Lake Trout: Alaska’s Tyrant of the Lakes


Lake trout are called by many different names in the places where they exist. Probably one of the most common is “mackinaw” a word that is just as symbolic of the great north woods as are the words pike or muskie.  In Canada and the Great Lakes, the strongholds of lake trout in North America, one commonly hears these brutes referred to as lakers, salmon trout, lake char, toulandi, fork tail trout, Great Lakes trout, gray trout, forktail trout, mackinaw trout, togue trout, or salmon trout.  Whew!

In Alaska we call them simply “lakers.” Lakers, whose scientific name is (Salvelinus namaycush) are as native to Alaska as they are to Canada or the northeastern or upper mid-west parts of the U.S. The word, Salvelins puts lake trout squarely in the char family and the namaycush part of their nameis said to derive from a native American word meaning “tyrant of the lakes.”  Massive in size and aggressive in their feeding habits, lakers are every bit the bully and are as likely as pike to feed on other fish, aquatic creatures and small birds or ducks.

Lake trout have a body shape similar to that of trout and salmon. Unlike other char, they generally have small, light-colored, irregular shaped worm-like spots on a silvery-to-dark background; but color can vary considerably at different seasons, in different habitats, and between populations. Males have a slightly longer, more pointed snout than females. The flesh of lake trout varies from creamy white to deep orange and is delicious eating.

The Tyrant in Action

Melissa Norris of Fish Alaska magazine and I were lucky enough to be right smack in the middle of nearly non-stop lake trout action one bright June day in western Alaska. Anchored up just below the “Narrows” where Grosvenor Lake drains into Coville Lake at Katmai Land’s Grosvenor Camp, we fished like maniacs as these brawny torpedoes engaged in an absolutely classic example of laker-frenzy in the spring. 

Flying over the area’s lakes and streams that day, I could see in my mind’s eye the thousands of lake trout that I knew had to be cruising the shores, patrolling the creek outlets, and ambushing most anything that swam during their brief, early-summer time in shallow water. We couldn’t wait to get at them. 

A perfect landing at the camp brought us right to our waiting boat. Quickly attaching the motor and rigging up the rods, we headed straight for the frothing turmoil that was clearly evident right off the bank just beyond a huge set of bleached moose antlers that seem to point the way right to “the” spot. 

Sea gulls and terns crashed into the water all around us dive-bombing the sockeye salmon smolt that were moving down from one lake to the other on their out migration journey to the sea. The lake trout, plus a few Dolly Varden char, accounted for the astonishing piscatorial action that was occurring simultaneously on both the surface of the water as well as beneath it. As we stared down into the water through Polaroid glasses, it was easy to see dozens of huge, schooled-up yellowish bodies darting everywhere after their nearly helpless little victims.

Soon, we had those flaxen sided bodies darting after our flies as well. Tan, yellow and white bunny leeches and articulated bunnies on ten pound test did the trick on lots of seven and eight pound lakers and Dollies, as did orange bead-head woolly buggers and zonkers of various colors. Some of my yellow maribou pike flies were big winners too.

“Wait till you see the nervous water on the surface and then cast right into it,” our guide, Sean Johnson, had recommended. It was easy advice to follow. Most of the time the bait balls of smolt sliding down the current were clearly evident with tiny silvery bodies bursting from the water like popcorn. But, even if they hadn’t been, the kamakazi birds would have given it all away. Pandemonium reigned. From time to time, though, the water would go quiet as the schools of smolt were swept out into Colville Lake behind us and spread out over a less concentrated area than in the narrows. 

“Hook-up,” Melissa called as she struggled with a fat, gold-plated laker. He didn’t even come to the surface after taking her fly but rocketed deep and fast away from the boat. Slowly but surely she coaxed him back within range of the net. But he was having none of that. Next thing she knew her rod tip pointed straight down as he headed under the boat.

“Feels like I’m fishing in saltwater,” she said, struggling to keep her rod from banging against the boat. “This is one hefty fish.” Carefully steering her rod around to the other side, she was finally able to tame him–a 30 inch-plus hog.

After dozens more hook-ups with a variety of flies, attracting these voracious predators began to seem almost too easy. So, we decided to switch to poppers on eight-pound test for some real surface action. Melissa had never fished poppers or cast them, so with a warning that they were more difficult to get distance with than most flies, we showed her the quick little jerk and snap on the surface of the water, which creates the “pop”that gets fish all excited.

