One of the most popular fish species that anglers target is trout, and on big water, you can find some of the biggest trout: lake trout. The anglers who target these fish are a hearty bunch who during the summer months, have their boats rigged with down-riggers and a copious amount of rod holders.
Trolling is the best way of catching lake trout during those warmer months, but what about winter. What do those diehard lake trout anglers do when the lakes freeze over?
They go out there and ice fish of course! Equipped with a starkly different kind of gear and setup, they still find great success. Now that the ice fishing season is well underway, it’s time you get out there and try your hand to catch lake trout!
They’re a cold-water fish that will thrive during this time of year, and with them fattened up to make it through the harsh winter, they may be some of the biggest you’ll ever catch.
But first, you’re going to need some tips and pointers, especially if this is your first time fishing for lake trout. There are some vital things you need to know like how to find lake trout whether they’ll be in shallow water or deep water, what kind of bait to use either live minnows or lures, and how to set up your tip-ups or jigging rods so they’re ready to reel in some giant lake trout and much more.
Now, let’s get to it so that you can get out on the ice to catch fish in no time!
Table of Contents
The Fundamentals Of Lake Trout Fishing
Getting to know the fish you plan to be targeting is key to your success. Yes, you can just go out there and wing it, but your likelihood of success would be minimal. Lake trout are a cold water species with little tolerance or preference for warmer water above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re a top predator in all lakes they exist in, often on par with other predatory species like northern pike.
While they too have sharp teeth, they aren’t nearly as frightening as that of walleye, pike, or muskie. Still, you likely won’t want to be sticking your fingers in their mouths. Lake trout primarily feed on other fish like ciscoes, smelt, and yellow perch, but they will also eat insects, crustaceans, and small animals.
Not only do these species of fish prefer to be in cold water, but ideally clear, rocky, and deep water. They cruise the open water searching for their prey foraging species. The kind of habitat and structure that they will hunt around depends on where their prey is. Typically, areas with structures like gradual drop-offs, islands, reefs, bay entrances, and points are the best to fish for lake trout.
They have a large depth range to cover with 20 to 40 feet being a good place to start. Though they can be found as deep as 100 feet, depending on the size of the body of water you’re fishing.
Where Can I Find Lake Trout Under The Ice
Lake trout are notorious deep open water fish, so that is where you’ll find them whether in summer or in the winter. They are constantly moving and following the smaller fish and foraging species that they prey on. The kinds of structures that will usually draw both together are gradual sloping shorelines and drop-offs, bay entrances, reefs, islands, and points.
The use of a topographical map of the lake will help you to locate these kinds of features, or a fish finder is just as effective if you have one. Once you’ve got some spots mapped out you can get out there for the next step: finding the ideal depth. Start at a range of 20 to 40 feet, and if you don’t find lake trout at those depths, then the next would be to try 40 to 60 feet deep. This is a comfortable range that you should be able to locate these fish within during the winter.
Look Where You Find Smaller Fish
If you find the baitfish, then you’ll find the predator. When targeting lake trout you should be familiar with the kinds of fish they prefer to eat. If you’re ice fishing in a spot that you think looks good and you’re finding baitfish like perch, rainbow smelt, and silvery ciscoes then you’re in the right place to find more lake trout. At that point then you should start jigging immediately, and maybe even set a couple of tip-ups so you have multiple lines in the water. When you find baitfish then you’ll have found the lake trout.
Go For An Area Between Two Points
Lake trout like to hunt in areas where their prey can be funneled or have some kind of wall that blocks them from escaping. The entrance of bays and areas between two points are excellent for this. They act as a natural funnel with a backdrop that means the baitfish can’t escape. These are usually areas that provide the ideal structure and habitat that lake trout prefer to feed in and the water is deep enough and cold enough for them.
Drilling holes and ice fishing in an area like this should prove fruitful and is a great starting place when trying to target big lake trout. They will certainly be cruising these kinds of habitats where their foraging prey will likely be gathered to feed as well.
There are many ways to locate fish through the ice but using a fish finder or sonar is one of the best ways to do it. You’ll see there are many anglers who use them for ice fishing, and you can find these ice fishing sonars and fish finders easily online. They are excellent because not only do they locate fish, but they can map the structure and depth, they’ll tell you the temperature of the water, and some can even show you live footage of what’s down there. Just be aware that these systems are very expensive!
