Lake Trout — The Monster Char

Char Countdown Continues:


Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories. It resides on the shoreline of Great Slave Lake, one of the finest lake-trout fisheries on earth. In a museum in Yellowknife, a lake trout over 100 pounds is mounted and on display. It was captured by commercial anglers. The all-tackle world record came from Great Bear Lake, about 200 miles to the north, and weighed over 72 pounds. Obviously, they can get much bigger. You just can't land them. (Plummer's Arctic Lodges — 800/665-0240 — operate on both Slave and Bear.)

Lake trout (salvelinus namaycush) are the largest and, perhaps, most popular of the char family. The fish shown above weighed over 38 pounds. It was caught and released at Lake Athabasca — also in the Northwest Territories (Lakers Unlimited, 406/552-0712). It engulfed a Luhr Jensen Dodger, the largest they ever made and a size no longer available. No fly, lure, hootchie, or small spoon behind it. We just put hooks on dodgers north of 60° latitude. Still, the lure is too small. A laker this size commonly eats 6-pound lakers and whitefish.

Lakers thrive in such pristine and sterile environments up there that some biologists believe they create their own food chain and can only grow huge by being cannibals in some lakes.

The common ancestor of trout and char was salvelinus. Trout and salmon branched off that trunk 23 million years ago, during the Oligocene epoch. A common ancestor of both lake trout and brookies branched off between 15 and 20 million years ago, and near the end of the relatively recent Miocene era (about 4 million years ago), lakers and brookies became distinct species. Obviously, they are more closely related to each other than to the bulls (Salvelinus confluentis), Dolly Varden (salvelinus malma) and Arctic char (salvelinus alpinus) — which are the primary (but not the only) members of the char family.

Lake trout, once adored by the angling public, often face indifference in the lower 48 today. Which is an improvement over disdain. At present, the Colorado Division of Wildlife places no limits on the harvest of lake trout and no limits on size on lakes like Blue Mesa, which produced the state record laker (50.35 pounds) in 2007. The CDW claims anglers on Blue Mesa overwhelmingly prefer the relatively tiny Kokanee salmon and complain that lakers eat Kokanee as fast as the state can plant them. Yet, in my estimation — despite the ill-advised regulations — lakes like Granby and Blue Mesa in Colorado offer better odds for catching lakers over 40 pounds than any other fisheries in the lower 48.

Lakers come shallow whenever water temperatures dip below 54°F on top. Opportunities for catching them by casting flies, tubes, suspending baits, or spoons around river mouths are spectacular and almost completely ignored all across the Great Lakes region every spring and fall. A 10-pound laker on light line is an awesome fish, and that's below average size in a lot of places.

Fishing for smallmouths with guide Frank Campbell (716/523-0013) on Lake Ontario last spring, we caught more lakers than bass, pitching tubes to depths of 10 feet or less. Some of those grays topped 17 pounds. As opposed to a nuisance, this was one of those events where the interlopers were more welcome than the targets. A 17-pound laker can strip 60 yards of 8-pound mono in the bat of an eye. Nobody complained.

Lake trout are also called Mackinaws, grays, and — by anglers who get to know them — huge fun.

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