Quest for a 40 Revisited: Lake Trout Fishing
January 14, 2014
Placid water stretched across the seventh largest lake in the world, extending into that texture of light that fully saturates the color of everything it touches. A rare day on Great Bear Lake, lake trout fishing. The Bear is a rolling, stormy, liquid Wailing Wall for trophy-trout enthusiasts. It gave up the current world record (72 pounds). Usually, it's an adventure in America's Most Dangerous Guiding Jobs, where open tundra offers no protection from the wind. This day, miles of uneventful water slipped away in the wake of the boat. But "sleepy troller syndrome" refused to take effect. The next strike, out here, could be from a lake trout pushing 85 pounds. (Don't sneer — an 84-pounder was taken in a net last year.) True, this is a Wailing Wall because it's where lake trout grow biggest, but also because people come here to cry. Ted Cawkwell and I caught only a few lakers in a couple days of trying, and the average size was under 20 pounds. But we did hook a giant that never came within view before coming unpinned. I would go back for another chance like that. If a world record is what you seek, head for the Bear.
If the idea is mixing quality with numbers, compare results with places just slightly farther south, like Athabasca or Great Slave. During September two years back, John Cleveland of Eppinger and I watched battalions of staging, kraken-choking monsters part and slowly swim to the side every time our boat passed over the spine of their spawning reef. It was mesmerizing. We caught a half dozen over 36 pounds (two at 38) and literally dozens between 20 and 30 during a five-day stay.
Lake trout fishing on Great Slave, Chuck "Numbers" Nelson and I popped several fish over 30 pounds and who knows how many over 20, working hair jigs and Storm WildEye Swim Shad swimbaits directly below the boat — or pitching them toward surface explosions at daybreak. On Nueltin, 6-inch Kalin's Mogambo Grubs on 2-ounce Owner Ultahead jigs produced 12- to 20-pound lakers every time we dropped them toward the top of a rocky spire rising out of the depths until we decided dinner might be nice. Maybe not biggest — but big numbers of "bigger" fish persist in a belt that extends across Canada from 55 degrees north latitude to about 50 miles north of the 60th parallel — with several notable exceptions.
The farther north you go, the bigger lake trout seem to get — but at some point, the numbers begin to tail off. If you venture north of Victoria Island and find a big inland lake, chances are it has some very old, very large lakers. But it's a double-edged sword. The farther north a lake is, the more sterile it is. Lake trout grow slower. They live longer, but nature provides for fewer of them. That's the challenge in formulating lists of the finest lake-trout waters on earth while describing how to go about fishing them.
Lakers spawn in fall. Above the Arctic Circle, that means anywhere from late August on Victoria Island to mid-September on Great Bear. In Flaming Gorge in Utah, lakers spawn in mid-October, but may begin staging weeks before. For my money, if local regulations allow or camps are open — fall is the time to target trophies because they concentrate in predictable spots.
Summer can have the same influence by concentrating lakers below certain temperature clines. But it doesn't work north of the 60th parallel, where huge lakers sneak up to the shoreline during low-light periods on lakes like Nueltin, Great Slave, and Kasba. In the lower 48, however, lakers concentrate in and around deep holes all summer.
Winter can concentrate lakers only if it concentrates their forage. Salvelinus namaycush loves the cold, often wandering into areas 10 feet deep or shallower under the ice of Lake of the Woods and Lake Superior. Blue Mesa in Colorado is one of those lakes, where trout and perch huddle in predictable areas during winter. A few years ago, Blue Mesa would have been one of the primary lakes on our list, but most of the fishermen using the resource lobbied hard for the protection of Blue Mesa's kokanee salmon population. Lakers eat kokanee, and browns, and whatever fits in those huge maws of theirs.
Matt Smiley of Eagle Claw held the state record there with a 45-pounder — caught jigging vertically with a tube jig. The state record now stands at 50.53 pounds — also caught on Blue Mesa. But the trophy days are currently in the rear-view mirror. "Blue Mesa certainly would have belonged on your list," Smiley said, "but the Division of Wildlife has encouraged unlimited harvest and has even conducted nettings in the attempt to remove lakers as a limiting factor on those little kokanee. There are certainly 50-pounders remaining, but far fewer. Granby — also in Colorado — is another great laker fishery, but it doesn't have the kind of top-end fish you're talking about."
Smiley heads for Flaming Gorge these days to calm his laker addiction. Some local guides say winter is the best time to be there, too. "The thing about the Gorge is," says Captain Ashley Bonser, owner of Addictive Fishing LLC, "any given drop of a tube through the ice can produce a 40 or 50."
