no-troll tac­tics for spring lak­ers

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY STEVE RYAN

DERIDED FOR YEARS by salmon-seek­ing Great Lakes an­glers, lak­ers on light tackle have be­come a spring­time treat

Our boat steers a course par­al­lel to a break wall along Lake Michi­gan’s west­ern shore­line. Early April wa­ter tem­per­a­tures regis­ter in the mid 40s and air tem­per­a­tures hover near freez­ing. The fish fin­der reads 28 feet deep. Where rock turns to sand, a steady pro­ces­sion of long, in­verted V-shaped marks re­veals the pres­ence of giant lake trout. They re­sem­ble mini sub­marines stealth­ily po­si­tioned within a few feet of the bot­tom. Lake trout can be tem­per­a­men­tal feed­ers, but not on this day. I work a gold-col­ored blade bait on 20-pound-test braided line and medium spin­ning gear, and give the rod a flick af­ter the lure hits the bot­tom. Through the rod tip, I can feel the lure jump off the sandy bot­tom and ca­reen into an ad­ja­cent boul­der. It flut­ters and flashes on the fall. The line goes slack as the lure set­tles back down. With the next snap of the rod, the lure rises just inches and is in­stantly swal­lowed up by one of the “mini sub­marines.”

LIGHTER SIDE OF LAK­ERS

On wall­eye-size spin­ning gear, the lake trout might as well be a nu­clear sub­ma­rine. There is no budg­ing the fish. It mo­tors off as though obliv­i­ous to the new gold pierc­ing in its mouth. The fish puts an un­com­fort­able bend in the rod and un­re­lent­ingly strips line from the reel. Af­ter sev­eral min­utes of los­ing line, putting greater pres­sure on the fish and try­ing to move it off the bot­tom seem like a good strat­egy.

This merely ag­i­tates the fish. I lose more line. The trout vi­o­lently tosses its head in an at­tempt to dis­lodge the lure—the thin braided line per­fectly tele­graph­ing it all. As the bat­tle wears on, the length of the fish’s runs be­come shorter but re­main pow­er­ful. He’s fi­nally net­ted and then quickly re­leased af­ter a few pho­tos.

This scene can be played out across all the Great Lakes (ab­sent the rel­a­tively shal­low wa­ters of Lake Erie) and on many in­land lakes across the United States each spring. Lake trout are the long­est lived and largest of all the trout species in North Amer­ica. Th­ese leviathans of the deep can live 70 years and have been caught weigh­ing up to 100 pounds in the im­mense wa­ters of Saskatchewan’s Lake Athabasca. In the United States, some of the more con­sis­tent lake trout fish­ing takes place in the Great Lakes. Record fish sur­pass­ing 60 pounds have been caught from Lake Su­pe­rior, as well as fish top­ping 40 pounds from Lakes Michi­gan, Huron, and On­tario.

Many an­glers as­so­ciate Great Lakes trout fish­ing with heavy con­ven­tional trolling gear and down­rig­gers to get baits down 100 to 200 feet, where lake trout re­side dur­ing the warm sum­mer months. This tech­nique re­sults in a much-di­min­ished fight and a less-en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence for an­glers. Flip the script, and tar­get th­ese same tena­cious fight­ers with equip­ment on par with wall­eye or bass gear, in wa­ter less than 40 feet deep, and you have the

recipe for some of the most ex­cit­ing earl­y­sea­son fish­ing to be had any­where.

FINDERS KEEP­ERS

Where reg­u­la­tions per­mit, lake trout fish­ing be­gins in March and con­tin­ues strong through April. As soon as boat ramps be­come ac­ces­si­ble and shore­line ice re­cedes enough for safe nav­i­ga­tion, lake trout hun­grily await well-placed baits. Prime lo­ca­tions in­clude any nearshore reefs, break walls, har­bor mouths, pier heads, and dis­charges ad­ja­cent to spawn­ing sites. Many of th­ese struc­tural el­e­ments form bar­ri­ers that cre­ate cur­rent. Th­ese cur­rent seams fun­nel in bait­fish and other prey items for trout.

Lake trout are first drawn to th­ese ar­eas dur­ing late fall in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the spawn. Large pods of ma­ture fish con­cen­trate in th­ese ar­eas in Novem­ber. Here, they re­side for as long as nearshore wa­ter tem­per­a­tures re­main within their pre­ferred com­fort range of 40 to 52 de­grees and prey con­tin­ues to be am­ple.

To lo­cate pods of lak­ers along miles of rel­a­tively fea­ture­less shore­line struc­ture, down-scan and side-scan sonar are in­valu­able. Pods of fish might con­tain as few as a cou­ple of trout or as many as sev­eral dozen fish. Look specif­i­cally for rub­ble piles along break walls and tran­si­tion ar­eas be­tween hard and soft bot­tom to at­tract the great­est ag­gre­ga­tions of fish.

Since lake trout spend much of their time near the bot­tom, lure pre­sen­ta­tions should be pre­cise and fo­cused within the bot­tom 2 to 5 feet of the wa­ter col­umn. On the wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan, lake trout rou­tinely tar­get go­b­ies that scurry along the bot­tom and take shel­ter among rocks and mus­sel colonies. In th­ese set­tings, small blade baits like the B Fish N B3, Wolf’s Big Dude Blade, or Se­bile Vi­brato, as well as soft-plas­tics such as a 4-inch Kalin Lunker Grub or a Live Tar­get Goby Pad­dle Tail can be con­vinc­ingly hopped across the bot­tom to mimic go­b­ies and draw a re­ac­tion from hun­gry trout. When it’s re­act­ing to small baits, a lake trout can have a rather sub­tle bite— al­most as though it knows how much en­ergy is needed to cap­ture and kill small prey. For this rea­son, a sen­si­tive rod and low-stretch braided line with a fluoro­car­bon leader will help de­tect light bites and in­stantly drive home the hook in any­where from 15 to 40 feet of wa­ter. The lack of elas­tic­ity in braided line also lets you feel the fight of the fish bet­ter, which is a plus when it comes to lak­ers.

In set­tings where lak­ers are fo­cused on larger prey, such as white­fish, cis­coes, or other trout, a big­ger pre­sen­ta­tion—such as 7-inch Wa­ter Wolf Lures Gator Tubes or Bondy Bait Mini Wob­blers worked ver­ti­cally on heavy bass-style gear—will serve as a bet­ter trig­ger­ing bait. Work th­ese baits with a lift­shake-and-hold pre­sen­ta­tion. Af­ter hold­ing the bait sta­tion­ary for sev­eral sec­onds, re­peat the process. The pause part of the tech­nique is crit­i­cal.

If lak­ers fail to re­act to this sub­tle pre­sen­ta­tion, work the bait wildly for sev­eral sec­onds with big sweep­ing jig­ging mo­tions, and then quickly reel the lure half­way up the wa­ter col­umn. Stop the bait. Hold it mo­tion­less for a se­cond, and then let it fall back to the bot­tom. Re­peat the process sev­eral times. At times, lak­ers can be forced into a com­pet­i­tive chase­and-catch mode. Strikes from chas­ing fish can be sav­age. Th­ese cold-wa­ter fish are eager to at­tack baits both big and small. And once they’re hooked from a sta­tion­ary boat, their pulling power and stamina is on full dis­play.

Gavin Scray nets a pair of lak­ers on Lake Michi­gan.

A soon-to-be quadru­ple on Lake Michi­gan lak­ers.

Clock­wise from left: Ja­son Drewa puts the screws to a laker; Scray with a giant; a laker ready for re­lease.

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