When I was a young kid, Saturday afternoons meant trips up Route 22 in Westchester County, New York, for dinner at Nana’s. As we passed over the Rye Outlet Bridge, I glued my face to the window of my dad’s truck and daydreamed about what could be lurking in the depths of the 2,100-plus-acre reservoir below. Beneath the bridge flowed the clean, cool, crystal-clear water of Kensico Reservoir, the southernmost storage location of the New York City Watershed that pumps over one billion gallons of drinking water to New York City residents daily. I grew infatuated with the history of the sunken hamlet that was flooded to create this reservoir over 100 years ago, and I was really intrigued by the myths of 30-pound lake trout told to me by my dad and uncle, who grew up fishing there.
Lake trout are a popular game fish in the NYC Watershed and throughout the Northeast because they can be caught year-round and often grow upward of 20 pounds. Though their preference for cold, deep water poses a challenge to anglers fishing from banks, those who do connect with one find their aggressive fight, beautiful colors, and tasty smoked meat quite rewarding.
Most anglers enjoy the simplicity and effectiveness of jigging lakers from a boat. Once over the fish and marking them on the fishfinder, the bites come steadily. Chasing these fish from land, however, is a much different game. When fishing for lakers from the bank, it’s essential to understand their feeding habits since this affects where they will be found in the lake or in the water column at any given time.
In the NYC Watershed, the prey of choice for hungry lakers are alewives. A member of the herring family, these baitfish school up at various depths in most lakes that lake trout inhabit. Their silver and green colors and size can be easily imitated by classic trout lures such as Krocodile and Kastmaster spoons.
The “prime” season for laker fishing is between November and May in the Northeast because hot summer months send these fish diving deep below the thermocline. Toward the late fall, however, the rapid drop in water temperature drives these predators closer to the surface and shoreline to feed. This is when opportunistic land-based anglers should begin their seasons. Though the fish will still congregate in the colder depths of the lake, they will not hesitate to aggressively pursue bait, or your lure, all the way to your feet at the bank.
Winter months provide steady and abundant action for those who put in the time and effort, but the real magic of lake trout fishing comes in the spring. Each year, as the daffodils begin to bloom in the Northeast, lakers feed heavily. Lakes are finally thawed out as bass begin their pre-spawn, offering a whole new batch of prey for the lakers. In addition, many reservoirs are stocked with thousands of small trout in the early spring. These “stockies” are a favorite for hungry lakers, so I encourage you to upsize your spoon in order to imitate these small brown or rainbow trout.
It is a beautiful time to be out fishing on any body of water and certainly more tolerable than a freezing winter morning. Fortunately, it is the most rewarding time of year to fish for lake trout. They are more active, aggressive, and at their heaviest from gorging on the abundance of prey.
Shore-Bound Laker Strategies
Due to the vast sizes of the impoundments that lake trout typically inhabit, land-based anglers must be constantly on the move. I learned the importance of mobility the hard way, spending hours at highly pressured spots before branching out and exploring other, lesser-known areas.
When I first started pursuing lakers from shore, I spent dozens of hours with nothing to show for it. Unaware of the importance of water temperature, location, or proper equipment, I was essentially casting blind. It was not until one cold, wet November morning that I hooked up with my first lake trout. Just shy of 19 inches, it was not the 30-pounder I had dreamed of as a kid. Regardless, the countless skunks, money spent on different lures, and hours behind the computer screen scavenging forums had culminated in the most euphoric of highs. It’s the feeling a fisherman knows best: when your countless hours of dedication, restless nights, and early mornings come to fruition in the form of an elusive fish.
Upon making this catch, I noted something unique. This morning had an unusual wind direction for the time of year—it was blowing hard in my face. Despite the vast area of many cold-water reservoirs and lakes, you can often find hungry lakers coasting along bank drop-offs, gorging on alewives getting pushed onshore by these winds.
With another piece to the reservoir lake trout puzzle, I was positive that I would be hooking up on each trip. To my disappointment, there were still many times that I came up empty-handed despite lining up the right wind, location, and temperature.
