Everything you need to land the lunker laker of a lifetime
Lake trout are the quintessential Canadian fish. The stuff of legends, they prosper in our pristine waters and grow to gigantic proportions—specimens pushing the scales to 50 pounds or more are caught every year. Not only that, they’re found in almost every part of the country. Indeed, no other nation offers more or better opportunities to catch lake trout. But to truly take advantage of this great privilege, you need the right tackle. Here’s my considered selection of the best laker lures out there, complete with tips on when, where and how to use them. As always, please check local regulations and seasons before putting any of these techniques to the test.
Bananas & giant swim baits
When to fish ’em: As with spoons, you can troll banana baits and giant swim baits from ice-out until freeze-up.
Where and how: Early and late in the season when you find lakers shallow, speed troll pearl white, hot pink, chartreuse, glow or silver banana baits at speeds up to 10 kilometres an hour. Trail the lure 50 to 100 feet behind the boat-the length being determined by the aggressiveness of the fish-and bang it into the bottom.
Use a medium-heavy- to heavy-action, eight- to 10-foot-long downrigger rod and level-wind reel spooled with 25-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen. Attach a two- to three-ounce keel sinker followed by a three- to four-foot-long leader made from 50-pound-test Maxima fluorocarbon. For an even more effective presentation, take a strip of belly meat from a sucker and wrap it on the underside of the lure using one- or two-pound-test monofilament or the self-adhering thread used to tie spawn sacs. The scent will seal the deal when trout follow the lure.
As for swim baits, they work best when trolled near offshore structure using downriggers. Increase the length of your 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to about 10 feet. As with the banana baits, troll the swim baits at a much faster speed than normal. Note: If there are two anglers in the boat, both must use swim baits. The quicker trolling speed will be too fast for a different lure on a second downrigger.
When to fish ’em: Troll minnowbaits at the same times and places as spoons. These lures also perform well in the summer, when you find lake trout in deep water or suspended in the water column.
Where and how: When using downriggers in the summer, you’ll often spot lakers on your sonar screen following your minnowbaits. When this happens, pop the lines off the releases and let the lures wobble to the surface. Don’t reel them in; rather, slowly retrieve line so you keep up with the slack as the lures float to the surface-the lakers will just clobber them, thinking they’re trying to escape. Another secret is to replace the heavy galvanized hooks with much lighter Gamakatsu trebles so that the lures rise faster to the surface.
When to fish ’em: Whenever you find lake trout swimming in shallow water (early in the season in Southern and Central Canada, and throughout the year in the Far North), casting jerkbaits or swim baits is often effective.
Where and how: Pinpoint specific cover (fallen trees and shoreline logs) and run your baits across any shallow structure, such as main-lake boulder shoals and rock piles. However, one of the best times to cast jerkbaits and swim baits (as well as spoons) is out in the middle of the lake. The key is to watch for flocks of terns or gulls diving into the water-they’re grabbing baitfish pushed to the surface by marauding pods of lake trout. Scoot over to the edge of the action without spooking the birds or the fish, and cast to the fringes.
Always have a medium- to medium-heavy-action spinning rod with a 2500 or 3000 series reel handy for just such occasions. Make sure it’s spooled with eight- to 10-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon, or 14- to 20-pound-test FireLine.
When the trout are up shallow, they’re usually feeding aggressively. Cast your lure to the edge of the melee, alongside shoreline cover and overtop of shallow structures. Then reel it back to the boat using a steady, moderately fast retrieve. Many times you’ll feel a trout hit and miss your bait, but don’t stop retrieving. Instead, twitch the lure a couple of times and let it sink-another laker will usually demolish it.
Pyzer’s picks: Rapala Original Floater (F18), Rapala X-Rap 14, Bomber Magnum Long A, Lucky Craft Slender Pointer 127, Lucky Craft Pointer 128, Rapala Husky Jerk (HJ14), Storm WildEye Swim Shad, Berkley PowerBait Saltwater Swimming Pogy.
Jigs & soft plastics
When to fish ’em: There’s no time or place when or where a scented white or silver tube jig will fail to catch lake trout. In many parts of the Far North, where the trout grow to gargantuan proportions, you can complement the tube with a much larger, heavier white bucktail jig. Jigs tipped with soft-plastics, meanwhile, can be cast when the trout are in shallow water. Good bets include Berkley’s Power Grub, Power Jerkshad and PowerBait Saltwater Swim Shad; the Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub; the Exude RT Slug; the YUM Houdini Shad; and the Booyah Bucktail Jig.
Where and when: Cast soft-plastic tipped jigs to shoreline cover early in the spring, and across the tops of waist-deep structures any time of the year the fish are up shallow. Tube jigs, however, come into their own when you find lake trout associating with deep, rocky structures from late spring to early autumn.
