How Lake Trout Fishing Works

Fly fishing is a distinct and ancient angling method, most renowned as a method for catching trout and salmon.
Fly fishing is a distinct and ancient angling method, most renowned as a method for catching trout and salmon.
Keith Douglas/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Whether­ you're looking for trophy-sized fish, peaceful scenery, good flavor or a good fight, think about fishing for lake trout. You might get a lot of fight -- and a lot of fish. The largest lake tr­out ever caught weighed in at 102 pounds (46.2 kilograms) [Source: Freshwater Fishing Canada].

You can fish for lake trout throughout most of the year, depending on how icy your favorite lake gets. And you'll get a fantastic meal -- or, if you're lucky, a dozen of them.

Lake trout have a lot of nicknames; it's possible you've already fished for lake trout and not known it. In some areas they're known as lakers. Because of the fish's high fat content, they're also known simply as fat. Other names, such as Macki­naw, Siscowet or Namaycush, are rooted in Native American languages. You might also have heard of them as humper, char, gray trout, paperbelly or landlocked salmon.

­In this article, we'll take a look at the different conditions of habitat and weather that affect lake trout fishing. We'll also go into some detail about the two most popular techniques, jigging and trolling. But first, the all-important question: Where do you want to go fishing?

Lake Trout Locations


­You can find lake trout in cooler no­rthern waters. They live throughout the Great Lakes region and Canada, as well as in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and much of New England. They also ap­pear in ­a few more s­outherly lakes in California, Utah, Colorado, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Lake trout prefer relatively deep waters -- up to about 100 feet (30.4 meters) -- although their depth varies greatly by season and lake size. In a spring-fed lake, lake trout might always be close to the surface. On the whole, however, you can expect to fish lake trout from the boat, not from the shore.

You'll always find more game fish near underwater formations -- sandbars, rocks, docks, shoals, wrecks, whatever. Because lake trout stay deep, you'd be well served to research the underwater topography of your lake or to buy a depth finder. In particular, if you're trolling, you should know where the major underwater barriers are. Drag your line parallel to such barriers, not perpendicular to them.

Look for plant growth, which attracts baitfish such as small minnows. Game fish won't be far behind. Take care, however, not to tangle your line in the plants. Stick to the edges of vegetated areas.

Location doesn't exist in a vacuum, of course. Trout move a great deal in response to different weather and temperature conditions. Find out more on the next page.


Lake Trout Fishing Conditions

La­ke trout respond to warmer weather by going deeper. They're not afraid of the sun -- they're just following baitfish. Of course, the location of the baitfish also depends on the lake: where it gets its water; whether it has formations such as inlets, shoals and sandbars; and how big it is. Take the time to research your location.

The best time of year for lake trout is often early spring. They're hungry, and they're not very discriminating about when and where they feed. That means they're easier to catch throughout the day. If the lake has only recently lost its ice, the lake trout may be right at the surface. Later in spring, they may be as low as 45 feet (13 meters) deep.

In summer, lakers swim low -- down to 100 feet (30.5 meters) in some places. They're also pickier about water conditions and feeding times. Look for calm water, and try fishing between dawn and midmorning, or at twilight. In general, you'll have better luck on an overcast day, when there's less sunlight penetrating the depths and baitfish and game fish alike feel more comfortable venturing out for a meal.

­You can usu­ally fish for lake trout until about October in the Northern Hemisphere, but in late fall, the northern lakes start to ice over. Lake trout spawn around October, which can make them more visible and more prone to take risks. If you fish during the trout spawn, remember not to overfish; you need to leave some lake trout to spawn so they'll always be around.

As you probably know, a warm, fine rain can draw fish to the surface. On a rainy day, watch the water for the movements of minnows and other baitfish. You might see them scatter suddenly. That means there's a predator -- such as a lake trout -- in the vicinity.