Ice Fishing For Lake Trout With Tip Ups
The use of tip-ups for catching lake trout requires patience and the right bait. You could use dead bait on a tip-up, but live bait is always the best choice, especially for lakers. The movement and flash of struggling bait like minnows, golden shiners, ciscoes, or suckers are ideal. Using a size 6 treble hook is perfect for the bait and is a good size for handling large fish like a laker. You can use big baits on your tip-up because they are better for catching big lake trout.
The great thing about using tip-ups is that you can have multiple out at once, which is what you’ll see most anglers do because it helps you find the sweet spot in the water column that the fish will be occupying in that particular place.
Remember to locate the structures and habitats that lake trout prefer to be hunting in! Gradual drop-offs, islands, points, and shallow bays where the lake trout can prowl the edges in the deep water and corner their prey are ideal. So, setting up your tip-ups in these locations at different depths will help you to locate the fish.
Ice fishing for lake trout on tip-ups is a lot of fun and a great experience. Most tip-ups have a flag that springs up when you have a fish on, and there is nothing quite like the excitement of seeing that. They’re easy to use and offer a different kind of fishing experience because you have to hand-line the fish in with your bare hands when using a tip-up. All they require is for you to drill your hole and then the tip up sits over it and you drop the line down to your desired depth.
They’re lightweight and you can easily fit several into a bucket or pack. You can catch just as many big fish on tip-ups as you can on jigging rods, if not more because you can have multiple out at a time.
Use a Leader
When setting up your rig, whether it’s tip-ups or jigging rods, it’s important to ensure you equip them with the right gear for the kind of fish you plan on targeting. If you’re planning on ice fishing lake trout, using a leader will be a good idea because these fish do have sharp teeth. A leader is generally made from a stronger material or is a stronger test than you’re regular line. Some like steel leaders are strong enough that they won’t get cut even by fish like pike or walleye, but they will likely be highly visible in the kind of water you’re fishing for lake trout.
Trout can be finicky which is why using a clear line or leader is better so they can’t see it. Just have this extra buffer on the end of your line so you don’t lose a fish or any of your hooks, line, or bait needlessly.
Fishing Line for Lake Trout
Most anglers who are familiar with fishing for lake trout know that the kind of water you find them in, clear and cold, isn’t good for using braided lines. The braided line is too thick and often colored in a shade of green that stands out starkly in clear waters. When the fish see this, they’ll know something is up and this could spook them from biting. Trout are picky like that. It also has little to no stretch to it which isn’t ideal when you are fishing at deeper depths.
Monofilament or fluorocarbon line is ideal because they are clear and blend in so that the fish don’t see them. They are also much more flexible and have a lot more stretch to them which functions better when fishing in deep water. So, anywhere from 15 to 30-pound test mono is what is commonly used for lake trout.
Ice Fishing For Lake Trout With The Jigging Method
If you’re gonna ice fish then jigging is just a part of it. The best way to catch fish is to try different things and if you have the capability to do it at once then why not. Those are the joys of ice fishing! You can have tip-ups out and be jigging in an ice hole in your ice shanty or outside. Lures can be just as effective as live baitfish after all!
When you find your ideal spot, or you use sonar or a fish finder to locate the lake trout, then you should start jigging right away. Lakers are always on the move so it is best to get on them quickly and a jig lure can do just that. Drill a couple of holes and just drop the lure down and see how quickly you get a fish on the hook once you get to the same depth or just above where they are.
Our Favorite Lake Trout Lures
Like all fish, lake trout have their preferences of colors and there are certain lures that they just can’t seem to resist. When you’re out ice fishing, having a few of these on hand could turn your luck around in an instant. We will provide a list below of some of the most popular and common lures that you should add to your jigging tackle. Your jigging lures are usually pretty small so you can fit them in small packs so you can get away with using a tackle box for kayak fishing. Most of these lures will be a combination of spoons, tube jigs, soft plastics, jigging raps, and much more!
First, let’s go over the colors that stand out most in the deeper water which will catch the laker’s eyes. It’s dark down there after all, and when there is thick ice and snow, there isn’t much light that penetrates down into the water. Winter is dark, cold, and dreary for the fish as much as it is for us!
- White: this is a classic and old reliable that you can always count on to produce fish. It’s bright and stands out in the darker waters that lake trout typically occupy.
- Purple-silver: is a flashy color that can mimic the colors of minnows and other small fish that lake trout eat.
- Bright Orange: another color that can “glow” or stand out in the darkness. Perch also have bright orange pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins and they are a common food source for lake trout.
