue jointed Rapalas. We simply couldn’t get the lines in fast enough, it was nuts. As is often the case, we were still marking fish but weren’t getting hit on the next several passes. We kept everything the same, but switched out the blue bait for a hot chartreuse one. The fish started all over again, snapping every few minutes. The colour change was all it took. When this doesn’t work, you have to get aggressive with mixing up your speed and angle of attack. This can mean blasting through spots or fish at unusually high speeds or crawling through them, almost drifting, at a snail’s pace. You’re basically trying to force the fish bite using your boat. We regularly scrape bonus fish off spots by simply marking them and then dropping the boat into neutral just after passing over them. The lures bumble and stall right in the zone and the trout can’t help themselves. Along the same lines, if you’ve located fish on a specific part of the structure, try fishing it from differing directions. Drive in from deep water and plow (or ‘suicide run’) right into it. Or, bang your way out to it through the shallower water. Of course, lure choice, speed and direction changes are all old news if you’ve ever done any amount of serious trolling for any kind of fish. All of this falls under the ‘Trolling For Dummies’ category. Knowing your spots well and being able to place lures accurately using the linecounter is what will really help you with bottom fishing.
Make no mistake, Dipseys and other divers sink like a rock and are easy to wedge up and break off if you’re unsure of depth and structure. There’s a fine line between skipping bottom frequently and snagging up frequently. Study a few fish-holding areas and learn one step at a time. One of the beauties of this style of fishing, versus longlining, is that you normally have less than a hundred feet of line out. You can mark fish or structure on the graph and spin around sharply to hit it over and over. Dipseys are actually very efficient to use. If the fish are suspended (and they often are) simply learn what depths your set up can hit and work on triggering fish without ever worrying about the bottom. I know the spots I fish in excellent detail and have been using the same old, hacked up Dipsey for years
By the time spring has wrapped up and summer is setting in, knowing the structure and being accustomed to fishing deep is the best way to stay on top of lakers that are at their deepest of the year. Summer is the only time when the entire population is deep. You’re not going to fluke into them along eighteen foot weed edges for muskie or dragging a spinner rig in thirty feet of water for walleye. Their biology simply doesn’t allow them to exist in water that’s warmer. To put it plainly, to catch lakers all summer, you’re going to have to fish for them. They’re deeper than smallmouths, walleye or pike. Where I do the bulk of my fishing, about the upper limit for lake trout in summer seems to be about fifty feet. I have taken them in water slightly shallower, but not with any real consistency. Year in and year out, working from sixty to about eight feet is the norm. Baitfish like smelts, herring and alewives are a deepwater species that exist in great numbers. Naturally, they become a regular food source for lake trout, as they’re abundant and like the same temperatures. It really is that simple. The most efficient way I’ve found for catching lake trout at this time is with downriggers. With a good graph and good understanding of some basic structures, you can deliver lures right to the fish and enjoy catching them on very sporting tackle.
Just as with trolling in the spring, downrigging has a core set of details that really can make or break your success. And many of these details are universal. Speed, depth control, lure vibration and lure colour are all just as critical in deep water as in shallow. Many of the actual lures used at other times of the season work equally well off a downrigger, floating plugs and spoons, especially. The best downrigger fishermen I know and have fished with all have one thing in common. It’s not the line, the brand of downrigger, the style of lure, the sonar or any other piece of gear. It’s an intimate knowledge of the structures they fish. To downrig effectively (and safely) you really need to be aware of what type of bottom you’re over and where fish hold within or along structure. Structure in the spring really isn’t a critical detail. You can spend months simply running open water or shorelines, catching fish that are actively wandering without any temperature barriers to stop them. In the winter, structure takes on more importance, as trout typically remain active on or near it, and covering water is less of a factor through the ice, so being near good, prominent spots ups your odds. But in summer, I would argue that structure is the #1 key to finding and catching these fish. They relate to it very regularly and good areas generally remain so for more than one reason, and for long, long periods of time. I’ve been very lucky to grow up fishing excellent trout water and many of my favourite structures are ones that are also my father’s, and his father fished them long before either of us. Good lake trout shoals have an almost mythical appeal to me, and will always hold a special place in my heart.