Watch the weather report. In general, avoid fishing for a few days after a cold front. Warm fronts can bring the fish out. If the day is windy, cast from the side of the lake the wind is blowing from. [Source: Skrzec] If you're on a boat, find a bit of shelter, and then cast with the wind.

So how do you actually catch these fish? You have some options: jigging and trolling. (They're not just for singles bars any more!) Read on to learn more.


Jigging for Lake Trout

A jig, or bucktail, is a lure with a weighted body. Jigging gets its name from its characteristic jumping, bobbing and fluttering motion, which makes the lure mimic a wou­nded baitfish.

Not all of the jigging motion comes from the jig itself. Some of it comes from you. At a leisurely pace, you'll be raising and lowering the rod, or waving it from side to side. Vary the height and the timing to give the jig a genuinely erratic movement; this helps the lure mimic the wounded fish. As you drop the rod back to the horizontal position, reel in the slack line.

Don't be too hasty with your pace (or jig stroke). Cast into shallows or sunny water first; watch what happens, and get to know the motion of your lure.

Lake trout go for light lures in general, and jigs are no exception. Try a spoon jig, also known as a wobbler. You can also try attaching lake trout's favorite meal -- a live minnow -- to the jig. Remember, the jig's motion is what attracts the trout. The small fluttery motions of the lure are just as important as the bigger line movements that come from your jig stroke. So make sure you're attaching the minnow in some way that permits it to move. Try hooking it upside down, for example.

Lake trout don't spend much time near the shore, so you'll most likely be jigging from a boat. As always, look for underwater formations, vegetation, and submerged trees and other wreckage.

Jigging tends to work best at either end of the lake trout season -- early spring or late fall. For the rest of the year, you might be better off with trolling. Learn more on the next page.


Trolling for Lake Trout

Trolling means slowly dragging a line through deep water. Most trolling is ­motorized -- from a boat whose motor has been quieted so as not to frighten the fish away. However, people occasionally stroll and troll, dragging their lines by walking along the shore. Obviously, you can't do that everywhere. Once again, know your location.

In general, the faster your boat moves, the higher your hook rides in the water. Think of a banner attached to a car antenna: When the car moves fast, the banner flies out behind; when the car moves slowly, the banner droops lower. That's exactly the way a trolling line falls behind a boat. The other factor here is the line's weight. The heavier the line, the more friction it creates in the water.

Your trolling equipment should include

  • A spinning reel or bait caster
  • A rod -- either a heavy trolling rod with heavy line, a spinning rod, or a more sensitive light-action rod with light line
  • A weight to maintain depth -- probably two or three ounces, depending on your speed and the season since lake trout typically swim deeper in warmer months
  • A light lure or trolling spoon shaped like a small minnow, or a live minnow, hooked through the lips so that it can still move
  • A downrigger to attach your rod (or rods) to the boat

Once the boat starts moving, let out your line a few feet at a time, until you feel the weight hit the lakebed. You can often estimate depth by letting out your line carefully, but you might want to invest in a depth finder.

You may want to use a swivel or a three-way swivel to attach a weight to your line and leave your lure free to move. The weight should hang about 4 feet below the swivel. If you use this approach, reel in a couple of feet of line after you feel the weight hit bottom.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


R­elated HowStuffWorks Articles


  • "Bait and Equipment." Take Me Fishing. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • "Downrigger Setup and Installation." Lake Michigan Angler. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • "Exotics: Sea Lampreys." Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • "Fishing Techniques." Take Me Fishing. (Accessed 11/13/08)
  • "Lake Michigan Fishing Tips." Lake Michigan Angler. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • "Lake Trout Fishing." Freshwater Fishing Canada. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • "Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)." Take Me Fishing. (Accessed 11/12/08)
  • Marsh, Ed. "Spoon Jigging for Trout in Lakes." Luhr Jensen/Lake Michigan Angler. (Accessed 11/13/08)
  • Skrzec, Gary. "The Art of Lake Trout Fishing." Seine River Lodge. (Accessed 11/12/08)