Technique: Large Soft Baits for Lake Trout
Written by Eric “Slappy” Harrison
During the summer, my family, like many others, spends an occasional weekend on one of New England’s many large lakes. Like most dedicated anglers, I always bring fishing equipment on these trips and get out early before everyone wakes up to take advantage of the good fishing that these lakes have to offer. A few years ago, instead of another morning of chasing smallmouth bass, I decided to try catching lake trout. After a couple trips, I found that they were easy to target in the summer and fun to catch–establishing a successful pattern let me get dialed in to the bite and catch more (and bigger) fish.
For most anglers, lake trout conjure up images of slow trolling with downriggers and winching up an occasional fish from the depths. It doesn’t have to be that way though, lake trout can be a fun and challenging fish to fish for and the action can be fast and furious, even on the hottest days of summer! Downriggers and heavy rods aren’t required, I target lakers from my kayak, but the techniques that I describe here can be used from any type of boat. A fishfinder, a handful of jigs, and a rod that you would use for smallmouth bass are all it takes to get started!
Lake trout are in all the largest lakes in the region; Sebago Lake (ME), Lake Winnipesaukee (NH), Lake Champlain (VT), and Lake George (NY) all offer very good laker fishing. There are many smaller lakes with healthy populations of lakers as well, so don’t think that lakers are only in the big lakes. Smaller lakes often have less fishing pressure as well as fewer boats on the water, so these lakes can provide a quieter more enjoyable fishing experience.
Summer time laker fishing is very different that catching lakers in the winter or early spring. When lakes are cold, lakers spread out into the shallows and are found throughout the lake. In the summer time, lakers move to the deeper cooler sections of the lake where they can stay in the cool water below the thermocline. This concentrates the fish into a smaller area of the lake and they often school up and become easier to catch.
Understanding the habits of lakers will help in locating them. Lakers primary forage fish in the big lakes are yellow perch, smelt, and whitefish. Perch and whitefish are typically found very close to the bottom and smelt will often range up and down in the water column. The lakers will follow their forage and will hang anywhere from the bottom to the thermocline, with most of the fish tending to stay closer to the bottom. These forage species all home in on aquatic insects and these insects are usually concentrated in the areas of the lake with soft muddy bottoms. In many lakes, the thermocline will set up 30 to 50 feet down in the summer months, so this concentrates the lakers into the deeper sections of the lake, typically in water over 60 feet deep. Lakers are also very sensitive to light, because of this, they tend to be most active at first light and move to deeper water as the sun rises. Laker fishing can be excellent from July to September because fish often concentrate in small areas.
Fish like bass are usually found right on top of structure and locating specific structural elements and presenting a lure in or around the structure is the key to success. This is not the case with lakers, they are usually found near, but not in structure and they often concentrate around breaks between structure and flats. Many big lakes have deep flats areas which have bait roaming over them, the flats offer plenty of food and the edges of the flats create ambush points for lakers.
There are several ways to locate the structural elements that hold fish. A GPS with high quality mapping software like Navionics Maps will allow you to pinpoint areas that may hold fish while you are on the water. Fishing from a kayak, I find the GPS with Hot Maps to be a key tool to keeping me on the spots that I have targeted. Before I go to a lake, I review a paper map because I find it easier to large paper map than the small screen of a GPS. I use Navionics HotMaps because they provide a much higher level of detail and definition than other types of maps. Spending an hour with a map identifying places to fish before you hit the water is a great way to develop a game plan for the day. When reviewing the map, the object isn’t to find a specific spot to fish, but rather to identify several areas to focus on. Not every good looking spot will hold fish and picking several areas to fish will increase your odds of having a great day.
My first trip out, I made the mistake of thinking that I could identify specific spots where the fish would be–I entered waypoints into my GPS so I would know exactly where to go. After an hour of not catching or seeing fish in the area that I had identified, I moved to a secondary area that I had noted and slowly went over it with my fish finder. That was the ticket—whiles moving over the area, I saw marks on the fish finder and located a nice school of lakers.
When reviewing a lake, I look for some specific structural elements: tails, where deeper flats tail out into shallower water; bumps, where the depth of a flats area changes; and walls, where steep walls drop into flats areas. These areas are relatively easy to locate on the map, but the key is to find several areas of structure that are close to each other, so you can move between them looking for fish.
A fish finder is a must for this type of fishing, without one, you can’t find the structure or the fish. Once I arrive in the areas that I plan to fish, I slowly move over them looking for fish on the graph. I turn the sensitivity up high because I typically fish in 60 feet to 120 feet of water and increasing the sensitivity will improve how the fish show up on the screen. I generally don’t stop on the first fish mark that I see. I mark them on my GPS, but I wait until I see some clusters of fish to stop and start fishing. I usually don’t find lakers stacked up in an area, but they will be schooled loosely over an area.