Most of the fishing we do takes place on what we’ve always referred to as ‘shoals,’ and that description is accurate a lot of the time. To most people, ‘shoal’ means a rock that’s just under the water, waiting to rearrange the configuration of your motor if you’re not careful. The thing to remember is that even though trout shoals are deep, and hidden from our eyes, they still have the same features and character as the shallow ones. They just take more time to locate and learn. A good paper map and sonar with GPS is really important. Before GPS was popularized, we’d use paper maps in combination with shoreline makers and the sonar to find spots. Now, nothing can hide. You can literally run from spot to spot with excellent accuracy on water that’s unfamiliar to you. On paper, areas where fifty to eighty feet of water rises up out of deeper water will jump out at you. Finding the bends, plateaus, dog legs and extensions on them is what will lead you to the real ‘spot on the spots,’ and you can easily mark these with icons or waypoints. Lakers like flats as well as slopes (both gentle and sharp). Flat or gradually tapering sections of a structure can hold multiple fish in the summer. Drop a handful of pencils down a stair case and see where they wind up. Not on the sharp edges, but on the flat sections. Fish gather in a very similar way. The flattened areas are natural collection zones for rubble, silt, sand, insects and other fish. These types of spots are also the easiest to fish with a downrigger!
If I had to step away from the computer I’m writing this on and bet my life on catching a lake trout right now, there are two spots I could choose that are wide, sixty five foot ledges that break sharply into one hundred and twenty feet of water on one side before rising to break the surface on the other. There’s always trout there, no matter what month or time of day. I’d take the bet.
Understand that the Shield-type water that lakers are found in is glacially formed. Exposed and dramatic rock features are everywhere in deep water, be them smooth and gradual or craggy and sharp. There are also glacially deposited materials, like clay, clean, smooth sand and mixed rock rubble from fine gravel to giant slab rock and boulders. As my father likes to say, to understand what’s under the water, just look at what’s above it. Drive along any northern Ontario stretch of highway and visualize it all underwater. As with most other species, access to deep water, structure to relate to and easy feeding are what draws lake trout to certain spots. Some are large and gradual, while others have sharp edges that drop fast into deep water. Some have bottoms that are rough and will reach out and grab your cannonball every chance they get. Others are smooth rock or sand, and to trigger fish you need to let the cannonball skip and scratch along. My best advice is to select a few of each and simply scout them with your electronics before ever setting a line. Learn the details, watch for the tell tale signs of fish, and fish them thoroughly once you have a clear mental layout of the spot.
Downrigging has many advantages, not the least of which is precise lure placement with very little line out behind the boat. Yes, you may be down sixty or seventy feet, but the lure is normally less than twenty or thirty feet behind the cannonball. What does this mean? For one, you can make very tight turns to stay on or re-work good areas, almost hovering over them. Only vertically jigging gives you more accuracy. The more downrigging you do, you’ll start to see that lakers ball up and congregate on very specific parts of a structure. Being able to pinpoint these electronically and then focus your time intelligently makes all the difference in the world. A spot might look dynamite on the north, south and west edges, but if all the fish hole up on the eastern section, you’ve got to be able to stay on that area. You can really pin down god spots and work them efficiently with a downrigger. If suspended fish are the target, this style of fishing is simply lethal. Downriggers are actually a saltwater tool that Great Lakes fishermen adopted for reaching fish in precise bands of the water column. In a lot of cases, these bands had to do with a specific temperature or water clarity. They’re equally effective at grinding structure and fishing nowhere near it. If you’re learning how to fish with one, I’d actually recommend targeting fish up off bottom first, and then trying to hug the structure. Some spots we fish, we’ll hold the cable while actually manually lifting the cannonball over rocks and other obstructions. On others, the cannonball is allowed to bounce along smooth rock, clay or sand, sending out all sorts of vibration, silt and disturbance. Never forget how important the lateral line is to feeding. Anytime you can play into this, definitely do it.
