Food is an important part of a fishing trip. It can provide a morale boost or distraction on slow days and be a bargaining chip between you and the guys who know how to catch fish. When I wandered into a deli in Standish, Maine, looking to buy Chapstick and walked out with a dozen fresh donuts, it was morale boosting I had in mind.
I’d been waiting with Adam Eldridge for a snowmobile ride to our base camp for the second day of ice fishing on Sebago Lake. The first day had been cold, the fishing had been slow, and Adam and I were worried about whether we’d get enough action for an episode of On The Water’s TV show.
As we sat there, trying to define how many fish we needed for a successful shoot, an old fisherman beelined for us (and our box of donuts) directly from the launch site’s portable toilet. We offered him a donut, trying not to think about whether he’d washed his hands, and as the crumbs began to slalom through his gunmetal gray beard, Adam and I peppered him with questions about how to catch the lake trout of Sebago.
We had arrived the day before, attracted by the Sebago’s lake trout problem—that problem being overabundance.
“Togue,” as they’re known to Mainers, are native to parts of the state, but they were introduced to Sebago in 1972. With the help of another invasive species, the alewife—which were discovered in the lake a little more than a decade ago—the lakers have feasted and thrived. This would have been a success story if the booming fishery hadn’t come at the expense of a true Sebago native, Salmo Salar Sebago, the landlocked salmon.
The alewives and lakers have delivered a one-two punch that put the salmon on the ropes—the former outcompeting the smelt, the salmon’s primary forage, and the latter outcompeting the salmon for the dwindling smelt population.
To combat this, Maine threw the regulations wide open on Sebago lakers, encouraging anglers to keep as many fish under 26 inches as they wanted. There are even fishing tournaments aimed at thinning the laker herd. The 2021 Sebago Lake Ice Derby, which preceded our trip by two weeks, removed 7,500 pounds of fish (primarily lakers) from Sebago to deliver to food banks around the state.
But, knowing that Sebago had too many lake trout hadn’t put very many of them on our hooks. By the end of our first day, we’d done little to help control the laker population, which led us right to boat-launch bribery with a box of donuts.
“I caught fifty-some last weekend,” the old-timer said. “All you gotta do is catch one, help him burp up the alewives he was eating,” he said, miming how one would rub a lake trout’s belly to make it regurgitate its stomach contents, “and use that as bait.”
It was simple enough advice, but also illegal. While the lake trout were introduced by the state, the alewives were introduced illegally. In an effort to prevent further spread of the species, Maine has outlawed their use as bait.
Whether the old-timer knew this or not, his point that the lakers were locked in on the alewives gave us enough to go on for our second day. As he tumbled the last bit of glazed donut into his mouth, he shrugged and said, “Conditions look good for today, though. They should be biting.”
Twenty minutes later, that prophecy was proving true. Adam and I hitched our ride to the tents and tables set up by Maine guides Dan Hillier and Jon Peterson, and while Adam distributed breakfast, I got to jigging.
The day before, we’d waited a long time to put a lake trout on the ice, and I’d been the last guy in our group of seven to connect. As the sun had approached the tree line, the group formed a half circle around me as a mark appeared on the fishfinder screen. It had the feel of a group of kids gathered around a video game cabinet at an arcade shouting (mostly) encouragement while the kid in the middle went for the high score.
The last advice I heard before the laker struck was from Captain Rob Taylor, who yelled, “Take it away!”
Lake trout are most comfortable near the bottom, and they fight hard to stay there. My first Sebago laker used its forked tail to dig for the bottom, but when I finally had it heading toward the surface, a slow and steady march up 160 feet, it used hammering headshakes to try and rid itself of the hook. Luckily for me, the hook held long enough for Hillier to scoop the fish onto the ice.