Lake Trout Fishing
Most venues demand trolling gear. Casting works, with standard equipment or fly gear, as does vertical jigging, depending on the time of year and the environment — but trolling something big is the odds-on call most of the year in most places.
Trophy lake trout reside in the mountains from Colorado to the Yukon. They exist in the rainforests of the West Coast. They thrive in the wooded flatlands of the Midwest, across northern New England and New York, and in the tundra above the Arctic Circle, and in the shadow of ancient mountains on the North Shore of Superior. They grow huge from the Maritimes through the boreal forests of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba.
But of all the environments inhabited by trophy lake trout, Flaming Gorge may be the most unique. Arms of that reservoir weave around arroyos and ancient buttes. Surrounded by arid scrub and desert slopes, the Gorge provides some of the finest lake-trout fishing in the Lower 48.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange ventured there last year to fish with Bonser. "We caught 25- to 32-pound lakers each of the 3 days we fished on open water — during the second week of January," Stange said. "It was supposed to be an ice trip (maybe next year), but warm weather left the water open. It's not uncommon to have 40°F weather in winter. From what I've seen, the Gorge is among a handful of places south of Canada that offer a really good shot at besting the 40-pound mark. Bonser's biggest fish is a mid-50."
Stange caught some fish casting a tube on braided line, letting it free spool to bottom in 110 feet of water, then gently working it back along the bottom. Bonser caught his fish deadsticking a tube vertically. Obviously, the Gorge is one of those lakes where true giants are vulnerable to vertical jigging, like Slave and Blue Mesa. "The lure of choice," Bonser says, "is a tube like the 6-inch option from Gitzit. We primarily deadstick them straight down on 1-ounce jigs over 90 to 110 feet of water, keeping the jig an inch above bottom."
While you might catch one over 40 jigging tubes or hair jigs on Athabasca, Kasba, or Great Bear, don't hold your breath. Jigging is a shore-lunch effort wherever lake trout can target traditional menu items like whitefish, big ciscoes, or numbers of 3- to 6-pound offspring.
"Biologists say, in some lakes up here, lake trout produce their own forage," says famous Great Bear guide, "Pike Mike" Harrison. "They demolish the whitefish and minnows and begin eating each other." I know whereof he speaks, having pulled several lakers in the 5-pound neighborhood from the throats of bigger lake trout. Harrison just looks at your tackle selection and shrugs. Like nothing's really big enough anyway. "Who knows? Try that one." (The "big pull" came on car parts.)
Huge banana baits, like Worden's T60 FlatFish, can be lethal. On Kasba, you pull banana baits and car parts or you play with "rats," a blatantly disrespectful term some guides use to describe lakers under 10 pounds. When a rod begins thrashing, everybody listens for the anticipated zzzzzzz of the drag. When it doesn't come, people often curse. "Oh, rats." Or something of that nature.
Car parts are dodgers (metal attractors), but instead of trailing a leader to a fly or small lure, hooks are attached directly to the dodger because giant lakers in the Far North are not at all interested in the hors d'oeuvre tray. A Luhr Jensen size #0 dodger with a 6/0 Siwash hook tied with tinsel and flashabou and strapped to the lure saved the day on two trips to Kasba Lake (one while filming an episode for In-Fisherman TV). And it produced two 38-pounders for me on Athabasca.
The Luhr Jensen K16X Kwikfish Xtreme, that's what — in new UV Bright shades, mixing metallic pinks with chartreuse and chrome. These are must-haves for laker lovers. Kwikfish are awesome. On Athabasca, I saw an old, scratched-up, filthy, chartreuse-chrome Kwikfish bobbing on the waves. I changed out its rusted hooks and 15 minutes later it brought a 32-pound laker to the boat.
The Uncle Josh Swing Hook Bucktail is the new jig in town. "Laker guys are buying them up all around Superior for ice fishing," says Matt Bichanich, sales manager for Uncle Josh. "The hook swings so a big laker can't get leverage, and the profile is sleek. We make them in five sizes, from 3/4 ounce to 3 ounces." Like the gorgeous SPRO Bucktails (that have been down the street with a few thug lakers below my boat), the new Swing Hook Bucktails offer a more natural profile and a faster drop.
Casting isn't new for most, but old-school trout enthusiasts think you have to troll to find giants. Not so when the surface of the water is cold. On Kasba and Great Slave, we took boats out at daybreak and dusk during mid-summer, casting lures to portly lakers that make diurnal movements to shallow shoals. Stalk toward the surface explosions, casting as you go.
