Fishing lake trout through the ice is a winter staple for anglers in the northern US and Canada, and these big fish offer heart-pounding opportunities throughout the coldest, darkest months.
Ice-out frightens or frustrates a lot of less-experienced anglers, though, as the more or less consistently cold water gives lakers a lot of room to run. Dispersed and actively feeding throughout the water column, it can be hard to find the fish you’re after and put you in need of some lake trout fishing tips.
Unless you know where to look and what to throw!
Below, you’ll find our best tips for fishing lake trout in the spring, so keep reading.
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Related: Trout Fishing Rigs
Salvelinus namaycush is a salmonid cousin of both salmon and brook trout. Distinctive for their forked tail and mottled silver-gray body, they’re actually a freshwater char, not a true trout at all.
Averaging 24 to 36 inches, lake trout can grow much larger, with some trophy specimens reaching 100 pounds or more and 50 inches in length! Long-lived and slow-growing, it’s important to practice responsible fishing with this species, and always try to catch and release when possible.
Though probably most popularly fished on the hard water, smart anglers know that ice-out can be the ideal time to target lake trout as they move to the shallows to feed.
The most important fact to understand about spring lake trout is their intolerance of warm water. Unlike perch, walleye, and other common species in the northern US, summer is the hardest 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 spend the vast majority of their time below the thermocline. In some lakes, this confines them to a very small area, but they can and will rise into the warmer waters--and shallows--to feed on schools of cisco.
With the exception of the hard-water season, which finds lake trout roaming through the water column and across the breadth of their habitat, ice-out is the best bet. The spring thaw brings with it a proliferation of insects and bait fish like cisco that really sets the table for lakers, and the water remains cool enough to support lakers wherever they wish to roam.
But it’s that dispersal that so many anglers find frustrating.
Indeed, savvy anglers know that finding clusters of cisco and other prey items is a prime strategy for finding the lake trout that feed on them. Wherever dinner is being served, lakers will look for a seat at the table!
And as Wesley Tibbits, a marine biologist and expert on lake trout, explains, adults “commonly feed on deep water fish such as ciscoes and lake whitefish, rainbow smelt, alewives, and sticklebacks (Gasterosteidae). Periodically they consume fish in the warm upper layer (epilimnion) of a lake, such as yellow perch (Perca flavescens), white suckers (Catostomus commersoni), and various minnows.”
Ice-out is going to find lakers looking for an easy meal in the shallows, and since the water is still very cold, they can range far and wide and throughout the water column.
The key to locating actively feeding fish is to find the prey they’re after: ciscos, smelt, alewives, and other small bait fish. In the spring, these small fish will be feeding on aquatic insects, and the mouths of streams and rivers are prime locations to find feeding hotspots up and down the food chain.
Big lake trout aren’t going to hang out in the shallows--they’re there to hunt. Instead, they’ll sit in deeper, cooler water where a drop off gives them immediate access to feeding grounds like weed beds and other cover that hide and feed bait fish.
Waiting in ambush, anglers who know what to throw can tease them into a strike without much fuss.
You’ll also find big lake trout where there are steep points, humps, and islands where they can corral and trap panicky prey.
Unlike summer, when warm water pushes lake trout below the thermocline, ice-out means that temps are still quite cold near the surface and in the shallows. And that allows lake trout to hunt the entire water column, as well as move near shore in search of prey.
Some anglers get a bit nervous about how far and wide lakers roam in cold spring water, but don’t follow suit.
Prey is the key to unlocking ice-out laker hot spots.
Think way down the food chain. Anywhere you find clusters of aquatic insects, you’ll find bait fish like cisco. And where the bait fish gather, you’ll find lake trout looking for a meal.
I like to take a close look at any point where a stream or river carries warmer water into the main body of the lake. That’s an ideal spot for bait fish to be hunting aquatic invertebrates, and the lakers will be there, too, waiting a bit deeper along an adjacent drop off.
They’ll hunt those structures as well. As I mentioned above, lake trout like to corral panicked cisco against vertical structure, whether that’s a steep drop off, a point, a hump, or an island. These are also prime feeding spots, especially if they also include live weed beds to offer food and cover for the bait.
Once you know where to find them, the issue is making sure you have the right gear to catch them.
Lakers can get big, but the best rods for catching them are as sensitive as they are tough.
Professional guides like the folks at Plummer’s Arctic Lodges--people who earn a living by helping paying customers catch lake trout--say the best fishing rods for lake trout are 6’ 6” to 7’ 6” medium to medium heavy with fast action for working jigs and lures.
I like both of these reels, and it’s clear that Plummer’s guides are big Shimano fans!
