Cruise Control Lakers
Mar 5th, 2014 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Mar 5th, 2014 at 12:00 AM
Cruise Control Lakers
Running and gunning for lake trout on the move
Often enough, hovering over a handful of structural sweet spots will produce wintertime lake trout by the score. That is, unless hiccups in the food chain cause hungry lakers to cruise in search of their next meal.
When hungry trout roam the abyss, finding the strike zone feels akin to looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “The fish are definitely catchable,” says longtime hardwater guide and laker fan Bernie Keefe. “And you basically have two options; sit and wait on a prime spot or go on the offensive.”
A tireless trout hunter, he prefers the latter option.
Case in point: Kokanee salmon are prime forage for mature lake trout in Colorado’s Lake Granby, which is also one of Keefe’s collection of A-list fisheries. When the kokanee population tanked, lakers in the 8- to 30-pound class began ranging far and wide to fill their bellies.
Run-and-gun tactics are a great strategy for catching cruising lake trout.
“In a nutshell, high water in 2013 caused mysis shrimp numbers to skyrocket,” Keefe explains. While shrimp lovers might applaud this development, the ravenous hordes of minute mysis vacuumed up much of the lake’s plankton supply. “Shrimp rise in the water column at night to feed on plankton, then drop into a cold-water refuge during the day,” Keefe continues. “So, when the salmon woke up in the morning, there was nothing for them to eat.”
Salmon starved en masse, leaving lake trout in the lurch, and on the prowl for alternative sustenance such as juvenile trout, baitfish, and crustaceans. “You couldn’t roll up on a reef and be guaranteed success,” he says. “You had to play the road game.”
Wintertime searches are infinitely complicated by the presence of ice. “When lakers cruise open water, you can use sonar to locate them,” says Keefe. “In the winter, you can’t just drop the transducer, you have to fish each spot.”
Rather than randomly drilling holes here and there across the lake, Keefe targets high-percentage spots such as ridges, humps, funnels and flats. “I further refine the search area by focusing on the sweetest spots available,” he says. Examples include the top of a hump, upper edge of a drop-off, and a point leading into a saddle. GPS mapping is a huge aid in pinpointing such prime lines, he notes.
Once in position, he fires up his auger. “You don’t have to make Swiss cheese of the spot,” he cautions. “Just drill enough holes to hit the best areas.”
Keefe’s go-to search lure is a round, half-ounce jighead armed with a size 4/0 or 5/0 810 TroKar hook. He threads a 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow onto the jig and ties the head directly to his 10-pound Trilene 100 Percent Fluorocarbon mainline. “Cinch the knot tight, so the jig hangs horizontal just like a suspended baitfish,” he notes. “Remember, lake trout have excellent vision.”
Keefe lets the jig freefall to the midsection of the water column, then begins a slow and smooth lift-lower routine using a 40-inch, heavy-power Dave Genz split-handle rod from Clam Outdoors. “Keep the jig moving up and down on a tight line, in slow motion, for a minute or two,” he says. “You want to know if anything is down there looking up.”
If an aggressive laker charges in, Keefe keeps jigging but braces for impact. More hesitant fish demand one of two tactics. “You can reel the jig upward at a nice smooth, steady pace, making it look like the fish’s meal is getting away,” he says. “Even if you don’t see the trout follow on sonar, keep reeling. Fish often flare off, then swing back to strike.” When the jig ascends to within a foot of the icepack’s underpinnings, Keefe quits reeling. “Use the same lift-drop routine,” he says. “A lot of fish hit right below the ice.”
Option number two for sniffers that won’t bite is dropping the jig to bottom. “Let it freefall and crash land,” says Keefe. “Then try the same jigstrokes again.”
Not all lakers take the bait. But even fish that turn up their noses at his sleights of hand offer intel on the underwater world, because Keefe is keenly aware that broad-shouldered trout often hunt together in wolfpacks of up to 10 or more. “I’ll fish the holes to my left and right, to see which way the gang is headed,” he grins.
A speedy release helps ensure fine fishing for years to come.
Once a fish or two is iced, Keefe commonly shifts gears to a faster-paced presentation such as snap-jigging and cranking a tube jig or spoon. “Minnow-style softbaits are great decoys for attracting nearby trout, but aggressive tactics can be better when you’ve located the school,” he explains.
In the end, the secret to Keefe’s success lies in his relentless pursuit of wandering trout. “This is high-speed running and gunning,” he says. “You can’t get the lazy bug and fish the same spot all day. Load up your Clam flipover, gas up the auger, and get ready to rock and roll.” Such an attitude is key, he says, for turning the curse of cruising lakers into one of winter’s finest blessings.