Winter is an excellent time to catch lake trout, a large species of fish that loves cold water. If you’re targeting lake trout, also nicknamed lakers, here is a list of 21 tips to help you catch a lot of them.
1. Lower Line 40-60 Feet Deep
It is common to find lake trout fairly deep underwater, specifically in a range from 40 to 60 feet below. After all, they like cold water. So, lower your line to that depth. Use a fish finder or similar device to determine where exactly that is.
Of course, the fish could be swimming in deeper or shallower waters. In fact, if it’s late in the winter, they probably are in shallower waters. But this is a very common range to find them in, so it’s a good place to start if you don’t have any other ideas.
2. Find Drop-Offs
One of the absolute best places to find lake trout is in the water right below the cliff of a large underwater structure.
Lake trout love using these areas to hunt prey. It gives them a strategic advantage; if the creature they are hunting gets backed against the wall, they have nowhere to run. So, they corral as many little fish into such areas as they can and feast.
You should take advantage of the lakers’ preference for these areas and drop your bait down there. If your presentation is good, a fish is sure to bite. They’re eager to eat, so they probably won’t notice the difference when they come across your bait.
Fish go where they can eat, so if you figure out where that is, you can find them. And finding them is the hardest part of the battle.
3. Look in Shallow Water
Lake trout like cold water. They don’t go near the surface much in the summer because the water is much too warm for them, so you will almost certainly find them in deep waters during that time of year. However, in the winter, shallow water is of a much more likable temperature for these fish.
Late in the winter, especially, lake trout will be swimming a bit closer to the surface because of the diminishing food and oxygen supplies deeper underwater.
So, if you don’t find anything in deeper water, don’t be afraid to try searching shallow waters.
The scientific name for lake trout literally means “deep water fish,” but you shouldn’t read too much into that. They mainly like deep water because it’s cold. With all the water being colder in the winter, it’s the perfect time to catch these fish.
4. Look Where You Find Smaller Fish
Lake trout feed on silvery ciscoes, whitefish, smelt, shiners, and perch. If you happen to find any of these fish, you can know that you are going to find lake trout nearby. It’s probably just a matter of time.
You can practically get your own little food chain going down there. A tiny fish can strike at your line, only to be followed immediately by the prize you’re looking for: the lake trout.
Considering lake trout are much bigger than these baitfish, you may not even notice if a baitfish bites. So you really will end up with the perfect bait for a laker.
5. Try Making Sound
In addition to your lures that appeal to lake trout visually, you can also make noise. Get a noisy lure. It may really get the fishes’ attention.
Of course, the sound could also scare them away, so there’s no total guarantee here. It’s definitely worth trying, though. If the lake trout don’t notice shiny lures, they might become curious when they hear a weird noise from across the lake.
Get a little rattle made for fishing and attach it to your jig. It’ll make plenty of racket underwater. The sound will travel far, and fish are bound to notice.
6. Use Spoons
Spoons are lures that reflect light really well. I am not talking about the spoons you eat with, of course, but the shape of spoon lures is similar to the bowl of a spoon.
As a spoon falls in the water, it spins around like crazy, and, reflects light from above, beams of light are cast everywhere. When a fish sees a flash of light from a spoon from far away, it may get curious and go over to investigate. Then, it will be enticed to bite by whatever other jigs or bait you have on your line.
Spoon lures are very popular, and many fishing enthusiasts consider them among their favorite lures. They’re so popular because they get results. Try using one to catch lake trout and see if they live up to the hype.
7. Try the Airplane Jig
Airplane jigs are named as such because they fly around in circles like little airplanes. These jigs have proved effective at hooking lake trout for many years.
There is some talk that these jigs have gotten less effective over time though, as lake trout have adapted to them. This isn’t proven, of course, so you might have a lot of success with this jig, or you might not.
But that’s how fishing goes. Things are never completely predictable. Fish are living creatures, and their preferences just vary.