Traditional spoons and cranks work, but soft-plastic swimbaits, either weighted or threaded onto a jig, shimmying through 6- to 12-foot depths, produce shoulder-wrenching jolts. I like the Z-Man Flashback Paddle Tails and Storm WildEye Swim Shads, worked vertically, horizontally, pitched, jijgged, or trolled. Versatile lure. If the guide tries to take you off your game because you're catching all the fish — just keep using the same swimbait no matter what he does.
When casting swimbaits next to anglers pitching traditional lures, the hookup ratio is often the same, but the biggest fish seem to respond better to swimbaits. Great time to fly-fish, too — using big, unweighted streamers on floating lines and sink-tips.
On Mosquito Lake, Dubawnt Lake, and other trophy venues in the tundra, whenever "Numbers" Nelson hooked up on a trolling pass, I reeled in quickly and pitched plastic out over 80- to 100-foot depths, hooking up about every fourth or fifth time. We trolled Dardevle Husky Jrs on 25- to 30-pound mono with no other weight. Even in late summer, lake trout stay in the upper water column all year up there. Trolling deep puts your lure under the fish. So I cast plastics with no weight — just a big, exposed Owner hook — whenever Nelson hooked up. Bites felt exactly like a largemouth picking up a jigworm. On calm days, you could sometimes see the line vibrate without feeling a thing. Could be a 5-pounder or a behemoth — you never knew until the hook was set and the fish reacted. I experimented with several kinds of plastics, but a 9-inch Yum Dinger or 7-inch Gulp! Jerk Shad worked best in free-fall.
Casting back while your partner is tussling with a big one is nothing new. Just have a medium-heavy rod handy with 30-pound braid tied to a 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. Tie on a soft, weighted swimbait or a 6-inch tube to pitch at tag alongs that come up with hooked fish (try not to tangle up in the excitement and cost anybody a fish or it could be a long day).
Most of us travel to reach these rarified places. Could be that the most important new equipment for lake-trout enthusiasts are 3-piece, medium-heavy, trolling and casting rods from companies like G. Loomis, Wright & McGill, and St. Croix. Most are sold with travel cases or tubes that fit easily into overhead compartments, saving you big bucks on baggage fees. They easily fit into the trunk of any car or the finite storage spaces in a sea kayak — an increasingly popular way to approach Great Lakes trout. (For more on 3-piece travel rods, check out the 2013 In-Fisherman Gear Guide.)
Car parts, spoons, and 9-inch swimbaits can be trolled behind a downrigger ball or a three-way rig. Banana baits can achieve depths of 20 feet without weight when using braid, requiring only 3 to 6 ounces to get down 60 to 85 feet. Depending on the depths being explored, a spoon may require anything from 1 to 16 ounces. The sinker (round or bell shaped) is tied to a 3-foot segment of 12-pound mono below a three-way swivel, which is also tied to 30-pound braided line coming from a quality line-counter reel. On the remaining eye of the swivel, attach a 6- to 7-foot, 25- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader and to that a big SPRO or Berkley Cross-Lok snap swivel for attaching lures.
That basic rig does it all for trolling. If you use in-line weights, you snag the lure more often, compared to the sinker. In spring and fall, when lakers slide up into 10-foot depths, you can flatline most baits without weight, or cast big suspending baits like Rapala X-Raps, or swimbaits like the Z-Man Paddle Tail — or a jig with a plastic trailer. Menu items in the shallows tend to be smaller, and lakers are willing to lunch on 3- to 6-inch flies punched out there on a rocket-taper floating fly line, too. Which can be scads of fun when the boat is anchored near a "funnel" from deep to shallow, where a glacial groove or trench leads right into shoreline-related flats.
Any waters listed here can be Wailing Walls. Take the right gear and you won't remember them for the tears.
Top 10 Lake Trout Waters
'¢ Athabasca, Alberta-Northwest Territories
'¢ Great Slave, Northwest Territories
'¢ Kasba, Northwest Territories-Nunavut
'¢ Nueltin, Manitoba-Nunavut
'¢ Smallwood Reservoir, Labrador
'¢ Flaming Gorge, Utah-Wyoming
'¢ Great Bear, Northwest Territories
'¢ Lake Superior, Ontario-Michigan-Minnesota-Wisconsin
'¢ Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan
'¢ Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan-Manitoba
*Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a former In-Fisherman staff member now working as an In-Fisherman Field Editor and freelance author. He's an exceptional angler and longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.