With tube jigs, position your boat alongside an underwater point, boulder-strewn sunken hump or similar deep structure. Use a 6 1/2- or seven-foot-long medium-heavy-action spinning rod balanced with a 3000 or 4000 series reel. Spool on eight- to 12-pound-test (10-pound being ideal) monofilament or fluorocarbon, or 14- to 20-pound FireLine. Cast out and close your bail only after the jig hits bottom. Retrieve at a moderate speed, pausing every few seconds and alternately hopping, popping and swimming the jig.
Another great tactic, particularly on heavily structured lakes with a multitude of sunken humps, underwater points and deep saddles, is to slowly troll around the structure, monitoring your sonar screen for telltale arcs of big fish. When you find the trout, vertically jig the tube overtop of them as you would during the winter through a hole in the ice. The key is to keep the tube above the trout. Lift it up, pause, then let it spiral back down. Pause for a second or two and repeat.
Many of the biggest trout, especially in the Far North, fall prey to large, heavy (3/4- to 1 1/2-ounce) bucktail jigs tipped with strips of sucker meat, or white or chartreuse twister tails. A 6 1/2- to seven-foot-long, medium-heavy-action baitcasting outfit spooled with 15- to 17-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon is best for these heavy jigs. But don’t cast the jig; just hit the free-spool button and let it plummet to the bottom. Then hop it a couple of times and reel it straight back up using a medium-fast retrieve peppered with frequent hops, pops and erratic jerks.
Light bucktails, meanwhile, are best for covering the tops of extensive shallow structures and shoreline flats. Cast them out and let them fall to the bottom under slack line. Point your rod tip toward the lure, reel up until you can feel the jig, then pop it off the bottom by snapping your rod tip straight up. Quickly drop your rod back down so the bucktail falls directly to the bottom instead of swinging toward you. Repeat this all the way back to the boat.
When to fish ’em: More than 2,000 types of mayfly make up the order known as Ephemeroptera. Trout anglers often tie flies to mimic these short-lived winged adult insects, while lake trout-especially giant fish of double-digit proportions—will gobble up mayfly-imitating lures. Although the mayfly hatch offers a relatively short seasonal bonanza, it’s easy to time—just watch for clouds of the insects around porch lights and street lamps along lakeshores on late-June and early-July evenings. You’ll also find masses of these tasty morsels floating on the water.
Where and how: Locate the edges of large, moderately deep (30 to 40 feet) mud and clay flats, as well as structures such as humps and saddles that border deep water. The highest percentage spots have soft bottoms adjacent to rocky drop-offs. These areas will be so rich with mayflies in the spring and early summer, you’ll find them alive with fish. In fact, when you catch one mayfly-munching laker, you’ll find a school.
Position your boat along the edge of the soft-bottom shelf and cast a bladebait parallel to it. Let it flutter to the bottom on slack line, then retrieve it in a slow, steady manner. This imitates an emerging mayfly rising to the surface for its first gulp of air. Few bladebait techniques elicit a strike better than this do-nothing retrieve. Experiment with different lure sizes and colours, but as a general rule, the 2 3/8-inch, 1/2-ounce Heddon Rattling Sonar Flash matches the hatch best.
Note that you don’t always have to cast the lure out of sight. Occasionally, just open the bail and flick the lure a few feet away from the boat, as the most productive path is the straight line from the bottom of the lake back up to the surface. And always be prepared for a strike-lakers will grab the lure anywhere from near the bottom to right under the boat. The bite usually improves steadily as the day wears on and the water warms up; this stimulates the nymphs to split their cases, freeing the adult mayflies to pop to the surface.
Fishing bladebaits works best with a medium- to medium-heavy-action spinning rod and 2500 series reel rigged with eight-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon, or 14- to 20-pound-test FireLine with a 10-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon leader. And to avoid line twist and breakage, always use a small snap or snap swivel to attach the lure.
When to fish ’em: For the month after ice-out in Southern and Central Canada, and year-round in the Far North, a quick-strike rig is often the most effective lake trout lure.
Where and how: Search for breaklines where large, shallow, rocky shoreline shelves plunge quickly into deeper water. The transition area near a beach where the sand merges into a harder, rockier bottom is another productive spot.
Spool a 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot-long, medium- or medium-heavy-action baitcasting outfit with 12- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon or a comparable abrasion-resistant monofilament, such as Maxima Ultragreen or Berkley Trilene XT. Slide a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce barrel sinker onto your line, then tie a small swivel to the end. Next tie the quick-strike rig-it should be the same test as your mainline-to the other end of the swivel.
Make a tiny incision in the belly of your freshly thawed baitfish and insert a small strip of Styrofoam sliced from a coffee cup. This should make the bait float. Gently slip one of the trebles just under the skin at the head of the baitfish, and the other one under the skin near the tail.
While standing on shore with the reel in free spool, pass the sliding sinker and quick-strike-rigged bait to a buddy in a boat and have him drop it at the precise spot on the shelf (usually close to the breakline). When the bait touches down, your line will go limp. Now pull out another 10 feet, and carefully wedge the butt of your rod into a pile of rocks or other shoreline structure so the tip is pointing straight up.