Regardless, the airplane jig has been very popular, so it’s worth a shot.
8. Troll Through the Ice
Trolling isn’t typically something you think of doing when ice fishing, but it can actually be a great jigging technique for catching lake trout.
In this day and age, it’s probably necessary to say that I’m not talking about Internet trolling, by the way.
This is how you troll when ice fishing. First, just let your lure fall slowly to the bottom. Jig slowly and gently. Then, while doing this, walk backward. Keep going until the lure is almost at the surface. Of course, you need to watch your step.
You can also try walking backward quickly without jigging at all.
Your odds of catching a lake trout using this method are very good since you’ll be covering so much depth. If you don’t get any bites, walk the line back towards the bottom again. Be ready to react if a fish bites while you’re doing so. You’ll need to step back and set the hook.
Trolling isn’t just something to do on boats. You can do it ice fishing and catch tons of lake trouts.
9. Use a White Marabou Jig
Here’s another jig to try. Marabou jigs can be a powerful weapon when all else fails.
These jigs look pretty unique: each one is a ball with a bunch of long, thin strands of fabric. I can easily see how a fish would confuse it for some sort of insect. The jigs come in different colors, but you’re going to want to use a white one in this case. White is a color that looks natural to lake trout.
The idea behind jigs is to fool fish into thinking they’re seeing a living creature. This jig is highly convincing in its deception. That makes it an effective tool.
10. Use Sonar
As with all ice fishing, it helps immensely to use technology. With a fish finder or similar device, you can figure out the shape of the land underwater and easily find fish.
Is that cheating? Nah. Why not use all the tools available to you? If we wanted to remove all technology from fishing, we could try to be primitive and fish with our bare hands. But tools are developed to make us more effective fishers. Just because you have a way to “see” underwater, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a challenge to catch fish.
There are some really nice fish finders available at a premium price, but you can also get some really useful devices on a budget, too. I should know. I made an article that will help you find some of the best fish finders for ice fishing available.
There are devices that you can drop straight into the water, right through the hole you dug, and they will send data to your smartphone. Now that’s cool, and really helpful, too.
A fish finder can help you identify structures that lake trout tend to feed near, so you’ll be able to head right over to a prime location for catching them. It’s a really useful tool.
11. Fish With a Friend
There are more benefits to fishing with your friends than just enjoying good company, at least when it comes to catching lake trout. This has to do with the fact that lake trouts rarely travel alone themselves.
If you have a friend fishing a short distance from you, don’t fail to notice what happens over there. If your friend catches a fish, go right away to the hole they caught it at and put your line down there. Lake trout travel in groups, so there are likely to be others right there.
Of course, I hope you will allow your friend to have the same privilege. It’s more fun when everyone catches fish, right?
The ability to cover a lot of ground is a unique benefit of ice fishing. Having a friend nearby to team up with can really increase your efficiency.
Even if you are fishing alone, you can use tip-ups to have multiple lines in the water, if that is legal where you are fishing. When you see a tip-up flag go up, it’s the same principle as before. Get a line back in that hole as quickly as possible.
Because lake trout travel together, when you find one, you’re likely to find another.
12. Jig With Consistent Rhythm
Lake trout hunt mainly based on sight. When they see something they want to eat, they will dart at the spot where they expect it to be. They are effective hunters in that way.
If you jig too erratically, with no pattern, these fish are not going to be able to strike properly.
See, their method depends on there being some consistency. Say they’re trying to catch a fish who’s traveling in a straight line. A fish is not likely to change speed or turn around randomly. It will only do so if it has a reason to. The lake trout know this.
Their hunting strategy is based on that fact. Like shooting a clay pigeon in the air, a lake trout starts rushing towards the future location of the fish, knowing that it can arrive at that spot at the exact same time the little fish does.
That’s why too much erraticism makes it too hard for the lake trout to catch your bait. It’d be great to be unpredictable if you were a small fish trying to avoid getting caught, but that’s not the case. You want your jig to lure the fish in by looking lively, but it needs to be easy to catch, too.
