Chasing Mac’s – How to Catch Lake Trout on the Fly

Seemingly, little is known about chasing the mighty Mac with a fly rod. Most hardcore Lake Trout fishermen target these freshwater giants on spoons and plugs with downriggers and lead core lines. They troll deep structure where lake trout congregate to feed on baitfish and freshwater crustaceans. Catching the lake trout in deep water with a fly rod is possible, however, it is similar to trolling with spinning gear rather than casting a fly rod. Lake Trout are a cold-water fish and their range stretches throughout the providences of Canada, great lakes, and other northern US states. Although they have been introduced to other countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, and South America, all of their ancestors can be traced back to North America. Lake Trout are not actually trout, they are the largest freshwater Char species and can live up to 40 years. They have extremely slow growth rates but slow growth certainly does not mean small size. They can grow to over 100 pounds in certain lakes but they average between 5-15 pounds in most areas. 

The best times of year to target these fish on flies is early spring during Ice out or late fall prior to spawn and ice over. The fish are up shallow, feeding on spawning whitefish and other baitfish that cruise the ice shelves during spring break up and in the fall they are up shallow preparing to spawn. It is, of course, best practice to leave them be during their spawning period as loss of habitat, rising waters temperatures, and pollution threaten this cold water giant. 

My favorite time of year to target these fish is early spring during ice-out, shortly after venturing out onto a frozen lake is no longer safe. The disintegrating ice shelf provides cover for Lakers to ambush their prey. Lake Trout love to chase and more often than not, you can watch them follow your flies out from underneath the rotten ice and take your presentation right next to your feet! Finding success, like many other species, requires putting in the time to do your homework and putting yourself in the right positions to catch fish. You will want to look at bathymetric maps of the lake you plan to fish and find steep drops and points to cast off of. During the spring hunt, timing is everything. A few days to early and you will not find open water and a few days too late, the fish will have moved out to deeper water which makes catching them on a fly far more challenging. 

Oliver Ancans Lake Trout on the Fly

When targeting Lake Trout during the spring getting you fly deep is not as important, the water is still chilly from the winter months and you will most likely not be fishing in over 6-10 feet of water. A 10’ versa leader and lightly weight baitfish imitation on a floating line will be plenty to reach the depths necessary for spring and fall lake trout. Lake trout are known for their aggressive strikes and can rip line off of your reel as you hooked into a freight train. Presentation is key and if it is not quite right, they may nip at the tail of your fly rather than inhale it. I have found that it is best to experiment with your retrieval pattern. I have found that keeping your rod tip in the waters and utilizing a short fast strip retrieve works well for inducing a strike. Lakers have very hard, boney mouths so a hard strip strike is necessary and tent to not be leader shy so I use a fairly heavy tippet up to 20Lb fluorocarbon to get the job done. Oftentimes in the spring and fall, the fish are much closer to the bank than you think, I have spotted them cruising in less than a foot of water so making a long cast is not always necessary. Enticing a Lake Trout to eat a fly is not the challenge, the challenge lies within trying to find the fish. We have spent days tracking down good locations to find Lakers from shore but if you are willing to put the time in, you have a good chance of catching a few of these beautiful fish. 

