November 03, 2021
Fall is a time of change for outdoor enthusiasts across the country. Boats are put to bed, waders are hung to dry, rifles are sighted in and gun dogs focus their gaze upon the sky.
As crisp winds spill out of Canada and the last leaves tumble from the trees, an annual opportunity beckons along the shores of the Great Lakes—especially eastern Lake Erie.
During a few short weeks in November, schools of aggressive lake trout gather in staggering numbers to participate in their annual spawning ritual, concentrating in relatively shallow water and creating an exceptional opportunity to tangle with gorgeous, double-digit-class fish on light tackle.
Jason Plant, an avid angler based near Columbus, Ohio, is no stranger to cracking the code of Great Lakes giants.
Plant spent 10 years fishing the Lake Erie Walleye Trail, netting Team of the Year honors in 2015. Now, in addition to chasing walleyes, Plant makes time to tackle big bronzebacks in Sturgeon Bay, muskies in Lake St. Clair and lakers on the east end of Lake Erie.
"Lake trout are a fish of mystery and mystique," says Plant. "In the past few years, I’ve become absolutely infatuated with them. Obviously, they are big, and that muscular tail makes them incredibly powerful. During late fall, lakers are extremely aggressive, and we’ve developed a presentation pattern that matches their amped-up attitude. What’s best about this bite is how accessible it can be. We’re typically less than a mile from shore, in relatively shallow water, fishing with tackle you would use for bass or walleyes. It’s an absolute hoot, and anyone can do it."
The Spawn Is On
Plant’s lake trout alarm begins ringing in mid-November and lasts until harbor and near-shore ice makes launching the boat and navigating to the fish difficult. Surface water temperatures in the mid-to-high 40s are a key metric. In any given year, the window of opportunity may be small—perhaps just a few weeks—and is highly dependent on the weather. Calm seas or a south wind are optimum; a stiff west or north wind means you can spend the day organizing the garage or sorting your tackle. Lake trout gather in impressive numbers along Erie’s south shore for one reason—to spawn.
"This isn’t a feeding run," says Plant, "but that doesn’t mean the trout won’t bite. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. These trout are so fired up that they will attack lures with extreme aggression—not necessarily to feed, but to kill."
Key areas to scour for Lake Erie lakers in fall are small high spots and offshore reefs in 18 to 22 feet of water. Any type of rocks on the bottom can be good, but shale in particular will concentrate fall lake trout in this part of Erie. You’ll see some of these areas on high-precision digital mapping, but some of the most waypoint-worthy reefs aren’t any bigger than the size of your living room, so they’re not on the map chip.
"We use the AutoChart Live feature that’s built in to our Humminbird units to map smaller reefs in precise one-foot contours," says Plant. "If you’re looking for a place to begin, we generally start finding fish in the Ashtabula, Ohio, area and work our way east through the waters off Pennsylvania and into New York."
Anglers will find an abundance of near-shore rock on the eastern end of Erie, and there are likely dozens of lake trout-packed reefs within a quick boat ride of most major harbors along the south shore.
"When we pull up to a reef, we’re not looking for forage since these fish aren’t here to chase baitfish. Instead, we’re looking for rocks and trout," says Plant.
Big fish like lake trout are easy to identify with Humminbird MEGA Side Imaging, providing a large, bright-white sonar return and a corresponding dark sonar shadow. The resolution and clarity of MEGA Side Imaging even lets anglers see the anatomical features of individual trout, like heads, tails and fins. The ability to easily identify the species of fish swimming around the boat before you actually hook one is a big confidence booster.
"Seeing a handful of those big, bright Side Imaging returns is good," says Plant, "but seeing them by the dozens is even better. Having all of those fish schooled up tight in a confined area really makes them snap."
Once a trout-infested reef is located, Plant recommends locking the boat in place with a GPS anchor.
"We primarily target these fish with vertical presentations, and the presence of the boat right above them doesn’t seem to affect the trout at all. During one of our last trips last year, we were [anchored] right on top of a school of lakers and caught 30 giants in an hour. We’d hook up, land a fish, toss it back and then hook right up again. Fishing like that is not the exception; when the conditions are right, it can be the rule."
