January 25, 2024
Say what you want about lake trout. For charter captains trolling on the Great Lakes, they can make or break a good day on the water. In places like Yellowstone National Park, they are interloping vermin. For ice anglers across much of the northern US and most of Canada, however, lakers can be the heroes of cold winter days.
Of all the fish caught through the ice during the winter months of U.S. and Canadian waters, few species consistently approach the size of lake trout. But that's just one of the things that make them darlings of the hardwater world. Here are a few good reasons why lake trout have cemented their favored fish status for ice fishermen around the globe.
First, lake trout get big. Giant even. That certainly is their main allure. The world record book is full of massive lake trout–most of them caught by traditional hook-and-line methods. But some of the biggest fish to ever flip and flop onto the ice are also lake trout. Consider the 52-pound, 2-ouncer caught in Lac la Croix, Ontario, Canada, on February 8, 2014. For legal reasons, however, that fish was confiscated and can't be considered a world ice fishing record.
Or how about the one Minnesota angler Bruce Sederberg caught in 2013 on Ontario’s White Otter Lake that measured 46 inches and was estimated to weigh between 40 and 44 pounds?
And don't forget the 57-pounder caught in Red Lake, Ontario in March of last year–a fish so big that the anglers had to drill a second hole through the ice to get the fish with a 31-inch girth out of the water.
In places with healthy populations of lakers, a decent fish is anything above 20 pounds. Few other species routinely tip the scales in that weight class.
Canada's Northwest Territories is home to the best lake trout fisheries in the world. But that's a bucket-list destination for most. Closer to home there are a couple of go-to spots to find lake trout.
In Minnesota, Burntside Lake has a reputation for producing heavyweight lake trout.
In New England, according to multiple sources, the largest lake trout ever caught through the ice came out of New Hampshire's Big Diamond Pond, way up north in the Granite State. In late February 2020, Thomas Knight put a 37.65-pound lake trout on the ice of the small (179 acres) Coos County pond.
In Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, you'll find Lake Willoughby. A deep glacial lake with wild populations of lake trout and rainbow trout, it can cough up some monsters too, like James Alexander's 29-pound, 6-ounce laker caught in 1996 that stood as a tip-up world record for several years.
"Every tip a flag goes up on a tip-up on Willoughby there's a chance it's a 20-pounder," said Tony Smith, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "A trout in that 20-pound class happens once every two or three years on Willoughby, and that's the allure of the place."
You Smelt It...
From the Lake States to the Northeast, the best lake-trout lakes have baitfish populations of smelt, ciscos, whitefish, and shiners.
On Willoughby, for instance, trout feed almost exclusively on smelt, so much so that Smith offers this one piece of advice: "It doesn't seem to matter where on the lake or what the depth of the water is. If you find smelt, you'll find the trout," he said.
That said, lake trout can be opportunistic eaters. The 37.65-pounder from New Hampshire's Big Diamond Pond was caught on a large sucker.
Lake trout don't get to massive sizes by being picky eaters.
Any Style Will Work
Lake trout are typically suspended during the winter months. For those who fish with live bait, that means using tip-ups set at depths where the bait is. It could be 15, 50, or 75 feet of water. While lake trout are on the bottom during warmer months, they can be anywhere in the water column during the winter. Every winter, somebody will catch a lake trout of remarkably shallow water. It shouldn't be a surprise. Lakers will feed at all depths in cold water.
For those who like to jig, make sure you vary the depth of the jigs. Lakers will hit tube jigs, spoons, and airplane jigs. They are attracted to movement, and an erratic action that simulates a dead or dying baitfish will produce.
Another tip: Be on the ice for first light. While lake trout will eat all day, they seem to be more active as the sun begins to rise.
Lake trout don't have the reputation as prime table fare as walleye or perch. Heck, even the secretive burbot (also known as the cusk, ling, or eelpout) is often more prized for its meat among many ice fishermen. But part of that narrative may be that lakers caught during the summer in warmer waters do taste different. But cold-water lake trout can be delicious whether smoked, grilled, steamed, or baked. There are two keys to good-tasting lakers: Eat the smaller ones and trim off the reddish-brown lateral line from the fillets. That's where the oily taste comes from.
Say what you will, but there’s no denying that lake trout make fantastic quarry for ice anglers.