Springtime Fun: Bait Fishing for Colorado Lake Trout

Video how to fish for lake trout from shore

A Self-Professed ‘Fly Snob’ Shares His Guilty Pleasure of Bait Fishing for Colorado’s Largest Sport Fish

Lake trout caught on sucker minnow
A lake trout (Mackinaw) taken on a sucker minnow. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

At 7 a.m. on a sunny May morning, the fun begins: “Clang!” The empty Dr. Pepper can supporting my fluorocarbon line topples and crashes down the rocky bank toward the water. The clatter of the makeshift strike indicator disturbs the tranquil Lake Granby shoreline and rouses me from my early morning stupor.

I jump from my folding chair, spilling my coffee and hurry across the bank to rescue my spinning rod from its metal, v-shaped holder. Line races from the reel’s open bail, and my anticipation soars — the first “run” of the morning is always the most exciting.

With rod in hand, I allow the fish to swim freely a few more seconds. Then, with a subtle “click,” I close the bail, put the reel in gear and stop the fugitive before it strips me of both line and bait. The fish hits the tight line like a dog reaching the end of its leash, bending my rod into a deep arch. The resistance pushes the circle hook through the fish’s jaw, and the battle begins. Three minutes later, I land a fat 5-pound “Mack” — not huge, but a terrific way to kick off this outing.

Lake trout close-up
Karen Krueger proudly displays her first Lake Granby lake trout. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

During the next four hours, pop cans fall like targets in a shooting gallery. My friend Karen Krueger and I land eight fish in the 2- to 7-pound range and miss half as many more. By noon the action is over and we are enjoying a relaxing lunch on the beach. Krueger, who just experienced her first “Mack”-fishing trip, is grinning ear to ear. “That was a blast,” she says with childlike enthusiasm. I nod in agreement, while biting into my turkey sandwich and doing my best to ignore the foul stench of sucker meat on my fingers. We spend the rest of the afternoon basking in the warm sun. And although I’ve experienced days just like this one countless times throughout the years, I’m reminded again of how much I enjoy bait fishing for one of Colorado’s supreme sport fish — lake trout.

Jerry with a lake trout
The author with his catch. Photo by Karen Krueger.

Okay, I admit it: I enjoy bait fishing for lake trout. As a self-proclaimed “fly snob,” it’s not easy confessing my fondness for bait fishing to my fly-fishing peers, particularly when that style of bait fishing involves soda cans and sucker meat. But a few times every year, I happily leave the fly rod at home and load my bait-fishing tackle into the Jeep — never once feeling an ounce of embarrassment about the cooler of sucker meat that’s sitting on my back seat. (Well…maybe just a little.)

Like most anglers, I began my fishing career drowning worms and salmon eggs for brook trout, rainbows and the occasional suburban-pond sunfish. But nothing captured my youthful imagination like bait fishing for lake trout. The nearly magical combination of catching large — sometimes enormous — fish and the almost methodical setup involved made fishing for “lakers” the ultimate boyhood adventure.

As I grew older, however, my angling interests transformed completely when I received my first fly rod — a transformation that soon became a life-long passion. And for the last 25 years or so, I’ve joined that haughty fraternity of anglers who fish almost exclusively with artificial flies. But as much devotion and love as I have for fly fishing and all its highbrow qualities, I occasionally feel the need to return to my bait-fishing roots.

Katie with a Lake trout.
Angler Katie Knoll caught her first lake trout on sucker meat while fishing at Lake Granby on May 31, 2011. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

In addition to being just plain fun, there’s a nostalgic quality that draws me to this simple, unpretentious style of angling. Bait fishing takes me back to those Huck Finn days of my youth, when I wasn’t concerned about the intricacies of fly casting, tippet weights or “matching the hatch” — only catching fish on minimal tackle and sharing those prized moments with family and friends. Isn’t that really what fishing is all about? As an adult, I find there’s also something intrinsically relaxing about fishing with bait. It’s a chance to give your casting arm a rest while idly enjoying the mountain scenery and a cold drink from the comfort of a lawn chair. I can’t think of a better way to spend a spring or fall day in Colorado.

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According to surveys conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), nearly half of the state’s anglers fish with bait. So, in addition to divulging my “guilty angling pleasure” to the masses, I penned this article to present all those “worm dunkers” out there with a new challenge. And to challenge my fellow lure-and fly-fishing brethren to rediscover how much fun you can have with a spinning rod, bait hooks and dirty hands — and I do mean DIRTY hands.