Poppers, doing what they were designed to do, must seem to lakers exactly like wriggling, twisting, pulsating little fish doing their stuff because these large-mouthed behemoths slammed them with the same vigor with which they make lunch out of hapless smolt. Seeing that action on the surface is just as fun as watching an eager trout rise to a dry fly, but much more explosive. The bigger the popper, the more volcanic the strike. Sometimes the fish missed, and sometimes we struck just a second to soon or too late, but nevertheless, there’s nothing like popper fishing for rip-roaring fun.

River Fishing for Lakers

We also had some great after dinner fishing in the Kulik River during the two evenings that we spent at Kulik Lodge on this trip. Although we pursued (and caught) many of the rainbows that the river is famous for, we also hooked up a number of lakers that had forsaken their post where the Kulik River dumps into Nonvianuk Lake for a charge right up into the river itself to chase smolt.   

The recommended fly for the river was a flesh colored articulated cone-head bunny fly that had been reported by the guides to be “slaying them.” We thought (mistakenly, as it turned out) that they were just talking about rainbow fishing but were delighted to find that the lakers were loving it to death as well. It was wonderful to wade and cast to them.

A lovely narrow side channel where the river splits just before dumping into the lake turned out to be loaded with fish. At times I could see lakers in water so shallow that I couldn’t believe it. Just as in the lake, they were slamming the pods of smolt that drifted down the river, but they were also actively feeding in the deeper part of the channel.

“Put a split shot on your leader and drift the fly right down the middle of the channel and watch what happens,” I’d called to Melissa. A large laker smacked her fly on her first cast.  These fish weren’t as large as those we’d caught at the narrows earlier in the day, but we had no complaints. Just to have a fish on every second or third cast was satisfying enough.

Spring Feeding and Fall spawning

Spring and fall are the two seasons of the year where lake trout can be found in shallow water.  Emerging from under the ice during break-up, lakers come to the surface from great depths to feed along the shore and creek outlets for crustaceans, insects, and small bait fish before returning to the deep water when summer comes.

As the water cools in late fall, lake trout follow the warmer water and the food that it contains up toward the surface.  And, like all char, fall is also the time when lakers spawn. Typically a solitary fish, lake trout only school up or congregate during spawning season. Males will usually be the first to arrive at the spawning beds, where they are often observed preparing the locations for egg laying. They prefer rocky, cobbled substrate areas on ledges or on the bottom to depths of forty feet. After the females arrive, spawning takes place at night.  Biologists report that most populations of lake trout spawn only every other year.

Lake trout do not become sexually mature until six or seven years of age, and they do not build redds as other fish do.  Instead, the fertilized eggs simply drop to the bottom or scatter among the rocks. The eggs are on their own, surviving in the crevices between the rocks until their yolk sac is absorbed, a process that takes nearly five or six months in their cold-water environment.  Typically in late winter or early spring, the fingerlings move into deeper waters in search of zooplankton and other food.

Fishing Lakers in Mid-Summer

Heading out to fish for lake trout in mid summer is a much different experience than “smolting” in the spring. Now the lakers have gone deep and trolling is the preferred method for taking them. Many lake anglers report that the fish’s propensity to hang off of ledges in various lakes often makes them accessible at less than the 50-100 feet of water that characterizes their typical hot weather haunts.

We set out to test that theory this past summer with a trip to Lake Louise off of the Glenn Highway. With the reputation for harboring lots of big lake trout (a 30-lb 15-oz fish came from there in the early 70’s) and being relatively accessible to the Anchorage area, it was the perfect place for a quick week-end trip in mid-July.

Extremely hot, dry weather had driven the fish even deeper than normal, but we tried thinking positively. We’d arrived in the midst of a wake for a recently deceased local old-timer, but the historic Lake Louise Lodge (where one can easily see the walls of the original lodge that has now been significantly enlarged) made us welcome. We decided to just relax until evening, when, we hoped, the water would be cooler and the fish more cooperative.

The extraordinary light that Alaska’s long July evenings are famous for brought a sheen to the glassy water as we set out that evening. Four mountain ranges were visible from various points around the lake where we trolled (unsuccessfully) with both spinning rods and fly rods rigged with sink-tip lines. Bill & Shirley Uptegraft of Lost Lure Tours, our guides, finally suggested that we head back toward Susitna and Tyone Lakes where some areas had been fishing well. Unfortunately, the action there was just lukewarm.  Several times we hooked up, but they were small fish, and we never really experienced that adrenalin rush that accompanies truly exciting fishing. Opting for an early morning departure the next day, we headed back. Mists were rising on the lake and, nothing stirred.