Next, cut a slit in a small piece of Styrofoam and wedge it onto your line at the rod tip to serve as a signalling device. Keep your reel in free spool and tighten the spool tension so that the line hangs like a clothesline out into the water. There’s no guessing as to when to set the hooks-as soon as you spot the foam sliding away from your rod tip, engage the reel and gently sweep-set the hooks. Experiment by changing the location of your bait every half-hour or so, and vary the length of your leader to increase or decrease the distance your bait is hovering above the bottom.
Pyzer’s picks: A quick-strike rig tipped with a four- to eight-inch-long dead smelt, ciscoe or sucker (where legal) stuffed with Styrofoam. The quick-strike rig should comprise a two-foot-long length of 12- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon line with [B] two #4 or #6 Gamakatsu treblehooks spaced four to six inches apart.
When to fish ’em: From ice-out until freeze-up, few lake trout techniques let you cover water more efficiently and effectively than trolling spoons, such as the Williams Wabler, Whitefish, Sal-T and Quick Silver, or the Luhr Jensen Krocodile and Len Thompson Yellow and Red. That said, you can also cast spoons, such as Williams Dartee and Mepps Little Wolf, when you find the trout swimming in shallow water (early in the season in Southern and Central Canada, and all season long in the Far North).
Where and how: The ideal water temperature for lake trout is between 48 and 52°F (8.9 and 11.1°C), and that’s where you want to run your spoons. In the spring, you can fish both shallow water and close to the surface; you can even cast for lakers (see “Jerk- & Swim Baits”). Come summer, though, you’ll have to go deeper, depending on where you’re fishing, to find the optimal water temperature. Although lake trout often suspend in the water column, the best places to troll are close to the bottom and adjacent to hard, rocky structures, such as sunken islands, submerged points and boulder-strewn saddles.
I prefer using eight- to 10-foot-long downrigger rods for trolling (if I’m fishing with leadcore, however, I use a rod specifically geared for the technique). Depending on the size of the fish you expect to catch, spool plenty of 12- to 20-pound-test monofilament, fluorocarbon or FireLine onto a baitcasting reel with a line counter; the counter is essential for experimenting with different lengths of line. Once you discover the hot length, you can quickly and accurately return to it after every fish.
In the summer, when the water warms, you’ll likely need to use snap weights, leadcore line, Dipsy Divers or downriggers to troll your lures at the proper depth. Downriggers are the most precise way, and a good starting point is to let out 50 to 100 feet of line before snapping it into the release. And don’t troll aimlessly. Instead, weave along key underwater structures and bang your lures off the bottom. Continually experiment with your trolling speed until you find out what the notoriously moody lake trout want.
One final secret: Remove the treblehook from your spoon and skewer on a scented, white pepper-flaked, soft-plastic Exude or Power tube, then reattach the hook-you’ll double the number of strikes. Pyzer’s picks: Williams Sal-T (C Series), Williams Wabler, Williams Whitefish (C90), Len Thompson Yellow and Red, Williams Quick Silver, Luhr Jensen Krocodile (#500 and #700), Williams Dartee, Mepps Little Wolf.
Landing net: A big-game landing net lets you land giant lake trout without harming them. You can even keep the fish in the net over the side of the boat while you remove the hooks.
Scent: Ultrabite, Dr. Juice, Berkley Power Scent and YUM LPT all work. Lake trout hold onto good-tasting lures longer, which is especially helpful when you’re using barbless hooks.
Polarized sunglasses: A good pair of polarized sunglasses is essential for spotting trout cruising through crystal-clear water.
Attractors: A selection of flashers and dodgers-and some aficionados would also include cowbells-is essential. Flashers and dodgers look like small trout harassing prey, while cowbells imitate a school of baitfish. Flashers and dodgers also impart action to spoons and minnowbaits.
Fishing gloves: You can lip a toothy lake trout alongside the boat with these gloves, just as you would a bass, making live-release a quick, easy procedure.
Long-reach hook remover: This tool is indispensable for removing hooks from inside the cavernous mouth of a giant lake trout.
Double-sided hook sharpener: I generally pinch back the barbs on my laker lures, and in many trout waters it’s the rule. A sharp hook compensates for the lack of a barb and ensures every fish comes to the boat.
Seven-inch side cutters: A trophy lake trout can be 60 or more years old and is far too precious to kill. If a hook is embedded so deep it can’t be retrieved, snip it off with a pair of side cutters.
Super-line scissors: These Rapala scissors are essential if you fish with braided line. Clippers are okay for monofilament, but they fray braids.
Replacement trebles: Carry several barbless, bleeding red Gamakatsu trebles in various sizes.
Water thermometer: A good portable thermometer can be tough to find, but it’s worth its weight in gold. Lake trout are very particular about water temperature. Find water in the 48 to 52°F range and you’ll find the fish.