November 19, 2021
By Matt Straw
“Lake trout have been on the edge of my fishing world. Now and then I cross paths and sometimes match my skill with their weight and strength. I’ve been much too restless, too much a caster, to take time to troll. Still, there have been times when they’ve surprised me and given me a battle to remember.”
—From Fishing With Lee Wulff
Sky and water formed a vague, gray curtain at the far edge of the world. Slowly finning away in all directions, a herd of drab torpedoes blending into dappled boulders six feet down completed the chiaroscuro. Each pass over the spine of a four-mile reef pushed lake trout from the boat’s path—every one of them a tank.
Enjoying the hospitality of Lakers Unlimited, we were watching prespawn activity on Lake Athabasca—which translates as “Olympus” in the vernacular of fly-rodding, lake-trout Argonauts. It could be one of the finest lake-trout waters on earth. What we saw would raise the neck hairs of the most hardened, well-traveled anglers.
Lakers spawn in autumn, dropping eggs and milt into boulder fields, primarily in depths of 8 to 20 feet. Reefs, rocky shorelines, and submerged islands topped with boulders are the concentration points. They stage for weeks before spawning. Prespawn activity draws lakers up from the depths, into the wheelhouse of the average fly fisherman.
Athabasca is just one star in a sky brimming over. At Plummer’s Great Slave Lake Lodge, we jumped out of bed in the dark to chase surface eruptions the size of Volkswagens. More than 2,000 miles to the east, we stalked the banks of Basswood in Labrador, casting flies to midsummer lakers.
Wading into Lake Superior to catch lakers on a fly is something I like to do every spring and fall. From the Yukon to Newfoundland, and from the sub-Arctic to Colorado, anglers fly over hundreds of virtually untouched lake-trout venues every day during summer. In all cases, everywhere they swim, huge lakers rip flies on floating lines and sink tips for anglers with good timing.
Lake Trout Range
The range of the lake trout runs from the northern tip of Labrador around Hudson Bay north to the Arctic Ocean. It runs south through the Yukon along the Canadian Rockies, east to the Great Lakes region, and on to New England. Lake trout have been successfully stocked in Oregon, British Columbia, Wyoming, Utah, the Dakotas, Washington, and Colorado. That entire expanse is rife with fly-fishing opportunities for “battles to remember.”
Most shallow opportunities remain entirely ignored, and not only by fly fishers. Some maintain that rainbows, browns, and even largemouth bass are sexier than a dappled, cream-spotted char. Others say 20 pounds of muscle-bound gray whale sounds pretty sexy. I adhere to the latter persuasion.
Officially, the largest lake trout listed by the IGFA under fly-rod records is 29 pounds, 8 ounces. The record at Camp Champdoré on the Baleine River in Quebec was a live release estimated at 44 pounds. It was taken from a river, with a floating line and a weighted fly by an angler specifically targeting lakers. Other than the 5-pound brookies swimming around in fast water to avoid being eaten, the only excuse an angler has to visit Champdoré is to catch big lakers on a fly. It’s the main draw, because popping several lakers over 20 pounds daily is common. Most lodge owners in the far north tell stories of secretive fly-rod enthusiasts who have landed 40 pounders.
Shawn Gurke, owner of Nueltin Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories, said he has some avid repeat customers who strictly stalk lakers with a fly.
“A lot of what I know about fly fishing for lakers came from a frequent guest named James Boyer,” he said. “His biggest was over 40 pounds, taken on a big streamer. Fly fishing for lakers is easy when water temps are low, but it requires somebody who is practiced, someone who can cast accurately, to successfully sight-fish for giants. Visualization and a good sense of touch—those are the two kickers. Anybody who comes up here with a fly rod sees the value in that.”
The all-tackle world record is 72 pounds, taken from Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Conservatively, that fish spent thousands of hours prowling through depths of 10 feet or less during its lifetime (which was likely longer than mine will be). The potential is there to hook a kraken on a fly, but forget 40. Pray you hook one smaller. A 40-pound laker on a fly rod will break everything, including your heart.