Absolutely still water greeted us early the next morning and we headed for one of the well-known ledges that had not produced the night before. Things were different now, and we had a fish on almost immediately. The rod bent, Melissa hauled back to set the hook and we were in business.  Fishing one of Bill’s huge green tadpole lures had done the trick. Probably a near 30-inch fish, (we’d forgotten the measuring tape) this one definitely got us interested.

Two more fish almost as large followed in quick succession and it was clear that we were now in laker territory. Trolling at about thirty feet of depth right off the ledge seemed to be the ticket, and I was wishing I’d brought my Teeny 450 line instead of just my 200.  Bill was towing the raft behind the boat in case we wanted to go to shore in it, so Wayne and I decided to take it out and troll with the fly rods right at the ledge. We had a couple of fish on but had trouble keeping them hooked in the squishy rubber raft. Meanwhile, three more nice fish had been brought to the boat, but then it was time to go. We had a long drive back to Anchorage.

More Summer Lakers

If you’re prepared to troll, summer fishing for lakers is good on many of Alaska’s lakes. One that I particularly enjoy is Brooks Lake in Katmai National Park. After my annual guide trips to Katmailand’s Brooks Lodge in June I always stay to fish for awhile. Sometimes it’s for trout, sometimes for pike, and sometimes for lakers.

One particular day we had a chance to take one of the lodge boats out to fish while waiting for the late afternoon plane. Rex, one of the lodge guides took us right to an underwater ledge not too far from the boat launch. While he regaled us with the tale of a huge laker that had been caught there just that morning by an 8-year old girl, we hooked a couple of fish. Nothing like the 8-year old’s fish, he declared, and we kept on fishing. I was glad to hear that it had been a girl who was besting us, however.

In a nearby cove, where the pale green water changed quickly to dark aqua indicating a steep drop off, we scored.

“What do I have?” Sandy asked. “It’s a really dark fish, nothing like the others we’ve been catching.” It had slammed the fat, green lure, drawn the line tight, and maintained a large bend in the rod in spite of Sandy’s best efforts to control him. He never jumped and his runs were more like the steady pull of a tractor than the rambunctious gyrations of a fish.  “I wish I had a heavier rod,” was about all she could say.

We landed the fish after a long contest, amazed at how darkly colored it was. No golden sides or belly on this guy. Even his caudal fins were rusty colored and dark instead of the typical tangerine hue that tints most laker fins.

Lots of other fish came to our different lures and flies that afternoon. One particularly good fly, always for sale at Brooks lodge, is a white-orange concoction of snowy cactus chenille with a zonker-type bunny wing and tail, a hot pink chenille head, and matching rubber legs, known as the Katmai Leech.  I thought it was pretty smolty-looking in the water, but its attraction just might have been that it was just so big and wiggly.

At the opposite end of successful flies was the old salmon stand-by, the starlight leech. In both black and purple, they proved as good at laker-getting that afternoon as they always are at salmon-getting. But, fly fisher that I am, I have to admit that the best fish takers of the afternoon were definitely deeply trolled lures.

Ice Fishing for Lake Trout

Lake Trout, along with northern pike and burbot, are species frequently targeted for winter fishing in the Great Lakes, in Canada, and also in Alaska. Lakers taken from under the ice can weigh up to twenty pounds. Prized for their tasty, pinkish flesh, these large fish are much sought after during the winter. Most ice-fishers that fish where lakers are present find that their day’s catch will almost always include a variety of species including a fat, tasty laker or two. Surprising to many, lakers tend to forage in shallow water under cover of the ice and often are taken in twenty-feet of water or less.

The preferred method for ice fishing for lake trout is by jigging brightly colored lures that are baited with fresh herring, whitefish, or smelt, all particular favorites in the lakers’ diet.  Spoons are the favorite lure and red, orange, fluorescent blue and green with silver or white are recommended colors.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game sport Fish Division has an excellent pamphlet entitled “Winter Fishing” that is available from the ADF&G office at 1300 College Road Fairbanks, AK 99701.

Laker Hot Spots Around the State

The Richardson Highway in Interior Alaska also provides road access to several lakes that have earned a reputation for good laker fishing. They include Summit, Paxson, and Fielding Lakes. Crosswind, a fly-out lake nearby, is another hot spot. Paxson is well known as the lake from which the Alaska Department of Fish & Game took brood-stock to begin its lake trout stocking program in 1988.