Once fish are located, I stop over them and drop a jig. I always start off by vertical jigging with a metal jig like a Swedish Pimple, Rattle Snakie, or Cabela’s RealImage. A ¾ ounce or 1 ounce jig will quickly drop into the strike zone, even in the deepest areas that you may find fish. On windy days, when the drift is strong, I will sometimes use up to a 2 ounce jig to stay in contact with the bottom.
A smooth even jigging motion is most effective. Jerking too hard and fast will foul your jig and won’t produce any extra fish. Vary the length of your pull, so the jig moves a little, then moves a lot and always be ready for strikes on the drop. I keep a tight line on the drop and set the hook on the slightest tap. Once you have jigged a spot for a few minutes, don’t assume that you need to just crank up and move on. Every time you reel up, it is an opportunity to get bit on the crank. Fish will chase your jig and you should be prepared to get bit anywhere in the water column below the thermocline. Work your jig on the way up and once you are off the bottom 30 or 40 feet, drop it back down to the bottom. Lakers are often perceived as a slow moving fish, but they will sometimes slam a fast moving jig on the way up.
Leadhead jigs with bucktail or plastics are also a very effective tool for lakers. I prefer plastics to bucktails because I think the fish hold on to the plastic longer because it feels real. Jig heads from ¾ to 1 ½ ounces are most effective in the depths that lakers usually hold. These baits can be vertically jigged or cast and retrieved. If I am on active fish, I will vertically jig, but when the bite is slow, I cast and bounce the bottom. Plastics are great for swimming up from the depths; an effective technique is to work them from the bottom up 30 or 40 feet, then drop it back.
I use a wide variety of plastics for lakers because the available forage varies in size. Big lakes have smelt which are easily imitated with 7inch Hogy’s®. These lakes also have whitefish, which can be a foot or more long. This summer I plan to experiment with 7” Hogys to match the whitefish. Last summer shortly after releasing a 29” laker on a small jig, I started yo-yoing a 7” plastic on a jig head. After jigging it for a while, I gave up on the big plastic thinking I wasn’t going to get bit and reeled it up quickly, stopping it about 50 feet below my kayak—a big laker hit and started stripping line off. The fish felt bigger than the one I released earlier, but I never saw it, the hook pulled!
Most anglers already have the tackle that they need for this type of fishing. A basic graphite bass rod with a baitcasting reel spooled with braid is all you need. I keep two rods rigged, one with a metal jig and the other with a plastic or bucktail. The advantage of a baitcasting reel over a spinning reel is that you can more easily stay in contact with the line as your jig sinks. Braid is a must for fishing this deep, it allows you to use lighter jigs and stay in better contact with the bottom on windy days.
Don’t get frustrated your first time out if you struggle to catch fish but see the downrigger crowd steadily picking away at fish. Keep looking and locate your own pod of fish. When trollers locate the fish, they are busy resetting their lines and coming back to where the school is, when you are dropping on the fish, it is easy to stay with the school and keep catching. I am not a fan of trolling in the first place and trolling with downriggers only adds to my frustration. Most anglers don’t realize how fast the action can be, it isn’t unusual to pick up a dozen lakers in a morning on the jig.
When the bite is slow, the best advice I can give is to keep moving. Check out every area that you pinpointed on your map and don’t stay on any one spot for more than ten minutes. Sometimes moving 100 yards can make all the difference! Also, when the wind blows, take advantage of it. Check the direction of the wind and put yourself in a position to drift along the edge of a flat—or even right across the middle of a flat. Increase the weight of your jig so you can keep in contact with the bottom and let the wind help you cover water. One of the keys to fishing in the wind is to mark your hookups on the GPS as you drift, that way you can go back to the same spot and pick up other fish from the same school.
The size of lakers varies from lake to lake. The biggest lakes usually have some good size fish in them, but may have many small ones. Some lakes have a reputation for producing many small fish or just a few large ones. Check in with a local tackle shop and ask about the fish size so you can gauge the size of the lure you will be fishing.
Lakers are not as tough a fish as bass and need to be handled with more care than you would a bass. They come up from deep water and their swim bladders will expand quickly as they come up. Don’t reel up a small fish too fast, bringing them up slowly will allow them to burp air—you often see bubbles coming up as the fish nears the surface. The key to their survival is to get released fish to swim back down to the bottom quickly. A gentle press on their belly once landed will also help them expel air and a quick release is helpful as well. If a fish does float back up once released, gently push the air out of its belly and give it a push down in the water so they swim back to the bottom.
Many lakes have heavily pressured bass fisheries and little pressure on lakers. This summer try moving away from the crowd and jigging up something different!
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