If you’re there just jigging randomly, the laker will go for the jig only to have it dart away from them at the last moment.
That’s why you need to find a way to maintain a consistent rhythm. If you really need to, you could listen to music and follow the beat.
How fast or slow should the rhythm be? There’s no one rule for that. It’s best to try different speeds.
13. Go For An Area Between Two Points
The basin between two points is a prime spot for lake trout to feed.
A point is a spot in a lake where the bottom is shallower than the surrounding area. It’s basically like a little underwater plateau.
What I am describing here is a fairly specific situation, but not an uncommon one. You want to look for two points near to each other. The lower land surrounding these points will make for an amazing horseshoe-shaped trap.
Studies on fish have shown that they don’t like to go over structures they encounter. Instead, they swim around. If the tiny fish could just learn better, they wouldn’t get eaten by lake trout so easily.
Because the fish do end up going around points, they end up in this horseshoe trap. And lake trout are swimming there too, feasting. To the fisherman, the one at the top of the food chain, naturally, this sounds like a great opportunity.
This area I have described is one that is often forgotten about, however. So, go try it out for yourself. You are likely to have great success and maybe even catch some especially big lake trout.
By the way, to actually find such a spot, you should look at a detailed topographical map of the lake you’re at, or use a fish finder device.
14. Find Any Structures
I have mentioned already how you want to find areas near big cliffs and how the area between two points is very productive. This leads me to another, more general piece of advice: look for pretty much any structure underwater.
You’re not always going to be able to find big drop-offs or horseshoe shapes. But if you’re struggling to figure out where the lake trout are hiding, you should try going to literally any underwater structure.
Open water is not advantageous to lake trout. It gives prey too much time and space to escape. However, if there is a structure nearby, they can use it to trap prey.
If you see a predator coming for you, you are going to turn and run. If there’s a big wall behind you, though, you’re out of luck.
This is why you are more likely to find lake trout near structures than you are by looking randomly in open water.
As I’ve said already, you need to go where the lake trout will expect to find food. Try to think about things from their perspective. Do I want to go on a long-distance chase through open water, or engage in a short sprint to catch my prey? (Of course, humans are more suited to be long-distance hunters, not sprinters, but we’re not fish).
Don’t just rely on trial and error when searching for these fish. If you don’t have any better leads, go to whatever structures you identify underwater.
15. Use White, But Try Other Colors
White is a color that looks natural to lake trout when it comes to jigs, so it’s a wise and safe bet to use it. However, as usual, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If a white jig is not doing the trick, don’t hesitate to try other colors.
Sometimes lake trout in an area have simply learned to ignore certain bait. I’m no scientist, but I do know that animals adapt in whatever ways they can to increase their chances of survival. Learning to ignore artificial bait, since it does not benefit them at all, is something that will help with that.
If you can throw a curveball, though, by presenting jigs that they have never seen before, you might catch them off guard and see results once again. If they see something that’s unfamiliar yet still looks like food, they might bite.
Still, white or silvery colors should be your first choice for a jig, since they look similar to their food. But you can get other colors as backups and use them if the white jig doesn’t work. It’s always good to be able to experiment. Spending all your time sticking to one strategy when it’s not working just isn’t productive. Don’t run in circles.
16. Start Jigging Immediately
As you put your line in the water, perhaps you are waiting until it gets to the desired depth before jigging. This isn’t bad, but you could try doing a bit more.
Instead of doing nothing, why not start jigging immediately? As the line descends, the jig will move in whatever motion it’s designed to move in, and the fish you’re targeting will notice.
Lake trout could be deep underwater, but they could also be close to the surface. It’s hard to know for sure. So, if you jig while the line descends, you’re going to be covering all depths more effectively.
Now, lake trout could still take notice of your line even if you don’t jig, sure, but by jigging as soon as the line is in the water, you’re going to be sending a more obvious “signal,” so to speak, to fish near and a bit less near. Expect fish to take notice.