Harding Lake, located about four miles southeast from the confluence of the Salcha and Tanana Rivers, lies about 45 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. Although currently experiencing dropping water levels (and a ban on pike fishing as a result) lake trout fishing continues to be good due to the now naturally reproducing fish that have been stocked there in years past. Monster fish are reported, and a 31 lb 13 oz fish was caught there in 1997.

The Delta Junction Chamber of Commerce web site www.deltachamber.org lists good lake trout fishing on the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Shainin, Chandler, Kurupa, Elusive and Itkillik Lakes, and in Selby-Narvak, Wild, Helpmejack, Chandalar, Swuaw and Walker Lakes on the South Slope.

Of course, in the Bristol Bay area, we must list Grosvner and Kulik Lake, both famous lake trout producers, as well as the daunting but productive Lake Clark, which has given up a 33-lb fish.

In South Central Alaska lakes Louise, Stephan, Susitna and Tyone  are good producers. Both Hidden and Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula have good stocks of lake trout as does Kenai lake. The turbidity of Kenai Lake makes it one of the more difficult to fish, however. Tustemena is another favorite lake on the Peninsula with catches of 20 lbs or more reported.

Clarence Lake, a fly-in lake northeast of Talkeetna in the Talkeetna Mountains, also ranks at the top of many lists, if for no other reason than because the Alaska record lake trout comes from there. That fish weighed 47 pounds and was caught in 1970 by then 12-year old Daniel Thorsness of Anchorage. Although not stocked for the past 8 or 9 years, Clarence still contains a good population of naturally re-producing lakers according to ADF&G. (The world record laker is a 72 pound fish caught in 1995 in Canada’s Northwest Territories’ Great Bear Lake.)

The longest lived of all of North America’s fresh water salmonids, growth rates of lakers vary from place to place depending on diet, water temperature, altitude, and genetics. Alaska lake trout are known to live longer than 40 years but the typical life-span is 20 years. Still, that longevity has earned lakers the nickname, “old man of the lakes.” The maximum size attained in some Alaskan populations probably exceeds 50 pounds, and 8- to 10-pound fish can be taken in many of the state’s fisheries.

Daily bag and possession limits on most Alaska lakes are kept to one or two fish, due to the lake trout’s low growth rates, which result from alternate year spawning, older age at maturity, and occasional scarcity of food in the large, deep, cold lakes that lake trout prefer. Because these same factors make lake trout susceptible to  overharvest by commercial and recreational fisheries, typically, just one or perhaps two fish per day can be retained. Occasionally a 24-inch slot limit is in effect, with release required of all fish below that size. It’s always wise to check ADF&G regs when fishing a specific spot for lakers.

Promise Yourself Some Spring Fishing

Lake trout are definitely not the most actively pursued of Alaska’s sport fish. In fact, they are pretty much ignored in many areas of the state. Especially in the spring, before the salmon arrive, and when many areas are closed to protect spawning rainbows, lake trout can provide some heart-stopping excitement for anglers anxious to get out on the water, however.

So, promise yourself that this spring you’re going to hitch up the boat, inflate the float tube, or load the canoe on the top of the car and head out for a spring camping and fishing week-end to re-introduce yourself to this great sport fish.  You just might get hooked all over again on a fish that you’ve been neglecting, “the old man of the lakes.”

 

Some Interesting Facts about Lake Trout

  • For more than half a century, lake trout comprised the most valuable commercial fishery in the Upper Great Lakes. Then overfishing and the onslaught of the sea lamprey from the late 1930s and into the 1950s effectively eliminated this fish from most of the lakes. With control of the lamprey, laker population levels are now rebounding well.
  • An unusual form of lake trout, called the cisowet, occurs in the deep waters of Michigan’s Lake Superior. This “fat trout” spawns at depths greater than 300 feet and is edible only when smoked. In Lake Superior individuals exist that cover the entire spectrum from this odd species to the familiar form of lake trout.
  • Lake trout are known to hybridize with brook trout where the range of the two species overlap. Hatcheries have successfully hybridized them by fertilizing lake trout eggs with brook trout sperm. The resulting hybrid is called the “splake.” Splake released in the Great Lakes and recaptured 5 or 6 years later have weighed up to 16 pounds.

(Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)