Sucker meat, the primary bait for lake trout, permeates your skin with a fishy odor that no amount of same-day hand scrubbing removes. My hands, cell phone, fishing gear — even the steering wheel on my Jeep — smells of sucker meat for a couple of days after a successful lake trout fishing trip. Wearing rubber or latex gloves while baiting the hook solves this problem, but the only thing worse than getting caught handling sucker meat by one of your fly-fishing buddies is to be sporting a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves while you’re doing it. Dirty hands are just part of the bait-fishing experience — a rite of passage, so to speak, for every aspiring angler who has enough courage to bait his or her own hook. If nothing else, fishing with sucker meat will get you to stop biting your fingernails faster than any other remedy. And the possibility of catching a heart-stopping lake trout is definitely worth all of the stinky side effects.

Lake Trout: What’s in a Name?

There’s likely no other freshwater fish possessing more names than lake trout; the fish has more aliases than Jesse James. In Colorado, anglers often refer to them as lakers, Mackinaw or Macks. In the Great Lakes, Alaska and Canada, where lake trout are native, fishermen call them grey trout, lake char, paperbellies, leans, siscowet and salmon trout. But perhaps the most appropriate and descriptive moniker is found in the fish’s Latin name: Salvenlinus namaycush. Namaycush, a Native American term, is said to mean “tyrant of the lakes” or “dweller of the deep.” Either translation is apropos to anglers, as lake trout are Colorado’s largest predatory sport fish, inhabiting some of the state’s coldest and deepest waters.

Characterizing lake trout as “tyrants” is fitting. They are voracious predators that feed almost exclusively upon other fish. They also get big — really big. Unlike most trout species that rarely surpass the 15-pound mark, lake trout can grow to mammoth proportions. Mackinaw in the 20- to 40-pound range are fairly common in Colorado, with anglers landing monster specimens exceeding the 40-pound mark annually. The state-record lake trout, taken from Blue Mesa Reservoir in 2007, tipped the scale at a whopping 50.35 pounds — now that’s a fish worthy of being called a tyrant! Although most lake trout caught from shore typically range in size from 2 to 20 pounds, the possibility of catching a leviathan is always present. And it’s the excitement and uncertainty of never knowing what’s lurking on the other end of your line that makes lake trout fishing so addictive.

In addition to their tyrannous ways, lake trout are truly deep-water dwellers, spending most of the year at depths of between 60 and 200 feet — that’s uncharted territory for most other freshwater fish. And it’s this preference for deep, cold water that keeps lake trout safe from the lines of most fishermen. Only anglers fishing through winter ice, or those fishing from boats equipped with sonar and downriggers, are able to get lures and jigs deep enough to reach lake trout during the summer and winter.

But during the spring and fall months, the tyrant briefly abandons its deepwater haunts and moves within reach of shore fisherman. In early spring at “ice-off,” lake trout move into the shallows to feed and remain there until water temperatures exceed 50 degrees, usually occurring around the second or third week of June at most high-mountain reservoirs. As summer progresses and water temperatures warm, the fish return to deep water and remain off limits to shore anglers until late October, when they come back to the shallows to spawn. Although the window of opportunity is narrow, early spring and late fall is when bait fisherman should fish hard and fish often.

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Gearing Up

One of the best things about bait fishing is that it doesn’t require a lot of expensive or sophisticated equipment, and fishing for lake trout is no exception. Chances are, if you are nothing more than a weekend-warrior angler, you already have the necessary rods and reels in your garage to pull off a successful outing.

For lake trout, I prefer medium- to heavy-weight spinning rods. A fairly stiff, 6- to 7-foot rod is ideal to ensure effective hook-setting and to provide enough backbone to land larger fish. Some Mackinaw fishermen prefer huge saltwater surf rods, which allow them to zing bait long distances off shore. Either setup works fine, but I prefer the fun and finesse of using lighter-weight equipment. Medium-size rods cast well and can handle lake trout of all sizes, and playing fish on lighter rods is immensely more enjoyable.

Match the rod to a medium-capacity, open-faced spinning reel spooled with 6- to 12-pound test line. I prefer “clear” fluorocarbon lines, but standard monofilament or braided line like Spiderwire are fine options. Braided line works best when tipped with a 3- to 4-foot monofilament/fluorocarbon leader above the bait hook. The added leader helps conceal the more visible braided line from wary fish.

Regardless of line selection, drag adjustment is critical. The reel’s drag should be set loose enough to allow large fish to strip line from the reel without snapping it. A properly set drag can mean the difference between landing and losing the fish of a lifetime.

Sucker Soaking 101

Because lake trout are predators with a voracious appetite for other fish, one of the most effective baits is whole, dead suckers or sucker meat. Frozen suckers, sold at most bait dealers and sporting goods stores, are convenient and are generally available in a variety of sizes.

