I am a much happier person when I am fishing. That’s a groundbreaking epiphany, I know. Sarcasm aside, I think the typical Northeast kayak angler falls into a rhythm, with the season beginning in April and fizzling out by December—in a good year. This leaves three or more winter “gap” months when I’m not fishing. So, I went out in search of consistent winter fishing—and happiness—and found it in kayak fishing for lake trout.
The saltwater off-season is typically a time when anglers switch to trout fishing since these coldwater fish bite well through the winter. Many fishermen associate trout with technical fly fishing, and this can be true on streams and rivers, but on open, deep water, lake trout provide a challenge that’s more familiar to the saltwater kayaker.
Kayak anglers have three options for targeting trout: trolling, jigging, or casting. All of these methods can be effective, but my favorite is vertical jigging.
The first time I tried this type of fishing, I was drastically underprepared. All I had was a couple 3/4-ounce jigheads, some 4-inch swim shads, and a rudimentary idea of the topography of the lake I was fishing (for the very first time and without a fish finder). Even with those strikes against me, and with the bitter cold practically begging me to pedal back to shore, I was blessed with a grab. At first, I swore it was a branch because it seemed like I was reeling up a cinder block, but as I continued, I swore I felt some head shakes.
As the fish slowly made its way up 80 feet through the water column, it began to fight hard. When I got it to the boat, I was forced to use my drastically undersized trout stream net to scoop up a 26-inch lake trout. That turned out to be the only bite I had that entire four-hour session, but I didn’t care. It was early March, there was no ice, and I was able to get a decent fish. What a rush!
Trout Jigging Tackle
Unlike many of our favorite saltwater species, lake trout can be line shy. When choosing a leader (especially when using braid), I use nothing heavier than 8-pound test. This line weight gives me enough confidence to jig lakers from deep water without sacrificing line sensitivity or visibility. Equally as important as line and leader selection, though, is fishing with the right rod. I use a medium power, fast-action spinning rod. While you can catch lakers on light tackle, I prefer something with a bit of backbone just in case I hook into a trophy. Conversely, I don’t want anything too heavy since it will take away from the fun of the fight.
I use the same rod I use while fluke fishing, which is a medium power, fast-action 7-foot St. Croix Mojo Inshore. Along with its performance, this rod is just the right size to make battling a decent-sized fish a true tug of war without feeling overpowered. Keep in mind, though, that some of the strikes from these fish can be incredibly subtle, and you may have trouble detecting a bite with heavier gear.
As for reel choice, I use a Shimano Stradic c3000. I suggest keeping the size fairly small—in the 2500 to 3000 range (and nothing bigger than 4000). This reel size has enough line capacity to jig deep water, with plenty of line left over for the fish to run.
My go-to presentations are swimbaits and blade baits. I particularly like the Keitech Swing Impact paddletail swimbait. It is versatile and fairly inexpensive, so it’s no big deal if I snag the bottom once or twice. Additionally, these shads do an excellent job mimicking the lake trout’s favorite forage, which are alewives and smelt. I’m especially partial to the 4-inch Keitech Fat Impact shad in white or pearl. I pair one with a ½- to ¾-ounce jighead, adjusting the weight according to the depth and size of the baitfish.
Like swim shads, blade baits also mimic the forage of lake trout; however, they do so while adding some additional action, such as vibration and flash. I especially like the Fish Sense Lures Binsky and the Sebile Vibrato. The shape of a blade bait allows it to sink rapidly in the water column, meaning more time spent fishing and less waiting. This quality makes them a great choice when vertical jigging in depths of 80 feet or more.
A fishfinder is a key piece of gear for finding trout in deeper water. It can be make or break for trout because you may sometimes be looking for solitary marks or schools of bait on tough days. Unless you stumble upon a visible school of bait in shallow water, you are essentially in the dark without a fishfinder.
In terms of setting up a game plan, a lot of it depends on the time of year, weather, and water conditions. Though lake trout are usually thought of as a cold-water, cold-season species, they remain active all year—you just need to know where to find them.
Lakers typically gravitate toward the bottom third of the water column during the late spring and summer. In colder months of the year, it’s possible to find them anywhere in the lake, even in shallower sections along the shoreline. That’s when I keep a close eye on the fishfinder as I move around the lake, surveying for any signs of life.
Lake trout fishing is a blast, but show up prepared, and never forget that when kayaking in cold water, safety is the top priority. When fishing on a kayak from late autumn to mid-spring, a dry suit, warm winter hat, and portable flotation device are all essentials. Should you capsize , it does not matter how strong a swimmer you are. If you’re far from shore in less than 40-degree water, you are in trouble.
When selecting a dry suit, be sure it’s a full-body one that has adequate gaskets to prevent water from entering through the wrist and neck sections. In addition to the dry suit, always wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device.
Underwater structure is a good starting point for locating lakers. I begin by keying in on submerged points, underwater rock piles, logs, or drop-offs. If I notice piles of bait or marks on the bottom of my fishfinder, I head right to any dramatic drop-offs. If I can’t find fish there, I start roaming around the lake, following contour lines and looking for structure on the fishfinder. This is a good time to troll a spoon or crankbait on leadcore line to help determine where in the water column the lakers are feeding.
Once I mark a school of baitfish or a few individual fish, I drop my lure of choice and get to jigging with a controlled bouncing action off the bottom. The deepest I attempt to vertically jig a fish is 150 feet, although I find that pulling fish from 50 to 80 feet is a more ideal range.
When jigging, I can sometimes see the mark following my lure closely as I jig it up and down. This is the cue to buckle up because that fish is gearing up for attack. I always stay in contact with my jig since these fish often hit on the drop. A slack line can result in a missed fish.
Unlike saltwater fishing, there’s no tide to move you around while jigging a spot. I try to stay as close as possible to the area where I originally marked the fish so my lure stays right in the fish’s face.
If I stop marking fish or bait, I start branching out. I don’t stay on any one mark for longer than 5 to 10 minutes since there’s always the possibility that it was an inactive fish (or it wasn’t a trout at all).
A few spot-scouting missions with the fishfinder can really pay off before you start jigging.
Although lake trout are occasionally finicky, they’re hard-fighting, sizable, and muscular fish that are great fun to catch. Combined with their year-round availability and the deep-jigging methods used to catch them, they are an enjoyable and challenging target for kayak fishermen.