Lake trout, Salvelinus namaycush, are a salmonid cousin of both salmon and brook trout. Distinctive for their forked tail and silver-gray body, they’re actually a freshwater char, not a true trout at all.
These large fish are as fun to catch as they are tasty to eat. But if you want to target these cold-water predators, you’ll need to understand how water temperature affects their movement. Unlike the other species you’ll chase under the ice, lake trout are completely at home in frigid water.
Table of Contents
You’ll find great tips for ice fishing trout below. If you want specific information for other species follow these links:
- Walleye Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Sunfish Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Crappie Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Perch Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Muskie Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Northern Pike Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
Tips, Tricks, and Techniques for Lake Trout
- Work the top – When oxygen levels start to fall and baitfish ascend in the water column, lake trout will follow. It’s not unusual to find them in the top few feet of the water below the ice, and a trick we use is to start jigging immediately. Often, these aggressive predators will hit a jig as it falls into the hole, so work the water just under the ice before you try the bottom.
- Bumps aren’t misses – Lake trout are sight predators, and they’ll spot the flash of your spoon or the skirt of your tube jig from a long way off. Rushing in, they’ll sometimes bump your jig to see if it’s something tasty. When that happens, don’t check your lure–just keep jigging as you were. They’ll turn and come back in for a bite!
- Pack predators – Rarely solo, lake trout are pack predators. When one hits, another one will immediately be looking for a meal, too. Work in combinations, fish multiple poles (where legal), and if a buddy pulls one on to the ice, quickly drop a jig in the same spot.
- Strike on the fall – Lake trout often strike lures on the fluttering fall, so it’s important to take your time and let the lure do its thing.
- Sweeten your lures – While they rely on sight to locate prey, a bit of scent and taste is a great way to provoke a strike. On larger lures, we like to rig a small minnow across two sides of a treble hook or sweeten one with a minnow head.
- Rhythm is key – That said, while erratic movements work well for pike, they’re a bad idea for lake trout. Lake trout see their meals from a long way off and rush in to strike. The more rhythmic and consistent your jigging movement, the more predictable your lure is to them. Consistent movement is the key to helping them find your hook with their mouths.
- Use a leader – Obviously, you’ll need stout tackle to pull these behemoths to your hole, but remember, they have a mouth full of sharp teeth! We recommend robust leaders of at least two feet, and we use either fluorocarbon or tieable wire.
Lake Trout Basics
The most important fact to understand about lake trout is their intolerance of warm water. Unlike perch or walleye, for instance, summer is the bleak season for them. In fact, lake trout can only thrive in a narrow band of water temperatures–40°F to 52°F–meaning that in the warmer seasons, they must live deep. In some lakes, this confines them to a very small area during summer.
Winter frees these cold water fish to chase torpid summer species under the ice. Water that slows down perch and crappie is plenty warm enough for lake trout, and winter is their peak feeding season.
Overfishing is a Problem
The native range of lake trout is relatively small, skewing decidedly north in the continental U.S. But they have been introduced broadly, and can now be found from Maine to California.
Lake trout grow slowly and live long lives, so when they’re regularly kept or killed, this can devastate their numbers. In areas where they’ve been introduced, like Yellowstone Lake, this is a good thing, as they’ve had a detrimental impact on the ecosystem. But where they’re native, overfishing is a clear and present danger to the species.
As a result, it’s generally best to catch and release when possible.
Lake Trout Behavior
We can’t emphasize enough that winter is to lake trout what summer is to the walleye or perch. Unshackled from the depths, they can now chase alewives, ciscoe, smelt, suckers, and other small baitfish under the ice, making use of the entire lake and water column.
That said, two hunting techniques are common. Lake trout will hug the bottom, waiting for prey to school overhead. Most anglers are familiar with this idea, and jigging the bottom is a traditional hard water technique. But lake trout also cruise just below the ice, five or six feet deep, trapping baitfish against the bottom of the hard water and making an easy meal of them.
Where to Find Lake Trout Under the Ice
Lake trout are highly mobile predators, and they rarely stay still once they have access to the whole lake. Instead, they cruise in small packs looking for prey. They’ll use structure to corral baitfish, and you can often find them hunting near steep structure like submerged humps, islands, and points.
Indeed, anywhere you find baitfish, you’ll find lake trout looking to feed on them. As site predators, lake trout rely on clear water and good visibility to spot their prey at a distance before moving in close for the kill. They often make a meal of yellow perch, and the weed beds and shallows that hold these fish are a buffet for lake trout once they’re freed from the depths.
Hungry lake trout will be attracted to ten to 15-foot shallows, healthy weed beds near a drop-off, and any structure that makes good habitat for perch.
Lake trout use these contours to trap baitfish in a panicked bundle. The basin between two points, for instance, is one such a trap–and a very good place to drill your first holes. They’ll also prowl in open water just off these points, holding at the same depth as their prey.
It’s not unusual to catch lake trout on a tip-up, though they’re hard to target. Where legal–as many locations now restrict the use of live bait–any minnow species over 5 inches or so can catch these beasts, though you’re just as likely to end up with a pike on the hook!
We don’t recommend that you use braided line on your tip-ups, as it can bite your skin when you’ve got a large fish on the hook. Instead, we prefer large diameter monofilament or fluorocarbon with about three feet of tieable wire as a leader. We’d use no less than 30-pound test, and you’re not looking for small diameter line–take it easy on your hands!
Our Favorite Lake Trout Lures
Lake trout are large apex predators, and we like many of the same lures (but not techniques) that we use on pike.
Dardevle spoons are an excellent flash spoon for lake trout. We like to jig the one-ounce models, which are 3 ⅝ long. Nickel, brass, brown trout, hot fire tiger, yellow/5 of diamonds–the range of effective colors is huge! Especially deadly on the fluttering descent, lake trout can’t resist these guys.
Rapala’s Jigging Rap is a perennial favorite and an enormously popular lure over the ice. For lake trout, we like the largest size, 9, running about 3 ½ inches long. Its unique action mimics an injured baitfish, just the prey lake trout are looking for. Perch is our favorite color choice.
Soft Baits on Jig Heads
This unconventional choice is as effective on lake trout as it is on pike. A large jig head can be used as the weight for tube jig, creating a tempting lure combo for feeding lake trout. We particularly like the 5 ½-inch Berkley Flippin’ Tube rigged on a ¼ ounce Bait Rig’s Oddball Jig. Whether you work the bottom or the water just under the ice, this combo will deliver.
Lake trout are an exciting species to target, but they’re often overlooked as a primary angling species. That’s a real shame, especially where they’re an introduced species. While they often take a back seat to pike, they’re easy to seduce into a strike with the right know-how, and a real pleasure to fight to the ice given their size and strength!
They’re great for supper, too, and fish less than 20 inches are the best for eating. Always follow local laws, but especially if you’re angling for these monsters in their native habitat, please release any large uninjured fish to preserve a healthy population.
Have these tips and tricks worked for you? Please leave us a comment below!
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