Other high-quality options would include the Penn Battle II, a tough, capable spinning reel that’s been tried and tested on everything from shark to stripers. With 12 pounds of slick drag, 33 inches of retrieve per crank, and 140 yards of 10-pound mono, it’ll tame fiesty lake trout with room to spare.
Penn Battle II
For trolling, 7’ 6” to 9’ 6” medium heavy, fast action rods are ideal. And reels like the Shimano Tekota 500 are perfect for this technique.
I like the Tekota, and I’ve reviewed it before. The 500 offers plenty of capacity with 16-pound mono--roughly 285 yards--and even more if you choose to run braid. And with a 4.2:1 gear ratio picking up 25 inches per crank, I can’t call this reel fast--but it’s fast enough. 18 pounds of drag won’t leave you outgunned, either.
If you’re a dedicated laker angler, you might want to consider upgrading to something like the Penn Fathom Lever Drag 15. It’s a bit more solid than the Tekota and offers better capacity, heavier drag, and just a lot more muscle when it counts.
Penn Fathom Lever Drag 15
The more line I’m going to have out, the more I’m inclined to throw high-quality braid like Sufix 832 or Power Pro. Because these lines stretch so little--typically no more than 8% of their length, and often a lot less--you get unparalleled sensitivity and direct transfer of your rod’s power.
That can improve hooksets and lock-up, and when you’re trolling with quite a bit of line out or jigging really deep, it matters.
And because braid is small in diameter for its strength, it also cuts the water with less drag, reducing blow-back when trolling and the amount of line you’ll need to have out to troll at depth.
But where braid falls short is shock strength and knot integrity.
Precisely because it can’t stretch more, it’s not terribly forgiving of sudden strains. And because the Dyneema and Spectra fibers it’s woven from are very slick, they just don’t bite well on themselves, yielding low knot strength--typically, just 65% of the line’s test.
For savvy anglers, that means three things:
That’s why the pros at Plummer’s recommend 30- to 40-pound braid, but just 17- to 20-pound mono!
Lake trout are aggressive, and nothing gets their instinct to bite as revved-up as seeing another fish swallowing a meal.
That’s why “dodgers” or “flashers”--whatever you call them where you fish--are so effective.
A dodger simulates a fish feeding on your lure or bait, and when pulled behind your line or downrigger weight, it really will increase hits.
Two styles are common.
The first is the single dodger, like this 4.4-inch Double D Dodger from Mack’s Lure.
The second uses multiple, smaller blades to trick lake trout, like this model from Panther Martin:
Both styles work really well, and I like to keep several different color options on hand when trolling for lakers.
Lures for lake trout share at least one thing in common: they’re big!
Hungry lakers are looking for a nice meal, and that typically means throwing some oversized options their way.
Among the most tried and true is Dardevle’s Huskie Delve. A solid 3 ¼ ounce spoon, it’s available in a rainbow of colors. This chunky lure offers irresistible wiggle, whether you’re trolling it very slowly or working it across a point or drop-off.
Some lake trout anglers replace the treble with a Siwash hook like those available from Gamakatsu to reduce the damage to fish and avoid hooking both its upper and lower jaws. That’s a solid gesture toward the future of the sport, and the trick is to get a single hook of the same weight rather than size.
Another favorite spoon design specifically for trolling is the Yakima’s Flatfish in size T-60. A favorite on some of the hottest lakes in Canada, its unique shape creates a loud thump with each undulation, acting like a dinner bell to hungry predators.
In fact, if you ask pretty much anyone on Kasba or Great Bear, I can pretty much guarantee you they’ll have at least one or two in the boat!
Extra-large soft baits like the Basstrix Paddle Tail Swimbait are just murder when run across points, worked along drop-offs, and pulled over and around weed beds adjacent to deep water. Rigged on a #6/0 to #8/0 hook, the 6-, 7-, and 8-inch soft plastics wiggle perfectly and are ideal sizes for trophy lakers.
One thing to note is that a bit of ripping, followed by a distinct pause, can be ideal for exciting a strike. Expect the hit on the drop more often than not.
One of my favorite options for working weed beds and structure is a magnum-sized tube jig from Kodiak Custom Tube Jigs. Rigged on a heavy jig head, these 6-inch tubes flair with each tug, creating an irresistible action. Don’t save these for ice fishing--run them all spring wherever the cisco are feeding.
Finally, I won’t hit the water without a few Basstrix Paddle Tail Swimbait with me, especially in perch and shad colors. From their intense motion to the vibration of the BBs they carry, these are the crankbaits of choice for lake trout.
There’s no question that the territory a big lake trout roams increases as the ice melts, but don’t let that run you off your hunt for a trophy!
With these tips in mind and the right gear in your boat, you can extend your lake trout angling into the spring with amazing results.
If these tips have helped you, you have a question, or you want to add something we might have missed, please leave a comment below.