Cold water and Vermont lake trout are an opportunity to look forward to every year. As many of you know the River Rat team has been targeting spring lake trout heavily for the past several years. We have even created a whole line of lures off our spring fishing experiences! In this blog I will share with you what I have learned about catching these spring monsters in shallow, easy to access waters. It does not take much to get out there and catch these fish. Some methods that are very successful are trolling, casting, and drifting.
The first thing I want to highlight is how important the safe handling and catch and release practices are to these fish. Keeping your fingers out of their gills highly increases the survival rate of lake trout, as with any fish. I tend to try and pick them up by their tail and keeping my hands behind their gills. It's hard to always do this but I have been very careful to practice this on our fish so far in 2020. Releasing these fish alive and well is very critical to the continuation of this fishery, and the livelihood of charter captains. We catch a ton of fish in the spring and might keep one or two out of all of those. Please be respectful of this fishery and release more than you catch! Sustainability of Vermont’s fisheries is key to the longevity of our sport. Be respectful of other boats and anglers as well. Follow the rules of the water and go with the flow of the boats already fishing.
I started trolling Lake trout in 2013, when I was 15 years old- out of a 13-foot canoe rigged up with oars. I picked up many large fish by trolling back and forth under my own power using the cheapest gear I could find. It was a very rewarding experience that gave me a passion and respect for these beautiful and powerful fish. I eventually upgraded to a 12-foot boat with a 5-horse motor. I did not own the boat long but caught many fish out of it in the spring that I had it. After a short time of owning it a friend offered up an amazing 14-footer for sale, and that is the end of the story. That 14-footer has become the fishing machine of the River Rat team. I have heard many things from many people regarding how crazy I am doing the things I do with that boat. You don’t need anything fancy to catch these fish, and many other species the lake has to offer.
Drifting with dead bait is effective, as well as casting with dead bait. For this, using smelt and other dead bait fish is ideal (check regulations before doing so). You can utilize this while casting; throw out a line with dead bait while casting a high-quality stick bait or spoon such as a little Cleo to increase your chances. Drift fishing can be done on a windy day from almost any form of watercraft. Attach a sinker about 18 inches from your bait and let that bait suspend off bottom. It will eventually run into a hungry laker! Casting can also be done from shore or a boat, and is an effective way to catch these fish as well. My favorite form of fishing is trolling. While trolling we deploy 4-6 rods with inline boards attached, depending on boat capacity. This gets baits out and away from the boat and motor. We have seen this drastically increase our catch rate.
What to look for:
We start fishing as soon as the ice is out. This year we even cut ice at the launch to get out sooner than we ever have! We were fishing lakers in mid-January and then started back up in early March. During this time the water is cold, and the fish move up in the water column. It makes them very easy to target using inexpensive methods. On our first trip of the year (spring) we look for areas where warm water meets cold water, transition lines if you will. An example of this could be where river outflow meets main lake water. Also included in this is where dark rock cliffs warm from the sun, that will also create a transition zone. These areas are key because this time of year baitfish move into the warmer shallow water, and the hungry lake trout are not far behind.
Structure is not necessary but is always something we look for. We tend to look for sand, rock, and mud flats adjacent to deep water. Distinct contours are also a great place to target these fish as they transition depth zones chasing bait. We also like to look for nice rock-sand transitions; these have produced well on many occasions. The one necessity is that deep water must be close by, within several hundred yards.
When targeting these spring fish, we are typically trolling in 7-15 feet of water (though you can go deeper). When fishing these depths we try to run a variety of lures that dive from 4 feet to about 10 feet, this has produced the best results, and consistent fish hitting the deck. As the spring progresses, we move further down the water column as the fish regress to their summer depths, and cooler water. By June we are fishing in 50-80 feet of water for the same fish we had been catching in 7 feet. To do this we switch over to trolling spoons and down riggers.
Spring lake trout are odd to say the least. They are one of the only fish I have seen to become more aggressive and less finicky in freezing waters. While trolling we try to maintain a 2.2 trolling speed or right around that zone depending on wind and wave conditions. If you are casting, a medium- to fast retrieve works well to trigger bites from these aggressive fish. I have caught a few fish bringing in lines while clearing them as fast as I can due to a fish already on another line. These fish are AGGRESSIVE this time of year!
We utilize heavy duty trolling poles that are 8-9 feet long and run 25 pound backing with 20 pound fluoro leaders. This is not a necessity though, lakers can be caught on almost any tackle. I would suggest not going lighter than a 12 pound test though. Light tackle makes the fight 10x better but is not always healthy for the fish. We like to get them in and back to the water as quickly as possible with minimal stress. High quality spinning rods and trolling rods will produce the most enjoyable experience. Can't go wrong with a great Ugly Stik!
There is an endless variety of baits to use for spring lake trout, but we have honed in on some key patterns that are always catching fish no matter the conditions. For casting, a silver or gold spoon is great, as well as similar stick baits. Remember, these fish are chasing bait in the shallows of Lake Champlain so matching the hatch is your best bet. This time of year, the baits to match are smelt and alewife, as they are the most heavily fed on fish during this time. Patterns such as our Fang and Golden Ticket have been our fall back for the last several years. Other patterns such as the Patriot and Fire Tiger have also produced many fish during this time of year.
Finding the fish is going to be the hardest part about targeting spring lake trout. I’m not going to give any spots away but look for rocky shorelines, dark cliffs, and river mouths. All must be near deeper water to achieve maximum success. Use lifelike baits that mimic the current forage in that area. We have seen with clear water that running silver and black produces best, turbid water run gold and black. There are a ton of other colors that catch fish but those will catch them every time. Being safe is one of the top priorities while catching these fish. During this time of year surface temp is between 32 and 36 degrees. Staying dry, and having a buddy are always a must. Give someone responsible your float plan just in case! I look forward to seeing many of you take advantage of this great fishery Vermont has to offer. Give us a wave or a shout if you see the little River Rat boat out there with its crew aboard. There is nothing better to do given the current state of affairs!