Flash A Blade
A variety of artificial lures will trigger fall lakers, but the common thread among them is they work best when fished aggressively, provoking reaction strikes from the trout below. Anglers can snap-jig with hair jigs, jigs dressed with soft plastics or even the classic Rapala Jigging Rap, but Plant’s favorite way to fish is with a blade bait.
The flash and vibration of a blade as it rips off the bottom then rumbles its way back down drives lake trout nuts. Look for a heavy blade that falls quickly—something in the 1/2- to 1-ounce range works well. Plant’s favorite colors are silver chrome and gold chrome to put out extreme amounts of flash as the blade works up and down.
He swaps out thin-wire stock trebles with something a little more stout and uses a strong VMC Duo-Lock snap to keep the blade tethered to his line.
Lake trout anglers can present a blade bait with either spinning or baitcasting tackle. Plant favors a spinning rod, and recommends a 6-foot, 6-inch to 7-foot rod with medium or medium-heavy power and fast action. Premium graphite construction will telegraph the blade’s rhythmic rise and fall and alert you to the presence of vegetation, zebra mussels or other debris on the lure.
Rig the rod with a 2500-series spinning reel with a high-quality drag. Plant spools up with 20- to 30-pound-test braided line and adds a short leader of 12- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon. The leader provides a measure of abrasion resistance when fishing around the rocks and also helps to keep the blade from fouling with the main line since fluorocarbon is stiffer than braid.
"One of the other things we’ve learned over the years is to bring multiple landing nets because doubles and triples happen," says Plant.
It’s important to use a net with a rubber- or latex-coated bag to make it easier to release the fish unharmed and to be able to quickly retrieve lures from the net without them getting hopelessly tangled. Plant uses RS Nets, the same ones he uses when landing other Great Lakes giants.
Go prepared for the weather by dressing in layers, with a water- and wind-proof outer layer. And by all means wear your lifejacket. Hypothermia sets in quickly with water temperatures in the 40s.
"One of my favorite things about this bite is that you can easily do it with friends," says Plant. "Honestly, once you find fish, catching them isn’t all that difficult—and there are no better memories than seeing a couple of your buddies getting worked over by giant lake trout up in the bow of your boat."
JASON PLANT'S LAKE TROUT SETUP
The basic blade-bait rig consists of high-visibility, 30-pound-test braided line joined to an 18-inch leader of 12 to 15 pound-test fluorocarbon. Link the main line to the leader using a Double Uni or Alberto knot. Add a strong cross-lock snap and attach the blade bait by passing the snap through the hole closest to the bait’s tail. This snap placement allows the blade to aggressively dive nose-first to the bottom, triggering vicious strikes from trout.
Tackle Talk: Rod, reel and line considerations
An extraordinary spinning combo for chasing Lake Erie lakers starts with a G. Loomis IMX-Pro 853S JWR—a 7-foot-1-inch rod with medium power and extra-fast action. This strong and extremely sensitive rod provides a constant stream of information to the angler regarding bait action and bottom composition and is built to handle the toughest trout.
Pair the rod with a 2500-series Shimano Stradic FL (ST2500HGFL), an incredibly strong spinning reel featuring an ultra-smooth, run-stopping drag. Spool up with 30-pound-test PowerPro Maxcuatro in the hi-vis yellow color pattern, which makes it much easier to visually monitor the line and detect bites. PowerPro Maxcuatro is 25 percent thinner than standard PowerPro lines of comparable strength, so you can downsize your tackle as you maximize your fishing performance.
Big blade baits rule the day.
Plant’s top lake trout lure is a 1-ounce blade bait from SteelShad. These blades have a longer profile than most traditional metal lures, presenting a larger target for aggressive lakers. Another excellent, locally made option is the Vibra-Max Blade Bait from Venom lures. Plant recommends the largest, 1 1/4-ounce size for this blade. Silver and gold chrome colors are excellent choices.
Plant also snap-jigs with 4-inch fluke or paddletail-style soft plastics rigged on 3/8-ounce jigs equipped with a wire plastic keeper. Snap jigging with soft plastics is a good search tool to locate pods of fish once an active bite begins to fade.