Fly fishing for early season lake trout. Although no one seems to know who coined the term, “location, location, location,” most historians agree that it was most likely a real estate tycoon. What we do know, is that the Chicago Tribune was the first to publish the phrase in 1926. That fact, leads me to believe an angler had something to do with it. As everyone knows, the Midwest is chock full of people who take their fishing seriously. The person who coined the term may well have been in real estate, but I’m betting they were an avid angler too.
When it comes to fishing, location is everything. You simply can’t catch fish if they’re not there. This is especially true on large, deep, northern lakes, when lake trout are your target. Understanding the water temperature these fish prefer, is huge later in the season when the water warms up and the fish go deep; but understanding their feeding habits is the golden key to identifying prime early season locations, that will consistently produce fish.
Locate Feeding Trout
Lake trout are daytime feeders. Even here at Grizzly Creek Lodge in the Yukon Territory where it’s light enough to read a newspaper outside until the wee hours of the morning, feeding will slow as soon as the shadows start to lengthen. Juvenile lake trout feed primarily on zooplankton, insect larvae, crustaceans, snails, and leeches. As they mature, their feeding habits begin to change, and they become opportunistic piscivores. The mature lake trout that anglers target feed almost exclusively on smaller fish.
A sure way to locate feeding trout is to understand the habitat their prey prefers. Once you understand the smaller fish they feed on, locating them becomes much easier. Fresh water herring, also known as cisco’s, are high on a lake trout’s list of preferred food. Abundant in most northern waters, fresh water herring move about in large schools.
Because of their preference for water temperatures in the 10 to 13-degree Celsius range, they are often found in shallower water early in the season right after ice out. Large schools of cisco’s can often be seen cruising just beneath the surface around shallow shoals. Break-lines, inlets, shallow deltas near outflows, and prominent points are prime locations as well.
Feeding birds are a dead giveaway to roving schools of fresh water herring. Both gulls, and terns feed heavily on these smelt like fish. The presence of ospreys, and eagles is a sure sign that fish are in the area as well.
Fly Rods, Reels, and Tackle
Even smaller lake trout are pugnacious fighters. They have stamina that has to be experienced to be believed. Multiple long, depth sounding runs are normal; even with a heavier rod. Rod selection is always a personal choice, but I advise flyfishers to err on the side of caution. The tackle you use plays a big role in good catch-and-release techniques. Survival rates are lower when fish are fatigued, so it’s important to choose a rod that will handle these hard fighting fish. Keep in mind you will be casting big air resistant flies too. Often in windy conditions. I prefer a nine weight, medium fast action rod, but a 10-weight is not overkill, believe me.
A good fly rod doesn’t have to break the bank. New materials and manufacturing techniques have enabled companies to produce quality rods a lot cheaper than they could in the past. I’m not one to tout one brand over another, because there are a lot of great fly-rod manufacturers out there, but I have to say that Visions, Big Daddy series, is fast becoming my all-time favorite lake trout rod. Designed with big pike in mind, these rods have what it takes to get those big flies out there, and enough backbone for the largest trout. The fact that they are very reasonably priced is an added bonus.
Large arbor reels are the best choice for a designated lake trout rig. Your reel of choice needs to be able to hold 100-yards of 30-pound backing, in addition to the fly line. Unlike other types of fly-fishing, the backing is an important, and often used component. I’ve had 12-pound fish strip out 75-yards of backing in one run. Tie into a twenty-pound brute and you will need all the backing you can get. You don’t want to run out, take it from me, I’ve been there, done that. Fly line is expensive.
One of the most common questions I get from clients that are in the planning stages of a big trip north, is what kind of drag system I prefer for lake trout and pike. My answer is always the same; I prefer a sealed drag system. That doesn’t mean other systems are bad, it’s just what I prefer. Running a fishing lodge is a lot of work, I’m busy from sun up, until well after dark most days, so a maintenance free reel is very appealing. Cork drags are probably smoother, but they do require regular maintenance.
