The Wonders of Western Lake Trout
February 09, 2017
Consider that A 40-inch lake trout has to bend nearly in half to be landed in three feet of water. Colorado Guide Nathan Zelinsky says, "And shallow holes catch more fish than the deeper ones."
Pike anglers frequently explore shallow bays and set tip-ups in areas that barely wet the bait, but traditional lake trout tactics involve dropping lures in 50, 75, or over 100 feet of water where smelt, alewives, whitefish, kokanee, and other prey reside. "High-altitude lakes in Colorado that contain kokanee salmon have a deep lake trout bite, but most of those I fish contain mostly brown and rainbow trout. Since these stocked trout generally stay in shallow water, that's where you find lakers," Zelinsky explains. "In some of these lakes I've never marked or caught a mature lake trout deeper than 40 feet year-round."
In waters containing rainbows, Zelinsky started fishing for mackinaws at depths of 5 to 10 feet. In his blackened Clam Voyager shelter, he'd watch as clients ogled the largest fish in the lake. Although the thrill of watching a top-end predator beneath your feet never wears off, he noted that most lakers departed without striking a lure.
During an early-season trip last year, the ice was only thick enough to fish the shallow edge of the lake. He sat for only a few minutes before the first fish crushed his tube jig. He had more strikes that day and throughout the following week. He began to consider why the super-shallow bite was so strong. "When chased by a predator, a trout in 6 feet of water and more than 20 feet from shore can dart off in any direction. A tube jig darts off but returns to the same spot, which is not a perfect imitation," Zelinsky says. "Corner that trout in 3 feet of water near shore and the laker knows the trout has fewer escape routes. A nervous trout that senses danger hesitates, like a deer in headlights, just long enough for a laker to barrel in and strike. These aggressive strikes are a function of water depth.
"We saw more fish in deeper (6- to 10-foot) water but had fewer bites. I started looking for spots where my jig could be widely seen in shallow water, such as expansive flats, sharp breaking banks, and areas without large rocks to block the view. This also led me to upsize the lures so the jig would be visible to all fish in the area."
Finally, Zelinsky worked on a jigging presentation to imitate a jittery trout. Using a 1.5-ounce Kalin's Ultimate Jig inside a 7- to 10-inch Canyon Plastics Tora Tube, or a similarly sized Lunker City Shaker Head at the end of a 10-inch Fin-S Minnow, proved a good imitation. Both lures were sufficiently rigid for his aggressive ripping approach. He twitches the lure in place a few inches off bottom before dropping the rod tip and aggressively ripping the lure 6 to 12 inches upward. The drop puts slack in the line, causing the lure to move sideways. Mackinaws often hit when the lure smoothly returns to the bottom of the stroke. Erratic motions force predators to guess at the prey's movement direction, resulting in missed opportunities. But this combination of deadstick and single, quick darts attracts attention while offering a predictable target.
With the puzzle nearly complete, Zelinsky then had to work with anglers seeing a huge fish under the ice for the first time. "In many areas, the first strike came within a minute of the initial drop and anglers missed the hook-set," he says. "I realized that our eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark of the shelter and we couldn't see the fish strike clearly. My friends hate to wait but I force them to sit in the dark for five minutes before I hand them a rod."
A bit farther west, Flaming Gorge Reservoir cuts a trench through parts of two states. On the Utah side, sheer cliffs intersect with channel bends and submerged rockpiles to provide hunting grounds for some of the largest lakers on earth. While also eating kokanee and rainbow trout, some of these fish prefer to stay deep after spawning in late fall. Presumably the deep water sees fewer abrupt temperature changes from winter fronts (which drive the Colorado fish out of the shallows) and the darkness easily hides the robust outlines of the 30- to 50-pound predators.
Guide Ashley Bonser spends the summer netting the largest fish of his guests' life and the winter wondering if those same fish will fit through the hole in the ice. The 28-inch girth of Bonser's largest last year would scratch the edges of a standard 10-inch hole and Utah allows holes up to 18 inches in diameter on Flaming Gorge for this reason.