Concentrate on timing. Throughout the extended range of lake trout, ice-out is magic. Imprisoned in deep water through summer in the southern portions of their range, springtime lakers are free to cruise the shallows during winter and spring until water temperatures climb above 54 degrees F. or so. It happens everywhere lake trout swim.
Early ice-out is easy. Find a river mouth. “The tactic in spring is to cast the fly onto the ice and ease it off into the current,” Gurke said. “Right after ice-out, lake trout stack so heavily at the mouths of rivers emptying into Nueltin that it’s common to catch them on every cast.”
As spring advances, the key is identifying conditions that concentrate forage. Predominantly, lake trout feed on ciscoes (lake herring), whitefish, smelt, alewives, bloater chubs, Kokanee salmon, or any similar, abundant, coldwater fish that fits in their mouths. The most abundant forage should drive size, shape, and—to some extent—coloration of flies, so do your homework.
Look for concentrations of bait around river inlets and wherever water is forced between islands or shorelines. Baitfish are drawn to warmer water being ferried to the lake by streams. That warm water can be carried down one shoreline or the other by prevailing winds. A temperature gauge is critical. Water just 2 degrees warmer than the surrounding lake will produce a condensed predator-prey relationship. Wind blowing into shore pins warm water there, concentrating baitfish, and lakers will find them.
Where wind pushes water into a neck-down area, current is created and plankton counts are more concentrated. With the ice gone, sunlight causes a bloom in plankton growth, and winter-starved baitfish are drawn there. Lakers crash through the surface film, where the water is warmest and the baitfish thickest, marking their position for the moment. They tend to cruise in groups—sometimes huge groups of hundreds, though fairly well spread out across mid-depth to shallow shelves and flats.
During early spring, look for lake trout to group on the upwind side of a neck, or on any rocky shoreline where deep water bends in close to shore and the wind is blowing in. This isn’t quiet winter fishing in a sheltered river valley. Ice-out winds on open water can numb marrow, but they can also stir up some big, gray feeding frenzies in shallow water.
River inlets can be protected from wind yet continue to concentrate fish. Where a river enters a bay in lake-trout country, count on lakers using the entire bay, including the shorelines, in early spring. They often cruise about 10 feet below the surface, but readily rise to investigate a fly being stripped at varying speeds, so don’t be afraid to cast over deep water with floating line or sink tip.
As spring turns to summer, hatches bring lakers up to the surface and into shallow bays if the surface isn’t too warm (over 64 degrees F). Lakers take advantage of distracted whitefish, grayling, trout, and other menu items focused on rising insects.
Nueltin, which recently gave up a laker weighing over 70 pounds, attracts a curious band of Englishmen who try to time their visits by the caddis hatch. Gurke said they opened his eyes to the indirect connection between insects and giant lake trout. “Those Englishmen cruise over mid-lake reefs, using their eyes to size the structure up,” Gurke said. “They use 9-weights to throw 6-inch streamers on sinking lines, the same sort of thing you might use when swinging flies for steelhead—big, gaudy baitfish imitators. It’s more important to imitate movement and create a trigger than to match the hatch, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a fly that imitates whitefish, grayling, or small lake trout coloration and shape.”
North of 60° latitude, a floating line is optimum every morning and evening, all summer. And wherever lakers swim, they can be successfully pursued with a floating line at key times—a fact rediscovered by intrepid fly fishermen every year. Way up north, some lakers stay in rivers all summer, chasing grayling. And in lakes, they rise up on midlake structure during a caddis hatch, taking advantage of baitfish distracted by rising insects.
Where regulations allow prespawn angling for lakers, fishing can be spectacular. You need to get offshore in a boat to see one of the most incredible scenes on our living planet. Lakers rise during prespawn, often milling around within 10 feet of the surface for weeks. Spawning takes place primarily at night, so daytime anglers are not interrupting the ritual that begins in early September in the tundra, and as late as early December in the southern Great Lakes, usually as surface temperatures drop to 50 degrees or below. Eggs are broadcast into boulder fields and broken rock, where they roll into crevices and incubate for two to three months.