When I can find them, I prefer small, 4- to 6-inch minnows or chubs. My favorite technique is to fish these whole, threading a size 5/0 or 6/0 snelled saltwater circle hook through the minnow’s body from head to tail (see photo slideshow below). Once the hook is threaded, I attach the snell (loop end) of the hook to the main line with a snap swivel. The benefit of fishing with whole minnows is that they cast well and sink to the bottom without adding lead weight to the line. This allows the minnow to move naturally in the current, closely mimicking a dead baitfish.

The key to fishing with whole minnows is to keep the bail open on the reel after casting. Most often, lake trout will grab the dead minnow and continue swimming without stopping. Fishing with an open bail allows fish to continue moving without resistance from the rod, line or reel. Here’s how to set this up: Cast the minnow and allow it to sink to the bottom. Once it settles, reel in some of the excess line and remove most of the slack. Then, reopen the bail so the line peels freely from the spool.

Soda Can Strike Indicator

Soda Can Strike Indicator
An empty soda can makes an ideal strike indicator when fishing with an open bail. Place a small stone on top of the can to prevent false alarms on windy days.

To detect strikes with an open bail, run the loose line around the lip of an empty soda can. The can serves as a strike indicator and topples when a lake trout takes the bait and swims away. To prevent false alarms on a windy day, set a small stone on top of the can to add a small amount of weight. Once a fish grabs the bait, I usually allow it to run for approximately 20 seconds before closing the bail and “setting” the hook. This allows enough time for the lake trout to take hold of the minnow, increasing successful hook-ups, but does not give the fish enough time to completely swallow the bait. On rare occasions, fish may drop the bait before the time has elapsed. If this happens, reel in the line, check the bait and recast. As they say, you win some and lose some.

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‘Cutbait’ Night Crawler Rig

snap swivel, snelled circle-hook is and a piece of sucker meat

A standard bait-rig consisting of a sliding sinker, snap swivel and snelled circle-hook is effective when fishing with pieces of sucker meat.

If sucker minnows are not available, the second-best option is to fish with meat or “cutbait” from larger suckers. When using cutbait, I prefer a traditional night crawler bait rig, equipped with a sliding sinker, snap swivel and larger-size snelled circle hook. It’s important to cut sucker meat into bite-size strips or chunks. Baiting the hook too heavily or with excessively large pieces of meat may obscure the hook point and prevent a clean hook-set. With cutbait, keep the reel’s bail closed and set the hook when a strike is first detected. To spice things up a bit, try adding a night crawler and a salmon egg to sucker meat. I dub this smelly combination “triple delight.” It works great when cutbait by itself isn’t enough to tempt finicky “lakers.”There are some caveats when fishing with sucker meat: Make sure to store suckers in a cooler of ice until you are ready to use them. Once sucker meat gets warm, it turns mushy and falls apart, which makes it nearly impossible to keep on a hook when casting. If frozen, make sure the meat has thawed completely before use. Thawed meat produces a stronger scent, making it more likely to attract fish and it also sinks to the bottom more effectively than bait that’s still partially frozen.

Final Tips

Similar to most other angling or hunting pursuits, lake trout fishing is an early morning endeavor. In both the spring and fall, lake trout are most active in the early morning from sunrise until 12 p.m. Fish continue feeding throughout the day, but generally, fishing past noon is spotty at best.

Before heading to your favorite fishing destination, pay a visit to the area’s sporting goods store. Local shops are a great place to purchase bait and other last-minute supplies. Most importantly, shop owners can provide information to help make your fishing trip more successful. When fishing from shore, it’s helpful to know which areas of a reservoir are most productive. This is particularly important when fishing exceptionally large waters like Granby or Blue Mesa. Shop owners know all the particulars of local waters and are usually more than happy to share “inside” information with their customers.

Even if bait fishing is just not your thing, or it’s been years since you’ve “drowned a worm,” I encourage you to give lake-trout fishing a try. You’ll never have more fun watching a soda can topple and line race from your fishing reel. And who knows? You just might end up catching the fish of a lifetime. Or better yet, you may rediscover those simple, childhood- angling pleasures that got you “hooked” on fishing in the first place.

NOTE: Colorado fishing regulations prohibit the use of live fish as bait east of the Continental Divide above 7,000 feet, and west of the Continental Divide, excluding Navajo Reservoir. Therefore, anglers fishing for lake trout must use previously frozen or packaged baits to ensure compliance with regulations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourages anglers to keep smaller-sized lake trout. Check the fishing regulations for bag and possession limits.

Large Lake trout
Mark Farmer, 36, of Lakewood, caught this trophy lake trout while fishing at Lake Granby on May 14, 2011. The monster fish measured 39 1/4 inches in length. Fishery biologists estimate the fish weighed nearly 30 pounds and was approximately 20 years old. The trophy-sized “Mack” was safely released back to the reservoir. Farmer plans on getting a synthetic mount based on photos and the fish’s measurements. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>