Fishing for Trout’s Most Underappreciated: The Lake Trout

Last updated on February 3rd, 2021

lake trout fishing - description and tactics

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Before we get started on lake trout fishing, let’s first clarify something about the fish itself. Although the Lake trout (also known as lake char, mackinaw and gray trout)  is also a  member of the Salmonidae family, it is actually a char rather than a trout.

The Dolly Varden and Arctic char are its close cousins. Lake trout are the largest of the chars and, to give you some perspective on their size potential, consider the massive 102 lbs specimen pulled from the waters of Lake Athabasca in Canada back in 1961.

Descriptions and stats aside, this underrated, underappreciated deep-lake freshwater species is a joy to target, and the tactics that are used to fish for them are various. I love fishing for lake trout, and I get excited whenever I reel in one of these big, powerful and tenacious fighters.

Lake trout are dispersed across the northern United States sparsely in non-native pockets but are native to Canada and Alaska. Typically, in areas of the United States, you will find this species in water bodies of higher elevation where the water temperature is much lower.

Unfortunately, because they are northern fish, you may have to travel to find them, but I recommend that you make it a point to try it one time, you won’t regret it. They were stocked in waterways in the past as recreational sports fish (a biologically devastating practice) but are better managed now.

The illegal introduction of this species in certain areas such as the Yellowstone River here in Montana is negatively affecting other native fish species. Because of this, I encourage you to fish non-native areas for lake trout.

If you are interested in taking a guided trip anywhere, the season for lake trout fishing might differ depending on where you are but there are many outfitters that will take you out. The Great Lakes area has no shortage of outfitters that provide these trips.

One thing I love about lake trout is their edibility. They smoke, fry, and bake beautifully and are good additions to any meal. Because of their cold-water environments, they are found in, their meat is different in taste than that of a rainbow caught at your local reservoir.

Fishing for lake trout is simple enough as it is similar to fishing for most species of trout. The difference typically is temperature and elevation. Bait and artificial lures are great options, but they may be pickier about what they will bite.

Let us look at a few different reasons I love lake trout and why I know you will love them too. They are so like their cousin and yet so different at the same time. It really is a fascinating species that are a blast to fish for.

Patterns and Behaviors

One of the most important behaviors to learn about any species of fish you are trying to catch is their spawn patterns and times. The lake trout in most areas spawn in the autumn and their behaviors change drastically.

Lake trout are notorious for hiding out in deep water and when ice fishing for them, be prepared to let out up to 100 feet of your line. The reason is that they love colder water year-round and will always seek it if possible.

The behavior that, in my opinion, makes the lake trout a lake trout, is their tenacity to live in cold water. The key to remember here is that this species is incredibly old, dating back to the ice age. In fact, there is a pocket of lake trout here in southwest Montana that is a native “glacially relict” species dating back to the ice age.

Because of this tendency to stay in the colder water, the lake trout also tries to avoid light. Because of this, you may have poor luck on a 90-degree bright, sunny day. I have found that watercraft fishing is better for afternoon fishing for species that love deep cold water. With a boat, you can get out on the water where those depths are.

In the far north regions of Canada and Alaska, they can be found in shallow waters rather than deep waters. This is due to the temperature of the pools and shallow lakes always being cooler. However, in warmer regions, you may have to search for them in the deeper parts of the lake.

Understanding these behavioral traits will help you fish for them more effectively with better chances of you catching them. Just like a hunter understands the behavior of the deer he hunts; it is important you take the time to understand this species before you go after them.

Tactics for Lake Trout Fishing

Now that all the science is out of the way, we can get down to brass tacks and learn how to catch these guys – it is easier than you would think. The lake trout fishes very similarly to rainbow trout in my experience with the difference being the fish’s sight.

The lake trout needs a little help detecting your lure because of the lack of light in the deep water. I like to use scent and if I am feeling a little more deceptive than that, I will hit a glow lure with my flashlight and throw that for a little while.

Bait is a great way to catch lake trout and I have used bait for many years. I have tried leeches, maggots, and mealworms in the past but the best live bait I have used is the tried and true nightcrawler. Cut the worm in half and string him so he will sit just off the bottom of the lake or river.

Because of the depth, you will find them in, they are going to react to bottom-feeding patterns but will chase an artificial lure if the conditions are right. Winter fishing is a good time for bottom bait fishing and in the spring, summer, and fall, try an artificial tactic.

From a watercraft, the fishing pattern is the same as above, but you will be able to get into the deep water easier giving you an advantage that lake trout fishing from shore does not offer. If trolling, try slower than usual runs using artificials that are visible enough for the trout to see in dark conditions.

When trolling, try any bright colored Rapala but also lean towards trying a few spoons. Plain reflective silver spoons are a good choice for really standing out.

I highly recommend that you buy a squirt bottle of some sort of scent for your bait and lures, but I will not tell you which scent to buy because there are so many and they work differently everywhere. I can tell you that garlic and cheese are two staple scents that work well here so perhaps you can start there and see what works.

Try these tactics and learn a few more from others in your area and you will be catching trout in no time. Be willing to try new things yourself because you just never know. You might be surprised to find that a lure designed for trolling works pretty darn good off a pier.

Lake Trout for Dinner

Okay, so now we arrive at my favorite part of the article, how to eat them. The lake trout is so well-rounded it is ridiculous. There are a few good ways to cook a lake trout and I will share a few of my favorites with you.

The first thing to understand is that the lake trout runs in the higher elevations under colder temperatures so its flesh is going to be different from that of a rainbow trout that you caught in a lake outside of town.

I have found them to taste purer without an overly strong fishy taste at all. The flesh of the fish is whiter in the winter and can turn a light red to orange color in the summer. I use the seasons to determine how I want to cook them as well.

In the winter it is cold, and I enjoy warm meals as most do. The white meat of a winter lake trout is a perfect match for flour and butter. De-bone what you can of a fillet and fry it for breakfast. This is delicious and so simple to make. I use any white meat fish this way also such as walleye and perch.

In the summer I enjoy smoking them and even dehydrating them from time to time. I hike and backpack often in the warmer months and fish jerky is a great trail snack. Smaller lake trout work best for smoking in my opinion as they smoke more evenly.

Why You Should Fish Lake Trout

Well, for me the thing that I love most about fishing for lake trout is that they are different from their cousins as far as behavior. I spend quite a bit of my time fishing for rainbow and brook trout that it’s interesting to fish deeper water than I usually do.

One other thing that I love about fishing lake trout is that I must chase them to different places. Generally higher mountain areas are beautiful places to be whether you are fishing or not.

In the summer I backpack with my dog all in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and the high mountain lakes there are full of lake trout and arctic grayling. I enjoy catching these two fish for eating while I am up there, and I always opt for the smaller sizes.

This species has not received the attention that other “trouts” get, but they are pure fun to fish for and they are an old fish that has been around for an exceptionally long time. Finally, when chasing these fish, you will venture into often remote, scenic, and pristine places you might not normally fish and that is an adventure unto itself.

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