17. Don’t Overreact to Bumps
Lake trout are going to rush over to interesting things they see pretty quickly, including your lures and jig. Sometimes, when rushing in close, they’ll bump into your jig. They’re just checking it out, seeing if it’s worth eating.
If you notice this bump, don’t assume the fish isn’t interested. There’s no need to check your lure. Just keep jigging. As you do this, the lake trout will most likely soon turn around and take a bite.
Patience is a valuable attribute to have. If you overreact to little things, you’ll miss out on the chance to hook a lot of fish. But if you hold steady and maintain the illusion that you have something that the fish should bite, you’ll trap it.
It’s like a mind game. The fish is taking its time, trying to make sure that it has found something legitimate and tasty. You’re trying to catch it. Either the fish loses interest because you stop jigging, or you keep jigging and the fish gives in and bites.
This is the type of thing fishers learn through experience. But follow this tip, and you’ll be getting a head start.
18. Add Bait to Your Lure
Lake fish hunt primarily through sight. However, we have seen already that sound can attract them, too. I wonder what other senses we can appeal to.
As you might guess, we can attract them with delicious (from their perspective) scents.
Doing this is simple. If you have a lure large enough to hook some meat onto it, do so. You can place a minnow on two hooks, or even just place a minnow head on one.
Humans understand instinctively that fresh food is more appealing than old food, and it’s safe to apply the same logic to fish. Many fish are happy to bite at something that simply looks like food, but sometimes more is required. If they not only see something swimming around but smell it, too, that’s a done deal.
Sight, sound, and smell: the golden trio that will catch you some lake trout (unless the sound is scaring them away; don’t use it if that is happening). I suppose taste comes into play here too, but by the time they taste the bait, they should already be hooked.
19. Use a Leader
Lake trout have sharp teeth, so they can bite right through your line. A leader will keep them from doing so, that is the entire purpose of a leader.
A leader is an extra bit of line that you tie to your fishing line. It’s called a leader because it goes first.
How annoying is it to find out the whole bottom of your fishing line is gone? It becomes extra time and effort spent preparing another hook when that time could have been spent with the line in the water.
That’s why you need to use a leader when targeting sharp-toothed fish like lake trout.
Leaders do have other benefits, too. For example, they help to reduce the visibility of your fishing line, and that means fish are less likely to be suspicious about the weird object in front of them.
So, leaders are good to use in fishing all the time. And when ice fishing for lake trout, you definitely need to use one.
20. Expect Bites As The Line Falls
As you lower your line down into the lake, you may not expect anything to happen. After all, how eager can the fish be? You’d be surprised.
Remember that lake trout can be swimming at many different depths. You should be prepared for one to bite at any time. When that happens, you’ll need to quickly set your hook and reel the fish in.
Of course, for this to happen, you need to make sure you’re lowering the line gradually. Maybe you like to just rocket it down as fast as it goes, but you’re probably passing right by fish who won’t even be able to find your jig anymore with it flying by so quickly.
Personally, lowering my line and having a fish bite before I’m even done sounds like an ideal situation, and to have that happen repeatedly is the type of thing I can daydream about. I doubt that many would disagree.
Lake trout are hungry, and in the winter, they’re in shallower waters than usual. Don’t make things hard for them. Take your time and get ready to haul up some fish.
21. Use Braided Line
Not only is braided line easier to handle in wintery conditions, but it also makes fishing at great depth considerably easier. With a stretchy, more typical line, it’s a bit hard to set the hook on a fish 50 feet underwater. This is easier with braided line.
Since lake trout are often found deep underwater, you want to use line that makes it as easy as possible to work at those depths.
Plus, braided line is just good for ice fishing in general.
Hopefully, all these tips will land you many great lake trout! Remember to throw back as many as you can, though, because we have to conserve!
You can see my sources for these tips down below.