They come in a range of shapes and sizes, from long-boomed electric models used with twelve to fifteen pound cannonballs to little portables with four pound weights made to clamp onto small boats, but downriggers all do exactly the same thing. A heavy lead sinker is lowered on braided steel cable. The cable is stored on a large wheel, calibrated with a counter. Before sending the weight down, your fishing line goes into a release clip mounted off a short leader on the back of the weight. Line is allowed to leave your fishing reel under light tension until the weight is set at the desired depth. Reel out the slack so the fishing rod is arced down to the weight of the cannonball, set the rod into the rod holder, and begin trolling. It sounds complicated but seeing one in action will show you how basic the set-up is in its form and function. When a fish hits the lure, the line pops out of the release, and it’s directly on your line. A partner wheels up the cable and weight, and you play the fish.
Monofilament line really helps hook and hold fish that hit on downriggers. You can buy a variety of release styles that have different set-ups and tensions. With some, you can actually adjust the tension to release the fishing line with just a little pressure or considerably more. I’ve used almost every size and style of downrigger, from little portables to the larger, ‘Great Lakes’ style. Cannon, Scotty, Big Jon and Luhr-Jensen have all been around more than thirty years. Downriggers take a lot of abuse from the strain of the cannonball, so buy the best you can afford and mount them securely. Anyone who downrigs (on Shield water, especially) who tells you they’ve never hung their cannonball on bottom, a gillnet, a discarded anchor line or had some other foul up probably isn’t being truthful . It will happen, and it happens to everyone at some point. Over-engineering your mounting set-up above and beyond regular fishing use is never a bad move. I’ve seen downriggers ripped clean off boats. The cost of that adds up real fast. Not to mention the embarrassment. Attach them with a stout safety line, too.
The amount of line from the release clip to the lure is generally determined by the type of bottom being fished. In some cases, it’s believed that the ball may spook fish, and setting the lure back on an extra long lead gives them time to settle down before the lure arrives. On suspended fish, longer leads are definitely easier to play around with, especially when you’re running baits that sink, like spoons. For tight moves on structure, shorter leads have always seemed more manageable for me. Fewer snags and you can spin those hard turns getting back over fish. With floaters like Flatfish or minnowbaits, short leads can let you hang baits right in the strike zone with no fear of fouling up. As an added tip, there are spots where your lures can tickle bottom all day long and stay free of moss, algae or debris. On others, touching bottom will immediately foul your bait. For me, with structure fishing especially, downrigging is a precision game. Most of my leads are fifteen to a maximum of about twenty feet long. And I’ve caught plenty of fish with leads of fifteen feet or less. Day in and day out, short leads and lots of bottom contact work best for fish you’re marking on structure.
If you’re not interested in putting your cannonball tight to bottom, you also have the option of adding weight on your fishing line, ahead of the lure. This works best with floaters, and has actually proven very effective for me. Small, light bottom bouncers, walking sinkers or three-way set-ups all work. They get your bait to ticking bottom and the lakers love it. Take a bit of the bend out of your rod and you can actually see the tip bounce as the sinker and lure taps along. On calm days and over smooth bottom, you can catch fish all day long with this method. It takes some practice, but it’s a skill you’ll definitely want to have. The same rules always apply for your rigging: strong leader material and top-end swivels and snaps.