He uses 5- to 7-inch Canyon Plastics tubes, which spiral on the drop, watching his Lowrance graph for marks rising from the bottom. When a fish appears, there are three options: freeze and deadstick; keep dropping to the bottom; or start reeling the lure smoothly toward the surface. If the lure makes it to the bottom unmolested, deadsticking and tiny twitches work best for these highly educated, but curious fish.
Inexperienced lake trout anglers often need coaching to achieve a high hook-up rate. Always be ready for a bite on the first drop of the day. Check with your guide about favorite jigging strokes. When the guide says, "fast and short," your muscles need to put just the right hop on the heavy tube to trigger the light strike. In fact, watching your rod tip bend unnaturally on the fall is about all the feedback you sometimes get. When the guide yells, "set the hook," forcefully raise the rod while stepping backward to get the fish hooked.
In Colorado, Guide Bernie Keefe deals with yet another phenomenon when chasing mackinaws — fishing pressure. He's guided on Granby Reservoir for over a decade and watched trends closely. "Colorado is enjoying a boom in ice fishing popularity," he says. "Parents traditionally teach their kids to ski or snowmobile in winter, but ice fishing has moved up the ranks. At the same time, water is limited as Colorado's largest lake is 9,000 acres," (Granby is 7,250). Granby's best areas fill up quickly on weekends, forcing Keefe to explore other areas.
His habit of trying a new spot every day has paid off over the years and he regularly finds large fish far from classic structure, such as drop-offs, humps, and saddles. Avoiding crowds leads him to flats in 30 to 80 feet of water. Lakers cruise these areas looking upward for schools of kokanee salmon. The largest fish can abandon drop-offs because nothing in the lake intimidates them and there's no need for stealth. The size of these flats can be daunting, but a fast-moving group of anglers can explore acre after acre with the right attitude.
Keefe works quickly and has dialed in his process for efficiency. Most anglers use a 10-inch drill for large fish, but he saves 30 seconds a hole with an 8-inch Clam Elite auger. To further save time, he worked with Clam to develop the Runner, a one-man shelter based on a two-man sled. An angler sits on the short side and the shelter has solid poles for quick flipping. The Runner has room for solid hook-sets from 40-inch Genz Split Handle heavy-power rods. Mild Colorado winters help by reducing the days where a shelter is necessary.
Keefe keeps his anglers moving, often walking 2 to 4 miles and fishing 20 to 40 holes a day. "A large lake trout in clear water can see a lure drop from 30 to 60 feet away and responds within a minute. Once a fish shows up on the Vexilar, we adjust our jigging to their reactions on the screen. The more drops we get in a day the better." He methodically covers the area with long swaths of holes. "I drill holes about 14 steps apart on flats. The group keeps going and going and we find fish every day. Each angler carries only a rod and a Vexilar. We can see the crowds on the standard spots but they often don't see us."
In the 1970s, a stocking truck bound for Lake Oahe, South Dakota, endured an aerator pump failure that ended up with fishery workers releasing lake trout in 800-acre Pactola Reservoir near Rapid City. The lake had previously been a rainbow and brown trout lake with bass, perch, and bluegill coexisting with the colder-water species. Nearby Deerfield Reservoir was also stocked with lakers in 2014. The Black Hills offers a variety of fishing opportunities including mountain streams and prairie-style walleye lakes literally a few miles apart, so lake trout provide another layer of excitement to those willing to study their habits.
For Guide Craig Oyler, lake trout have been a passion for over a decade. He's found that recent drought conditions, followed by high water levels shifted the bite on Pactola. In previous years, lake trout chased rainbow smelt throughout the water column and throughout the lake. Using a combination of live minnows on dead rods set in Arctic Warrior Tip-Downs and jigging with 3- and 4-inch tube jigs, Oyler drills a set of holes out from shore running from 30 to 100 feet of water. This method quickly contacts mobile fish and highlights their preferred depth for the day.
