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Lake Trout of Lake Erie

Lake Trout of Lake Erie Lake Trout of Lake Erie
By Dave Adams

“Most lake trout in Lake Erie are between ten and twelve pounds,” said a friend of mine, Mike Hinkel. He had spent most of his final year of college working with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission as a fisheries biologist aid for the Lake Erie Research Unit. During that year he participated in a lake trout assessment (deep-water netting), which prompted his adding, “During that study, we did net some over twenty pounds.”

I'm contemplating what he said. Sure, carp and some catfish are big, but they don’t appease the palate. I wanted to catch a fish that was big and tasted good too.

But now, my thoughts are elsewhere. He hit at the first glimpse of spring sunlight, similar to a steelhead, then like a tank, and making off with whatever line the drag would allow. It's been 15 minutes. I see him. He's big: 10 pounds, maybe, but most likely an eight and good eating.

Then it’s over. All that is left from that battle is another bent hook. I now know why lake trout anglers say, sore arms, something different, and fish only occasionally seen are the most appealing aspects of this forgotten sport fish.

Lake trout live in relative obscurity. They eat well and grow big. Primarily found in the deeper waters, their diet consists mainly of smelt, but during May and for the better part of June they are close to shore. First, in May, they dine on the large adult emerald shiners that remain near shore after their fall/winter migration. Then, in June, and before disappearing to the cooler waters near the Canadian line, they give the Pennsylvania angler the only chance for true deep-water fishing. These are the best times for boat anglers to target these behemoths.

I hooked that first lake trout of the season around the beginning of May. This is when the water temperature is less than 50 degrees and lake trout cruise the 65 to 75 foot depths. I was fishing a stone throw from Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PF&BC) marina at North East. This area of Lake Erie is considered the beginning of the eastern basin. Nearby is an underwater mountain that was not removed as the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. During May, the lake trout are in front of this structure, and are located easily with a depth finder.

As your boat approaches the mountain's northern edge, the water depth drops rapidly from 55 to over 100 feet. Once you find it, turn back south (approximately 100 yards) and fish the mountain's southern edge from east to west. 75 feet first, then move to 65. Use a diving disk and small spoon. Trolling depths of disks can be determined by the manufacture or by various books, and spoons for early lake trout should be on the small side - two or three inches is best. Spoon colors aren't as important. Although I caught (excuse me, lost) that May laker on a purple spoon with a copper back, the correct depth control and speed is imperative.

Since you're imitating a lost emerald shiner, set the spoon to run at 45 feet and troll at 1.2 to 1.5 MPH; after which, be ready because a laker will find this bait.

In June, when the surface temperature of Lake Erie reaches 60 degrees, lake trout move to deeper waters.

And I'm back for another chance to land a big lake trout. Again, I`m not far from the PF&BC marina. We are four miles from shore and just past the mountain's northern edge.

The depth finder reads a depth of 120 feet. The only colors at that depth are black and white. And a human, with even the most sophisticated diving gear can survive only a few minutes. Shipwrecks such as the Dean Richmond, sturgeon, and the remnants of a once huge population of smelt are the only company lake trout have at this depth. That is where I find the “pod” of big lake trout.

The fish hit the bait. It is a six-inch silver spoon with a dark green stripe of tape and was set 10 feet off the 12 pound ball while trolled at 1.5 MPH. Strange way to fish, I thought. But I wanted to follow the advice of an avid lake trout enthusiast and local North East resident, Jim Armstrong, “Conventional leads off the downrigger do not work for lake trout," he said. "Keep the spoon close to the bottom and two feet from the ball. Use a spoon slightly larger than the emerald shiner in the color of silver with a green or blue stripe. And don`t forget to 'bump, bump, bang.' While trolling, occasionally drop the downrigger ball and bump the lake bottom. What usually follows is a laker banging the lure."

The placement of the spoon was just a few feet above the muddy Lake Erie bottom and perfect. But I wonder, how am I going to bring this fish to the boat? Lake trout can reach an age of 40 years and can weigh 100 pounds. My wife, Cindy is barely five feet tall and her weight, even after Thanksgiving dinner, doesn't approach that of a potential full-grown lake trout. So, except for keeping the boat's stern at a good fighting angle and getting the net, she makes it clear, “I’m not getting pulled in, you’re on your own to fight the fish,” she says.

My back and arms are starting to hurt. Meanwhile, on the marine radio, I hear that a boat fishing the same pod is racing to shore. On his radio he is asking the marina for the current record. “It's 27 pounds 13 ounces,” they say. Tom Illar Jr. of Apollo, Pennsylvania caught it. Even though his fish is big, it's not a record; his is 24 pounds and three ounces. While my fish makes another dive into the depths where only the sturgeon and smelt reside, I'm wondering, why has this record remained unbroken since 1996?

Lake trout have been stocked in Lake Erie for over 20 years. Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Canada annually stock 120,000 of these fish. In fact, last year alone, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked 40,000 lake trout into the Pennsylvania waters. Such amazing numbers.

I've been battling my fish over 30 minutes, and he should approach that record. It's over 20 pounds, I'm sure.

It's time. I'm tired and so is he. Cindy has cleared all the other poles, put the boat at a safe angle and in neutral, and has the net ready. Unlike that fish lost in May, this one will make it to the net because my equipment matches his strength. I'm using 30-pound test line and a swivel that tests out at 50 pounds.

Near the boat is a large fish. With a deeply forked tail, dark silver sides, and a dorsal fin rising above the water, he resembles a shark, which is preparing to strike. Then, it's over and the net is slid under the fish. Cindy helps by holding the pole, while I – with every ounce of strength left – bring him into the boat. He's a big fish, a “three-footer” and every bit of 25 pounds.

Tomorrow, over Sunday dinner, we`ll be discussing the battle won. An inch-thick fillet will be basting on the grill. The flavor will be mild - not hidden in spices or sauces - just cooked with a tomato and butter. I will realize why the lake trout once constituted a large commercial fishery in the Great Lakes. My thumb bears a battle scar. It's a half-inch cut most likely from a gill or a tooth. But no matter, after dinner, we will be planning next week's battle for this forgotten sport fish.

By successfully reintroducing lake trout into Lake Erie, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has created an entirely new, different, and exciting fishery for the Pennsylvania angler.

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