The season closes around the Great Lakes to protect lakers during prespawn and spawning seasons, but Western reservoirs, lakes, and many Canadian waters remain open. If offered the chance to experience fall fly fishing at Athabasca or elsewhere, take it. Every day is a visual feast impossible to forget.
Lake Trout Equipment & Flies
It’s quite common to see the tail of a 4-pound whitefish extending from the prodigious maw of a 25-pound laker, which screams the question: How big must a fly be to pique the interest of a 30-pounder?
In spring, it can be relatively small (3 inches). In fall, however, small flies catch small fish. A 6- to 10-inch synthetic streamer is optimum most of the year. But don’t miss the forest: Lake trout will eat many types of flies, and they will eat them with less reservation than almost any trout (or char) you pursue.
Some call it stupidity, but lakers thrive in extremely sterile waters with low biomass. In order to survive, nature and genetics trained them for millennia to eat anything that moves. Which works in our favor.
John Cleveland, who works for Eppinger (the Dardevle people) is a closet fly fisher whose many trips to Canada always involve fly rods, lakers, and big pike. Last fall, he made the pilgrimage to Athabasca. “I hooked more than 350 lakers in five days of fly fishing,” he said. “The smallest was about 8 pounds, and the biggest was 27. Standard Clouser Minnows and Clouser Half-and-Half patterns, tied 5 to 6 inches long, were eaten like candy. I added some orange saddle hackles and substituted Slinky Flash synthetic material for deer hair, which is too heavy and wind-resistant.”
Anything resembling Lefty’s Deceiver works fine when stretched to lengths of 7 inches or more. “My best fly,” Cleveland said, “was a Double Deceiver, an articulated version that I extended to 9 inches using Slinky Flash. Add some saddle hackles for bulk and you get a big silhouette without the added weight. I tie them with Mustad #34007 2/0 and 3/0 hooks.”
In the Great Lakes, streamers with green, gray, or blue backs and bellies constructed with pearl bucktail or marabou, flies patterned after alewives, smelt, or ciscoes, always produce. In winter and spring, many river mouths and harbors on the Great Lakes are free of ice, and the fly might also tempt a huge brown trout, steelhead, or king salmon. But, with lakers recovering on Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario, and Lake Superior, the biggest bite of the day is likely to be delivered by a gray whale.
Those same patterns are successful way up north, too—but a grayling or whitefish imitation tied with synthetics in lengths of 9 to 12 inches is a better way to start in summer or fall. When the water is cold, a floating line is right, but a sinking-tip works better, and a full-sinking line better yet during summer.
Most of the time, an 8-weight rod is best for lakers—especially when approaching them with floating lines in spring. But when a sinking-tip or full-sinking line is required, I prefer punching 9-inch flies out there with my 10-weight. But in smaller lakes and some situations, a “big” laker is 8 pounds and too much fun on a 5-weight. Match the equipment to the size of the target.
I use 9-foot tapered fluorocarbon leaders that terminate with 2 to 3 feet of 10- to 20-pound-test tippet, depending on the size of the fish you’re expecting. Fluorocarbon sinks and helps keep the fly down in that magic strike zone 4 to 10 feet below the surface.
A steep taper designed for large flies is a good idea, too. RIO’s Outbound or Scientific Anglers Magnum or Titan lines will help you turn over the leader with those large flies.
Lakers are dogged, tough creatures, and you don’t need to fly into Wulff’s “back of beyond” to catch one on a fly. In fact, a complete chiaroscuro might be closer than you think. Step into it with an 8-weight cocked and ready this year, and discover how gorgeous gray can be.
Matt Straw is a former newspaper reporter and staff editor for In-Fisherman (now a field editor). He’s been writing in the outdoor-enthusiast market for 30 years and fly fishing even longer.