To simplify this game we love to play, we sometimes generalize and pigeonhole the habits of the fish we chase. That can be a good idea. Other times we make life more complicated, constructing models that lead us down wrong paths. Making matters worse, we also at times ingrain the flawed philosophy as gospel.
Lake trout are a case in point. They’re a coldwater species that requires year-round temperatures in the 40°F to 52°F range to survive. Throughout most of the open-water season, they flourish below the thermocline. Depending on where you fish, those depths might range from 40 feet down to more than 100. Cohabiting this same Twilight Zone is a variety of soft-rayed, silvery, protein-packed pelagic forage fish like smelt, alewives, kokanee salmon, whitefish, and ciscoes.
So, what could be simpler when lake trout ice fishing? Find the depths where the lake trout’s preferred 48˚F to 52˚F temperature range is strung out, pinpoint the deep, rocky structures they often hold near, and concentrate your fishing on and around the features lying adjacent to the biggest balls of bait.
Liberated at Last
It’s a good model with which to begin your lake trout quest during the open-water season—but not necessary when there’s 3 feet of ice and snow on the lake and air temperatures have dropped out of sight. Indeed, lake trout, as opposed to nearly every other popular species of fish, like walleye, bass, pike, muskies, and panfish, are “freed” in the winter to use the entire lake and water column. They’re not wedged into an ever-narrowing band of optimal water temperature and oxygen, as is the case in many lakes by late August when their livable zone is only a few feet thick.
Liberated at last, lake trout are free to forage and roam throughout the water column, from inches beneath the ice to the deepest recesses of the lake, and from the shallowest shorelines out into open water. This also allows the fish to target a host of “new” food opportunities.
Winter represents in many ways for lake trout what the Summer Peak Period signifies for walleye, bass, muskies, pike, perch, and panfish—a time of plenty. Yet most winter lake trout anglers miss the point or at least ignore it, much the way walleye anglers reject fishing aggressively with heavily weighted soft plastic swimbaits during the hot, dog days of summer. These things just don’t jive with cherished beliefs.
The In-Fisherman staff has taken advantage of this unique opportunity for many years, but we too often are amazed at the extremes to which fish sometimes go. Lake trout have been behaving this way for eons and it is we, the anglers, who are finally broadening our horizons and opening up the window to let in some fresh air. There’s no water too shallow for us to consider ice fishing for lake trout—no forage type we should not look at, with yellow perch being a stand-out option we should further explore.
And when I say “shallow,” there are two connotations. One is up close, tight to shore, in water depths as skinny as 12 feet. The other is right under the ice—4, 5, and 6 feet down—regardless of the overall depth.
Bottom-Up, Bottom-Down Predators
We know that lake trout use the underside of the ice as a wall against which they can pin pelagic baitfish like ciscoes, smelt, and whitefish. They also use the base of the ice to hide, in the same way they lie on the bottom of the western lakes and reservoirs where Colorado guide Bernie Keefe fishes. He calls giant lake trout “couch potatoes,” and the kokanee salmon they feed on “the refrigerator.” These western lakers are “bottom-up predators” that hide close to the bottom, waiting for a school of kokanee to pass overhead, before attacking, and then heading back down to take cover.
Lake trout in the Canadian Shield lakes that I fish in Ontario do the same thing—only they do it by slowly cruising under the ice, using it like it’s the bottom, feeding down on smelt, ciscoes, and other unsuspecting prey. Their field of view from this angle is remarkable with sunlight often penetrating the crystal clear water down 50 feet. It’s the reason we catch so many lake trout when we first drop lures down the hole, before they plummet even a few feet.
Like most anglers, I considered these trout to be little more than lucky happen chances—until recent winters when I’ve been experimenting farther, making a point of jigging lures right up and into the hole, even pulling them out of the water, before immediately lowering them back down to maximize the number of short drops. I’ve been impressed at how many fish—seven one day in less than an hour—that pounced on the lure as soon as it entered the hole and began its descent.
Perched on top
We also catch many big lakers that are in shallow water, targeting yellow perch. Once again, initially, we considered these trout to be little more than bonus fish—like the pair of mid-February trophies In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange once hooked when we were filming an In-Fisherman TV ice segment on walleyes.
Dropping his perch-patterned Jigging Rap down a hole at the tip of a point in 28 feet of water, his rod immediately bowed over as he fought a giant lake trout. I know the fish was a pig because I tried to help him land it and couldn’t get the trout’s humongous snout into the hole. I reckon the fish was in the high-20-pound range, maybe even 30-plus pounds, because the 19-pound trout that Doug hooked only minutes after losing the big girl fought like a puppy by comparison.
Neither trout surprised us, but neither did we consider them to be part of a reliable winter pattern. That changed. For many years I’ve dipped the tails of my white tube jigs in chartreuse dipping dye because so many of the smaller trout I occasionally kept for dinner had yellow perch in their stomachs. I believe chartreuse is a color that attracts, excites, and triggers trout.
In recent times we’ve used firetiger and perch-hued lures with plenty of green, yellow, orange, and black. And we typically jig them on the same structures we fish for walleyes and perch. The only difference is that we work the lures higher off the bottom—between 7 and 15 feet—and at a faster lift-pause-drop-pause pace. Last winter, my two biggest trout fell for this yellow-perch pattern. And when you fish for lakers like that, the “bonus babies” are big walleyes that streak across your sonar screen and smack the lure.
Why do lakers target perch in the “walleye sections” of a lake? After all, perch are scaly and spiny whereas smelt, ciscoes, and whitefish are soft rayed. Those silvery pelagic species also are coldwater species, meaning they’re at their peak in being able to flee. Plus, they tend to roam the water column in herds, making it difficult for lake trout to ambush them. That again is why the big predators use the underside of the ice to conceal themselves.
Easy Perch Pickings
Yellow perch, on the other hand, are cool- to warmwater fish whose metabolism slows in the winter. And they have lousy low-light eyesight, causing them to lie on the bottom of structures at night. Talk about easy pickings for lake trout. Yellow perch may not be the most preferred forage, but they’re often one of the most plentiful. And they require a minimum expenditure of energy for trout to fill their stomachs.
The heart of this story is that the Cold Water Period is prime time for lake trout in the same way that the Summer Peak can be for walleyes, bass, pike, perch, and muskies. It’s not a matter of any one winter pattern being better or worse, either from a location or presentation perspective, but rather that many patterns exist, and the best are at times the ones ignored or overlooked by most anglers.
So, throw the window wide open this winter to discover lake trout locations and presentations that have always existed, but have been missed by most anglers in our attempt to simplify things and pigeonhole the fish into just one predictable pattern.