Tips and Tricks

  1. Rods and Reels: A 7-10wt depending on the size of flies, as well as the size of the lake trout in the water you will be fishing in. Big lake trout pull hard, so a reel with a good smooth drag is a key in finding success. 
  2. Lines: I have targeted lake trout utilizing full sinking lines, intermediate lines and floating lines. The type of line you will need will be heavily dependent on the water you intend to fish. One of my favorite methods is to use a floating line and with a long fluorocarbon leader. This helps provide more of a jigging actions to your weighted fly and seems to induce a strike more regularly than a level presentation. To be safe I always carry a few detachable sink tips which will help me change my presentation if need be. Oliver Ancans Lake Trout on the Fly
  3. Tippet and Leader: I tend to tie my own leaders so I have exactly what I want. Depending on the depth, I use four or five sections of fluorocarbon with the heaviest section being 40 pound test which taper down to the tippet section which is 15-20 pound test. 
  4. Net: A large rubber landing net will help the fish keep most of their protective slime and allow you to keep the fish in the water while you unhook and prepare to take photos. 
  5. Wading: Your favorite pair of waders and wading boots (if fishing in the early spring or fall from shore) Waders will make your experience a little more tolerable.Oliver Ancans Lake Trout on the Fly
  6. Flies: Big flashy streamers and weighted baitfish or leech imitations work very well for lake trout. Fish them slow and strip strike at the slightest tap or loss of contact with your fly. Big lake trout can take surprisingly light for their size.
  7. Set the hook hard! Unlike steelhead or other trout species, Char have extremely hard bony mouths that can be difficult to get a hook into. So don’t hold back on your hookset. If you have the correct gear you will not break the fish off. 
  8. Time of year and Locations: Anywhere lake trout inhabit a lake, there is potential to catch them on a fly. Find steep drop-offs and cover where a lake trout’s food source can easily be ambushed.
  9. Have fun and stick with it. Lake trout can be fickle beasts which can be frustrating to an angler but hang in there and keep moving around. You will find a willing participant eventually and don’t be afraid to change your presentation. 

Oliver Ancans Lake Trout on the Fly

Ice Out Lake Trout

During the long winters of interior Alaska, I spend my time targeting Lake trout through a 10” hole in the ice. I am drawn to the individuality of their vermiculated bodies and knowing that you have the chance to tie into a true freshwater giant every time you step on the ice. This past spring, I decided that I wanted to catch a lake trout on a fly rod. I decided my best opportunity to do so was on foot during ice out. During the springtime, the ice recedes off of the lakes, and the baitfish cruise the edges of the rotten ice eating all of the insects hatching in the warm spring sun. My window to pull this off was short, so I chose a lake I know well from ice fishing and scouted it out while driving back from a different fishing trip. The ice was just beginning to creep away from the shoreline so I set my sights on the following weekend and planned to have my girlfriend Gaby meet me there, she wanted to catch one too.

We arrive the night prior to rig up fly rods and make our camp. We set our cell phone alarms for 5 am and got to bed early. We woke up, gathered our gear and started hiking through the brush and were almost immediately were faced with our first challenge of the day, crossing a deep fast-moving river outlet willed with enormous chunks of 6’ thick ice. Gaby clambered onto my back (a usual occurrence during our more mild summer fishing adventures) and we crossed safely and with only a little water in my waders, we began hiking through the high brush. As we hiked along only seeing beavers slap the water with their tails as we trudged by their lodges. We stopped to cast where the ice had receded from the bank and swapped our flies and sink tips regularly to maintain contact with the bottom but after 6 hours we had yet to make contact with a Lake Trout. We were getting annoyed with snagging the waist-high brush behind us and “post-holing” our way through the remaining snowdrifts. But our want for a Laker kept pushing us farther and farther from our camp.

Oliver Ancans Lake Trout on the Fly

Around noon we came to an area on the lake where the sandy bottom turned to large boulders and dropped off quickly. Keeping her back cast high to avoid the brush behind us, Gaby made a cast toward the ice shelf and let her fly sink to the bottom. I glanced over at her line and as she stripped it in, then, her white wooly bugger disappeared. She hesitantly pulled up and at first, thought that she had snagged the ice underneath her feet. Then, her fly line started swimming away. After a moment of confusion to process what was happening, I yelled “set the hook!” she did and immediately her fish ran straight out to deeper water. Gaby pulled and tried to get her fly line untangled from her reel to get control of the fish. My dog Marty waiting patiently on the bank observing the chaos Eventually she turned the fish and brought it close enough to lift her fly rod high in the air allowing me to get a net under the fish.

She had done it, her first lake trout on a fly rod. We admired it and snapped a couple of photos before setting the char back into the icy water. The following hours brought a few more lake trout and lots of smiles but our day ended when my fly rod exploded into 7 pieces while trying to pull it loose from a snag in some brush behind me and with over five miles through nasty terrain between us and our camp, we decided to head back and call it a day. Since then we have been able to find and catch Lake Trout in several Lakes throughout interior Alaska. I only look forward to upcoming years as Lake Trout have made the list as a species I will catch every summer. 

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