Rods and reels are normally matched to the overall downrigger/cannonball set-up you’re using and the average size of fish you’re going to be catching. For small fish on smaller water, small, portable riggers with four pound balls work fantastic. A seven or eight foot spinning rod with ten pound monofilament is all you need. As mentioned earlier, if you fish bass or walleye, you’ve probably already got a few outfits that will work perfectly. Downrigger rods are just like the rods for Dipseys or planer boards, in that they just need to be durable and soft. Sensitivity, weight and action are all pretty much secondary. Smooth drag on the reel makes lowering the line easy. On big fish or where you’ll be trolling faster, full-size riggers and balls in the ten to fifteen pound class are better. These can be trickier to move along bottom and walk though the shoals. Levelwind reels on eight to ten foot downrigger rods are most common. For playing fish over ten or fifteen pounds, this class of gear is optimal. Abu Garcia’s 6500 is a great reel. It’s got excellent guts, a good clicker and holds all the line you’ll need. Fourteen to seventeen pound Berkley XT is a great match for this reel. If you’ve ever hooked a big, grey bull in deep water, the fight is normally pretty tough. These fish have a lot of staying power and will make long, hard runs just like a rainbow or salmon. Fifteen to twenty pound monofilament and a good, hard-skinned leader are what you need. Lakers will often school by size, and carrying different classes of gear to target fish on different spots is common. There are shoals we fish where any rod that goes off will have a fish over twelve pounds on it. And some spots are filled with fish half that size.
In the summer, you really need to handle lakers with respect right from the time you hook them. That upper layer of water is warm, and minimizing the time a fish spends there is critical if you intend to release it. Giving them plenty of time to acclimate to lower pressure near the surface is also critical. Don’t rush the fish to the net. And when it comes time to scoop them and remove the hooks, do it fast. Once again, single hooks are so easy to work with. If you can find an-all rubber net bag that’s wide and deep, these are optimal. But most are shallow, making it tougher for fish to lay in and relax. A couple years ago, I went to a treated mesh bag from Lucky Strike. It’s very similar to the style we use for muskies, in that the mesh is very fine, heavily coated and the overall bag is very deep and wide. It’s turned out to be fantastic. Fish to thirty pounds can lay in it, hooks and rigging never tangle in the mesh, and it doesn’t remove slime or damage fins. A word of caution, lake trout never stop squirming, rolling and thrashing. Be deliberate in what you do, always being prepared for the fish to surprise you. Work as a team when you bring a fish to the net. Keep the line taunt and high, guiding the mouth and lure upwards at all times. This will keep rolling to a minimum. Lots of fish we plan on releasing never see the net. Just get the hook out and send them back down. All trout and salmon contain lots of natural, healthy oils that will spoil quickly, so get the fish dispatched and on ice right away.
Another of the great lake trout myths is their quality as a table fish. I can tell you that the flesh is flaky, firm and every bit as delicious as walleye or any of the other sought after gamefish. Trout that feed heavily on smelts and alewives will contain a thin layer of fat along the inner ribs and skeleton. Scrape it out with your knife and prepare as normal. Two to five pound lake trout are terrific fried in the classic shore lunch style, served with a slice of lemon and a cold beverage. Smoked trout is a real delicacy too. They’re also amazing foil-wrapped and baked or grilled. Try leaving the skin on two whole, boneless filets, and lay them skin side down on foil. Brush them frequently with a mix of maple syrup and crushed garlic over low heat. I’ve laid out platters of this for more than a few people who don’t like fish and had them looking for more. Of course, a small fire, block of Crisco and a bag of flour really is the ultimate laker country experience. Set yourself up with a plate of that on a comfortable rock and enjoy. Remember, lake trout fishing is a terrific experience made up of all sorts of wild, natural ingredients. Everyone should try a meal of freshly harvested fish out on the water at least once in their lives.
When you get right down to it, lake trout really do present a terrific fishing experience. For the most part, they’re under-utilized compared to other species, and I think this is due in large part to many of the myths and fables I’ve tried to dispel here. They’re wide-spread, not particularly difficult to catch, and don’t require highly specialized equipment. They fight very hard and are terrific as a food source when harvested responsibly. And of course, you just won’t find many fish that are prettier or that come from prettier places. You’ve probably got at least a couple good fisheries close to you, too, from the giant Great Lakes to little back-country jewels or cottage lakes. I say go for it!