Last year, high flows moved smelt and some of the Mysis shrimp through the dam and lake trout adjusted by feeding more on shallow scuds (and rainbow trout and bluegills chasing the scuds) near vegetation. His hot lure this year was the much smaller Clam Drop-Kick jig rigged with a Maki Plastics Jamei XL softbait to imitate scuds and a 3.5-inch Berkley Power Tube on a 3/4-ounce jig to imitate bluegill. He also moved from the steep drops that had harbored smelt to the shallow plants inside sandy bays.
"On Lake Pactola I try not to get stuck in a rut," he says. "They're not traditional fish and they're not in traditional habitat. These lakers move fast and circle the scuds two or three times before biting. Initial hits are from the fish slapping the lure with their tail or bumping it with a closed mouth. You can observe this by looking down the hole or using an Aqua-Vu. Always be prepared for the real bite."
Gear and Details
A 10-inch tube jig is not standard gear, so equipment needs to be discussed. To handle such large lures and heavy jigs, Zelinsky and Keefe have enlisted custom rod builders to produce a "stand-up" lake trout rod that's 40 inches long, basically cut-down bass and walleye blanks. Three years ago, Clam introduced the Dave Genz Split Handle series and both guides now use the 36-inch medium-heavy and 40-inch heavy versions. The 36-inch medium-heavy model doubles for use with bladebaits and Jigging Raps for walleyes. Oyler has found a balance between backbone and tip flexibility in the Clam Professional Series Great Lakes Walleye Rod for presenting small scud and bluegill imitations to powerful fish.
All three guides favor Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon from 6- to 10-pound test. Lakers out west don't live near snags or other cover and can be finicky, so fluoro is ideal. It has low-stretch for strong hook-sets in deep water. Zelinsky favors the Pfleuger Arbor reel (7435X) because its large arbor allows the fluorocarbon to rest in larger coils. Keefe prefers the Abu Garcia Revo MGX 30 reel for its smooth drag. Both use 10-pound-test line. Oyler uses 6-pound flouro to work the small jigs, paired with a Dave Genz Legacy reel.
Keefe fishes 5- to 6-inch Canyon Plastics tubes in most cases, but occasionally uses a smaller one such as Berkley's 4-inch Havoc Smash Tube, whose shape provides more distinctive action on the fall. Color choices shift from season-to-season and Keefe monitors the number of fish seen versus the number of bites and adjusts colors when lookers outnumber biters. The last time I fished with him, glow colors were hot and this was something he'd not seen in 15 years of guiding.
Keefe pours jigs using TK810 Eagle Claw TroKar hooks and a modified Do-it tube-jig mold. He carved out the front of the jig mold to add about 1/2 ounce of lead in front of the hook. When placed in the center of a tube, this creates a strong circling motion on the fall, which has proven to trigger big fish.
Lake trout have razor-sharp teeth so Keefe uses leather or waterproof gloves to lip-land fish instead of pulling on the gill plate. Once guided into the hole, the mouths of these monster fish are an easy target to grab. Clam Seal Skinz gloves or a similar leather pair can reduce the stress and gill damage. These gloves protect hands from cold water and sharp teeth, and dry quickly between bites.
Pursuing a 40-year-old fish that rules his frigid habitat isn't for the unprepared. Strategies are fine-tuned and extreme in some cases. Push the extremes of depth in both directions and be prepared for mobility, lots of hole-cutting, and some drag-screeching action. Whether you explore shallow waters or deep basins, mile-high western lake trout are a true American adventure.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, promotes fishing in the western United States and is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Guide contacts: Ashley Bonser, flaminggorgefishin.com, 307/389-8160; Bernie Keefe, fishingwithbernie.com, 970/531-2318; Craig Oyler, coldsnapoutdoors.com, 605/381-1564; Nathan Zelinsky, tightlineoutdoors.com, 303/947-8327.