- Green/yellow combination: on a metallic surface these colors match the watercolor and they also match the color of different species of baitfish whose scales flash like the metal surface of this lure does. Bluegill and perch often have a blend of these colors on their bodies.
Now, onto a list of lures that we think could bring you luck while ice fishing for lake trout!
- Tube jig: Zoom Salty Super Tube-Pack and Mizmo Soft Plastic
- Spoons: Williams Ice Jig, Acme Kastmaster Spoon, and Bay De Noc Laker Taker
- Airplane jig: Rapala Snap Rap and Northland Magnum Airplane Jig
- Swimbait: Strike King Rage Swimmer
- Jigs: Tungsten Jig kits that you can hook mealworms, nightcrawlers, or minnows on
Here’s a video of an ice angler sharing his top 5 lake trout lures:
Key Insights & Takeaways
Ice lake trout are some incredible fish that will thrive in the cold waters during winter. They are an incredible fish to catch that can grow to a large size which is what many sport anglers are looking for. They want to catch the fish of a lifetime. You can do just that even in the dead of winter too because the lakers will be fat and vibrantly colored at this time. There is nothing quite like pulling a big lake trout from an ice hole with your bare hands!
However, that is not the only reason to go out and catch lake trout, they are good fish to eat as well. When they come through the ice their flavor will be at a peak even more so than the warmer summer months. There are just as many anglers out there catching them for fun as though who are catching them to eat. You can get a lot of meat off of a big lake trout.
The great part is that you don’t really need any special ice fishing lake trout tip-ups or jigging rods to catch them. You can use whatever kind of tip-up you have, and they’re really the best method to catch them because you can have so many out at once, and you can set them with much larger bait so you can catch the bigger lake trout. It’s still fun to jig the smaller ones though while you wait for a flag!
The use of topo maps or sonar will help you locate the best areas for lake trout, and can tell you the depth, temperature, and structure beneath the ice. The sonar can even show live footage so you can see the depth where the suspended fish are hanging out in the water column. Remember lake trout can be found anywhere from 20 to 60 feet, so the versatility of the tip-ups will help you to narrow down this window of where the fish are located in deeper water like that.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is braided line good for ice fishing?
A braided line is a good line to use, but there are some fish that steer away from this line because it can be highly visible. Species like trout are very finicky and rely on their sight when hunting, and spotting something as unnatural as a bright green braided line can steer them away. Yet, it depends on the lake or river. If it is a murkier and siltier lake that doesn’t have the best visibility, then using a braided line will be fine because it won’t stand out. If the water is deep, rocky, and clear then this line won’t work as well. Monofilament and fluorocarbon are the best for those kinds of water.
Another point is that braided line has no stretch to it which isn’t ideal when you’re fishing deep water for species like lake trout. That is why anglers prefer mono and fluorocarbon because it is clear and the line has a lot of flexibility and stretch to it which is good for fighting fish at those depths.
What pound line is best for trout?
Everyone has a little bit of a different answer for this one because people have their own preferences for how they fish. You can use a line anywhere from 10-12 pound test and have that work great, but you’d also be just as well with using a line that’s 20-30 pound test and up. The heavier pound test will hold up better when reeling in those much larger lakers, but the lighter line will work too if you’re careful. It is whichever you want to try and maybe the water you’re fishing doesn’t have a lot of big lakers so using a lighter line is a lot more convenient.
What is a good lake trout lure?
We’ve provided a good list above of the different lures and the colors you should add to your tackle when jigging for lakers through the ice. Spoons, tube jigs, airplane jigs, swimbaits, jigging raps, and lipless crankbaits are all popular lures for lake trout and what most trout anglers will use. Bright colors are the best because they stand out in the dark water so white, bright oranges, yellow/green, and silver blends are all ideal because they stand out and can mimic the colors and flashes of the baitfish that they feed on.
Lake trout vs rainbow trout
Lake trout and rainbow trout are two very different species that occupy a similar niche and habitat. Rainbow trout can tolerate warmer waters than lakers can though, and they don’t get quite as large typically. They are also considered true trout while lake trout are actually char. The main difference between the two is that char, like lake trout, will always have dark bodies with light or white spots, and rainbows have light bodies with dark spots.
What do lake trout eat?
They feed primarily on fish but are also known to eat crustaceans, insects, and small animals. They will prey on fish like ciscoes, smelt, perch, golden shiners, suckers, and more. These are all foraging species that can be found in deeper and open water where lake trout are often cruising around.
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