Deep and big. Those two words describe the continent's second-largest salmonid. Referred to as a trout, Salvelinus namaycush is actually a char of enormous size. Called mackinaw, or lake trout, these fish reach stunning proportions, sometimes growing as large as 50 pounds or more.
They have haunted the icy waters of bottomless lakes in the arctic for thousands of years, growing huge in the rich, cold waters. Transplanted across the west, they have thrived and now have self-sustaining populations in many of our deepest lakes.
These monsters do not grow huge by nibbling on tiny delicacies such as little minnows. No, they grow fast by inhaling as big a meal as they can stuff in their gaping maws. Like other char, mackinaws start life on a diet of small crustaceans and insects until they are large enough to make use of bigger food sources such as small fish. However, lake trout take this attitude to the extreme, and once they switch to piscatorial food they key in on the biggest prey present.
In other words, this is not a fish you can catch by trolling a Mepps No. 2 spinner. Anything so inconsequential will not gain notice from Mr. Laker. He is a fish of substance, and he wants a substantial meal. If you want him to bite, you better bring the groceries.
How big are we talking about? "Some studies suggest that mature lake trout prefer food that is 1/6 to 1/4 of their own length. Think about the size of a 30-pound mackinaw, and then compute how big he wants his food to be. They are programmed to tune out anything too small to waste energy chasing down, so they pay little attention to anything that does not throw a substantial profile.
KOKANEE AND TROUT EQUAL CALORIES
In the West the mackinaw does best in lakes with populations of kokanee, trout and whitefish. By feeding on this larger forage the mackinaw gets more calories for energy spent, resulting in phenomenal growth rates. These are the big baitfish your lures should mimic.
Just ask a few lake trout junkies, like Rick Arnold of Trophy Trout Guides. In addition to being a master at mounting big trout, Rick is also a master at catching them. When asked about larger baits for lakers, he points to some sizable plugs, both old and new, that will definitely get the attention of Big Mack. "In the old days the standard for lakers was flashers and hootchies," says Arnold. "Now big trolling plugs and baits are what most people use."
Arnold likes to troll a 5 1/2-inch Apex plug. His fishing partners often push the profile even larger. "I have a friend that has used the 9- and 12-inch jointed AC Plugs, and he has caught big lakers on them, too. They are a big fish, and they want something with a big profile."
"MATCH THE HATCH"
Many mackinaw lakes in the west are also home to kokanee, which is one of their favorite foods. Steve Kroll is a seasoned trout angler and former guide with dozens of giant lakers to his credit. Now retired, Kroll used to guide and fish for these giants in some of the best American lake trout waters there are.
He advises anglers fishing for lakers in kokanee lakes to "match the hatch" of the local baitfish, so to speak. "When they feed on kokanee they are targeting fish that are 11, 12, or 13 inches in length," says Kroll. "When that is the case you want to troll a big plug in a kokanee pattern."
SPOONS AND SWIMBAITS
While more popular among Canadian mackinaw fishermen, spoons are effective on western lakers, and both Kroll and Arnold like to use them at times. Savant and Sutton Spoons are proven at catching lake trout, as are many others. Once again, you want a big size: at least a 5-inch spoon.
Kroll has been cutting his own spoons from sheet metal for decades. That way he can cut them to size for whatever bait the lakers are focusing on. "Sometimes I'll make them 8 or 9 inches long," says Kroll. Even then, he sometimes adds a swimbait to his spoons, making the profile even bigger. "Lakers love swimbaits," he adds.
It is true: Swimbaits in large sizes are deadly for lake trout, and adding them to a spoon can give the bait some added action while creating an even larger profile to target. They can be deadly when trolled by themselves, too. Berkley makes excellent swimbaits, and the salt water sizes, 6 inches and more, are perfect for lakers.
In fact, Kroll has added swimbaits to plugs with good results, too. "Replace the back treble hook on a plug with a single Siwash hook and you can add a swimbait," he says. On heavily fished waters he says this trick can turn the tide. "Those fish see plugs buzzing by them all day long. Then they see something a little different and they react to it. You have to be creative sometimes."
When choosing bait colors, try to mimic the local forage, not just in size but in color, too. If there are kokanee where you fish, try blues and silver. If the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, then try a rainbow pattern. Where whitefish are present, try gold.
PRESENTATION IS KEY
Lakers are slow-moving, and will not chase a bait far. He wants calories without effort, so you need to put that bait on his nose. If you really want a trophy laker you have to present your bait correctly.
"They say big boats, big baits: big fish," says Arnold, and he is right. You will also need quality electronics, and a good downrigging system. Lakers will come shallow at times, but by and large they are a deepwater fish, sometimes dwelling as deep as 200 feet. At those depths very little light penetrates to illuminate their prey, so lakers also rely on vibrations to guide them. A larger bait creates more disturbance as it passes through the water, drawing the interest of big mackinaws.
Most of the time big lake trout will hold within 10 feet of the bottom, and that is where you want your lure to run. Good electronics are the key to keeping that downrigger cannonball, and your bait deep, but just off the bottom.
In lakes with kokanee, mature lakers will often suspend under the schools and wait for chances to pick off a straggler or two. According to Kroll, they are looking for weak and injured fish, which will drop out of the schools. He advises you troll right through the kokanee in an "S" pattern so your bait emerges from the schools like an injured fish.
Once again, it is important to have quality electronics in order to find at what depth the baitfish and mackinaw are suspending. Covering multiple levels in the water column will also increase the odds of getting bit, and as a guide Kroll has discovered that he could run as many as three lines off his downrigger cable for his clients and cover more of the water column in each pass.
Lake trout are a fish that has always seemed a bit mysterious, given their size and the depths at which they live, but modern anglers are getting them figured out. Match the local forage in size and color, and put it on their nose. Once you get it dialed in, trophy lakers will be your reward.