Lake Trout -- Bullies of the Deep

There are no easy pickings with these deep-water bandits. Mackinaws are coldwater outlaws skilled in brute-class tactics.

By A. Steven Payne

In the movie industry, they'd call him "Slick" or "Weasel," and he'd be cast as the bully, the smalltime hood, the two-bit Western gunfighter, always on the run, but whose days are numbered. He'd lurk behind dimly lit buildings and in back alleys, ready to take advantage of unsuspecting victims.

This role would fit the elusive mackinaw lake trout. But just as with any good Western yarn, these inhabitants of cold, deep-water haunts in lakes and reservoirs would soon meet their match in a fast draw, underwater showdown as a posse of skilled anglers close in. The action can be fast and dramatic for the good guys, if they're savvy to all the lowdown tricks of these native bullies of the deep.

Lakers are the largest and heaviest of all trout, and easily reach weights in excess of 45 pounds in some areas. The largest recorded laker weighed over 90 pounds and came from a Canadian lake. Most lake trout that thrive in waters containing adequate forage will range from 15 to 30 pounds.

Often referred to as "macks," they have large, wide mouths with rows of needle-sharp teeth canted slightly inward. Classed in the same genetic family as salmon, lake trout sport the typical, deep fork of a salmonid tail but differ dramatically in coloration. Lakers are generally a grayish-green tinge to chrome-silver, with a series of oval spots along their sides and back. Their ultra-flavorful flesh may range from a pinkish-red to deep orange depending primarily on forage base.

Also, they're rightfully tagged the "coolest of the cool," inhabiting only the deepest, most isolated reaches of clear, cold water throughout much of the year. They move to shallow water during the very coldest weeks of late autumn and may remain there if water temperatures and forage are present until springtime, when warming temps send them deep again. Until then, they roam at depths as shallow as 10 feet in the earliest weeks of spring and follow cooler water down. However, prior to the deepwater migration, lakers go on a wild feeding frenzy, which may last a couple weeks. It's that special time when the "bully" comes uptown, lurking near rocky structure where prey species may be found, and anglers score incredibly well.

Photo by A. Steven Payne

It's not uncommon to locate great lake trout action at depths approaching 150 feet and more during summer. They spawn in late autumn over rocky, gravelly shorelines when available, but when these ideal conditions are absent, they'll utilize deep water, providing the essential bottom structure is present.

As ice and snow melt in spring, the best fishing action comes to those who locate lake trout even before wetting a line. Skilled anglers troll deep water for good fish, but fishermen who scan the bottom, beginning at very shallow depths and progressing slowly into deeper water will likely detect fish close to shore also, but always on the very bottom. Although the water may be icy cold, it's where the baitfish will be. Minnows and other creatures use the shallows exclusively which may be just a couple degrees or so warmer, hence, the voracious lake trout will not be far away. Lakers are simply nasty when it comes to food; they will not hesitate to abandon deep-water haunts for quick, short forays into the shallows to feed.

Flat-line trolling is the key to early springtime action once a school has been spotted on a fish locator. Until just a few years past, locating fish in shallow water has been somewhat difficult, but with the technology of side scanning, many companies produce fish locators that actually scan ahead or to the side of a moving boat, easily detecting fish.

"In the spring, begin scanning water at about 10 feet deep, moving slowly at an angle toward deeper water," said fishing guide Rich Lindsey. "As your locator indicates water over about 70 feet or so, change the angle and troll slowly parallel to the shore. This straight-line pattern virtually strains the water ahead, to the side, and bottom. Then, when you spot fish on the locator, it's time to go to work! This new technology is break-through electronics, and you won't waste time just trolling blindly.

"Flat-line trolling is just that," he continued Trolling heavier spoons and lures behind the boat, on the surface, or so it seems. Actually, even with heavier line, most lures will travel at least a few feet under the surface. I like to add a couple ounces of weight if I'm more than 15 feet deep or so, and that puts my lures directly in front of these fish. I rig my clients with rods 7 or 8 feet in length, fitted with good trolling reels and about 150 yards of quality 18-pound-test line. It's important to check lures just under the surface to be certain they're working right, then let out about 50 yards of line.

"Troll only as fast as necessary to keep the bait active. Lots of lures do the job. Hard vibrating banana baits are great, as are larger in-line spinners treated with a piece of fish meat. Use bright colors - chrome, gold, metallic, chartreuse, fluorescent. A proven favorite for my clients is a big banana bait in chartreuse with a brilliant blue stripe. Use a ball bearing swivel to prevent line twist."

Another guide, Mike Oscarson, echoes Lindsey's technique for early spring, then adds, "At the first hint of warmer weather, them fish are gonna head down, and you've got to go after them.

"The best way to do business with them when they start heading for cooler water is with leadhead jigs. They like to hold up on shelves or rock piles where the baitfish are, and leadheads are a top fish taker. All you've got to do is spot a hump or rocky underwater ridge about 75 feet or so deep, drop a jig loaded with a piece of bait to the bottom, and work it up and down. Raise the bait up a couple of feet and let it flutter down. Keep at it and be ready to set the hook. It's a waiting game 'til they home in on the bait, but they sure will find it if they're in the area."

Although lakers will strike a bare leadhead jig, they are renowned for following a lure for a long distance only to open their cavernous mouths to engulf lures as they overtake them. This type of bite is even more likely if you add a morsel of meat to your offering.

Experts always hang a piece of cut bait, a small piece of sponge dipped in a prepared scent or even a strip of bacon rind on the hook. If lakers are around, they'll find it quickly! Generally, action comes as the bait is falling, and may be indicated to the angler as merely a "different" sensation in the feel of the rod. There are no strong runs or savage strikes, just added weight. Anytime your line has a "heavy" feel to it, set the hook! The weasel's on!

Deep-water trolling is perhaps the most w

idely used method for lakers. There are a dozen variations to try, but the basics go something like this: Steel line ensures the lure will be directly on the bottom and in most cases nearly vertically below the boat. There is absolutely no stretch in steel line, hence, any indication of a strike at the rod tip will likely be a fish rather than bottom bumping. One method involves steel trolling lines designed to reach extremely deep water. A 20-foot length of 20-pound-test leader to which trolling lures are tied does the job. The hard-working banana-shaped baits in larger sizes are preferred lures, and trolling speed is determined by watching the lure just under the surface to ensure the precise speed. Then merely lower the lure to the bottom where the action is.

Leadcore line will also get the lure to the bottom where lakers are. Some trollers use large in-line spinners fitted with meat-baited hooks to accomplish similar results. Again, trolling speed is easily monitored on the surface before lowering to the bottom.

Far and away the most popular method for catching mackinaw in deep water is conventional trolling with downrigger equipment. Downriggers are efficient and allow the lure to be held in the fish-catching zone on relatively lightweight tackle. Methods vary, but generally trolling rods designed for the sport are placed in holders on the boat while trolling. Reels must be capable of holding several hundred yards of 14- to 30-pound-test line. Lures are a matter of choice. Most dedicated lake trout trollers use a large rotating flasher and fly combo, which is positioned 10 to 30 feet behind the downrigger weight ball.

Trolling flashers are large rotating blade type devices, which represent a school of baitfish when moved through the water, and the fly tied behind imitates a crippled minnow - easy prey for a bandit laker.

In addition to "sweetening the bait," many dedicated trollers use a variety of scent products to eliminate odors or to better encourage the bully to attack. Some trollers produce their own concoctions made from all manner of smelly ingredients, but most use products obtained at tackle stores.

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