Fly lines have come a long way in recent years. There are so many different styles that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them all. I used a standard sink tip line for many years with good results. I just recently switched to a shooting head line, and have been really happy with its performance. It loads a rod much faster, and makes long casts with large flies a lot easier, especially in windy conditions.
When it comes to flies, large baitfish patterns are the best bet for prowling lakers. Patterns from five to eight inches long are very effective. Deceivers, jointed saltwater rigs, and rabbit fur strip leech patterns, are proven producers. Rabbit fur has an undulating action that ‘comes alive’ underwater, and drives predator fish crazy.
It has been said that a fly box isn’t complete without a selection of Clouser minnows. This pattern is so successful, that I would feel well armed if it was the only pattern I had available. The Clouser minnow was designed to mimic an escaping baitfish. The key to this patterns success is that it never stops moving. Rising when line is stripped in, it darts down, or off to the side during the pause.
Powerful leaders are an important component whenever you’re throwing large flies to big fish. Strong leaders not only protect your expensive flies; they are required to properly turn them over when casting. Excellent leaders are easily constructed. I use the four-two-two, formula. Use a blood knot to join a four-foot piece of 40 lb. monofilament with a two-foot piece of 30 lb. monofilament. Tie a perfection loop on each end, and add two-feet of tie-able wire tippet. These leaders will reliably turn over the largest flies, and the wire tippets are impervious to sharp teeth.
Early season lake trout action takes place in the first few feet of the water column. It’s not uncommon to actually see lake trout prowling in water only a few feet deep. Like most of the trout species, lake trout have good vison. Although they can see in all directions, with only a few blind spots, they see best in front of, and above their head. In clear northern waters they can easily see your flies 15-feet above them, so don’t worry about getting your flies down to deep.
A proven tactic on unfamiliar water is to fish structure. Look for drop offs. Early season lake trout will congregate right on the edge of these drop-offs. If a boat is being used, position it so you can cast past the drop off. The sweet spot, will usually be right on the edge of the drop off where the depth change is greatest. Avoid the temptation of casting right into this zone; even if you see fish. Lake trout spook easily, so your goal should be to plant your fly out past the drop off into deep water.
Once your fly hits the water, wait a few seconds before starting the retrieve. Counting to five after each cast will improve your technique, and instill discipline. This ‘pause’ allows your fly to sink a few feet below the surface. Your retrieve should be relatively slow and steady. A to-fast retrieve is the most common mistake I see as a guide. A fast retrieve ruins the action of the fly; slow it down and you will get more strikes.
Lake trout will slap, or bump their prey to stun it, before the final attack. Because of this habit, you will usually feel a few bumps right before they strike. Novice fly fishers will inevitably try to set the hook each time they feel a bump. Let your rod do the work, when a laker strikes you will know it.
A few years ago I got the rare opportunity of seeing multiple lake trout strikes. I was working some new water near a small outflow. With the boat parked in about 8-feet of water I was casting down into, and across the current, hoping to find some lakers suspended right on the break-line. During a retrieve I spotted a lake trout cruising right under the boat. What followed was easily the best fishing experience I have ever witnessed.
There were literally dozens of lake trout cruising around in the shallows between the boat and the shoreline. There were so many fish that literally every cast would initiate multiple strikes. I would hook up almost immediately, and the fighting fish seemed to drive the others into a frenzy.
I know it’s hard to believe but literally dozens of huge lake trout would shadow the fighting fish, bumping it with their bodies whenever they had the chance. I didn’t understand why they were doing it until the fly was knocked loose near the boat. As soon as the fly came loose, another fish had it, and a light went on in my head. The bumping was designed to knock the prey loose so the offending fish could get a free meal.
I caught and released 24 lake trout in just over two-hours that day. All of them were caught on that one shallow shoal, not 30-meters from shore. Renowned fly fisherman Duane Radford, was in the same area the next spring and had much the same experience. He called it the single best day of fishing in his lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, lake trout can be found in shallow water. Often in large numbers. Early in the season right after ice out, is the most productive time for fly fishers to be out on the water. With the right gear, and a little knowledge, you might just have the best fishing experience of your life.