On the second morning, I was sharing a fishfinder with Hillier, who runs Songo River Guide Service, and was trying, once again, not to think about the fact that I was standing on 7 inches of ice over 180 feet of water. That unease vanished as soon as the fishfinder showed a glowing red mark colliding with Hillier’s jig so suddenly that he didn’t have time to remove the donut from his mouth.
What followed were four hours filled with fish, laughter, and weather so warm that at one point, I turned around and discovered that Taylor had removed his shirt and was fishing bare-chested under his insulated bibs.
While the first day had been full of refusals from curmudgeonly lake trout, on day two, the lakers fed like they hadn’t eaten in weeks. Lake trout marks constantly streamed by on our fishfinders, and when those marks appeared at 10 or more feet off the bottom, they almost always bit.
The lakers fought well and had a knack for spitting the hook halfway up if you failed to keep the line tight. They ranged from 14 to 24 inches, and while Sebago lakers to 20 pounds have been caught, we didn’t see any in the trophy, 26-inch-and-over category. However, the numbers more than made up for that. Everybody caught one, even Adam, who had captured enough lakers on film that he was then able to capture a couple on rod and reel. To top it all off, we were surrounded by bald eagles in numbers I didn’t know existed in the Northeast.
The eagles are attracted to Sebago for the same reason that I was … to enjoy the overabundant lake trout. Many fishermen, eager to help control the laker numbers, but less eager to actually eat the lake trout, leave their catch on the ice for the eagles.
While totally legal, piles of lake trout left on the ice isn’t a pretty sight. In February 2021, one outraged fisherman filmed multiple piles of dead lake trout left on the ice and posted it to Facebook, where it caused a stir among anglers and non-anglers alike.
The depths where Sebago lakers live dictate the tackle. Reels must have the capacity to hold at least 100 yards of 8- to 12-pound-test braided line, and rods need to be stiff enough to set the hook into the hard mouth of a laker as much as 180 feet below.
During our visit, the lakers struck a variety of jigs and colors, with brighter chartreuse and orange working well, along with natural alewife colors. The fish seemed to respond to scent—both Hillier and Peterson used Berkley Gulp with good results. On the second day, when the trout were more aggressive, they showed no preference between the straight-tail and paddle-tail plastics. However, on the first day when the fish were picky, paddle tails, especially the 3-inch Keitech Swing Impact, had a clear edge.
A fishfinder isn’t absolutely necessary to catch lake trout through the ice, but you will catch considerably fewer fish without one. In addition to showing us how the lake trout reacted to different jigging cadences, the fishfinder revealed lakers holding further off the bottom, often in the middle of the water column, where strong red marks appeared in the yellow and blue marks that indicated a school of passing alewives. If we could get a jig to the same depth as these marks before they disappeared, a bite was nearly assured.
Lake trout are a fatty, oily fish, and sometimes carry a muddy flavor with them from the waters where they live. While the palatability of any fish is highly subjective, lake trout rank low on most fishermen’s lists of preferred table fare. If they had flaky, white fillets like perch and walleye, or pinkish, delicious flesh like salmon, there’d be no lakers “left for the eagles.” But they don’t, so fishermen, wanting to do the right thing per the regulations, cull the lake trout to give the salmon room to recover, abandon their catch on the ice. It left me feeling unsure about how to handle the fish I caught. We kept our first few for the smoker, but once we had all we needed (and a bit more) in our cooler, keeping more felt wasteful. Releasing them felt wrong as well—a new quandary for me. By the end of the trip, I’d kept several, released a few, and left a couple for the eagles.
The goal of these efforts is not eradication but population control. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wants Sebago to have fewer lake trout that grow to larger sizes—a more balanced ecosystem in the lake that allows salmon to thrive as well.
By the middle of the afternoon on the second day, the wind began blowing ferociously from the north, and after saying “one more fish” for our last two to three fish apiece, we packed up the snowmobiles and headed back. As I shut down my fishfinder to put it away, I found Hillier’s half-eaten donut in the case. The fishing had been so good, he’d never gotten around to finishing it.
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