It did not take long for me to conclude that lake trout fed heaviest in the morning. The very short, 10- to 20-minute window right after sunrise accounted for the majority of my land-based catches. Given their preference for colder months, that meant freezing mornings out on the water. It’s a harsh sacrifice that will pay off enormously because when these fish are on, they’re on.
I can’t think of more than one or two mornings that I caught only a single fish. When you hook up with your first laker, promptly get it back in the water so you can get your line back in the water as quickly as possible. The window of feeding can be extremely short but incredibly rewarding.
Part of the beauty of land-based lake trout fishing on reservoirs is the simplicity of the necessary equipment. The setup that I use is a 7-foot, medium power, fast-action rod. The medium power is incredibly adaptable in throwing anything from a 1/8-ounce spinner to a 3/4-ounce spoon.
Having a sensitive, fast-action tip allows for the necessary flexibility and sensitivity to ensure the bait is fluttering properly. A 2000- or 3000-size reel spooled with 10-pound-test 8-strand braided line tied to 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader has the sensitivity needed to feel a strike as well as the subtlety to not spook the lakers.
The flutter of a spoon as it sinks or is retrieved by an angler draws aggressive strikes and visual follows from lake trout. With plenty of appetizing colors to choose from, a spoon’s action imitates the movement of a fleeing or mortally wounded alewife, common shiner, or smelt.
Powerful vibrations ring out through the water column as these thin, weighted metal lures are jigged or retrieved through deep water. The lure’s profile, combined with its subtle action, is intended to match the appearance and movement of a frantic shiner or alewife as it slices and twitches through cold water.
Tantalizingly slow tail-kicking action and realistic profiles make soft-plastic shads some of the most effective baits when it comes to matching the hatch. The kicking tail pushes water even when using slow and steady retrieves, and lake trout are known to track these baits for long distances before striking.
The most effective lure is a spoon. On windier days, when your line is bowing out during the retrieve and you’re having a hard time staying connected with the lure, a 1/2-ounce Kastmaster is an excellent choice. It casts like a bullet and sinks like a stone. Gold tends to be more effective on sunny days and silver on cloudy ones. Krocodile spoons offer some color variety in their patterns that can make them highly attractive to a laker.
Cast the spoon out as far as you can, keep your bail open, and let it sink all the way to the bottom. After that, it’s just a slow and steady retrieve with the rod at an upward angle and across your body to bring the spoon to the surface. If you don’t feel any vibration even after increasing retrieval speed, you’re likely tangled up.
Switch it up by doing five or six cranks and opening the bail to drop the bait back to the bottom. You may be surprised at how many strikes happen on the fall as the spoon flutters down.
You may find the monotonous nature of these techniques boring and lose focus. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of staying “in the zone” when fishing for lake trout. In fact, I can almost guarantee that the moment you drift off, you will get smacked by one of these fish. This was a lesson I learned firsthand one spring afternoon on Cayuga Lake with Finger Lakes guide Kurt Hoefig. Fishing for lakers from a boat was new to me, but I was eager to get out there because more reports piled in each day of large lake trout being caught by the dozens. I imagined spending the afternoon jigging swimbaits in 60 feet of water over schools of hungry lakers. Boy, was I wrong.
Kurt had this bite dialed in, and it was a unique one. The alewives were pushed up shallow and the lakers were right there on them. Soon enough, we were casting Rapala jerkbaits downwind in less than 10 feet of water to hungry trout. My blood was pumping, and the thought of catching these tricky fish that had eluded me so long in such abundance was thrilling. And, the average size of a caught laker dwarfed that of those downstate. After my buddy put a 5.8-pound smallmouth bass in the boat using this technique, my hands began to shake as I jerked the rod faster, constantly looking over my shoulder and still in awe about the smallie of a lifetime we had just encountered.
As those to my left and right began to connect, I was still empty-handed. “Dial in,” was the simple phrase Kurt repeated to encourage me to focus on staying connected with my bait. Soon enough, I blocked out the distractions and locked in with the lure. On each cast, I directed all my attention and focus to feeling the lure and its movements in the water column. Almost instantly, I connected, and the bite was on.
When we got back to the dock at the end of day, the boys and I, still eager to take advantage of this abundant fishery, hit up a nearby bank to see if we could continue the action. We fished through dark with nonstop action, catching our biggest lakers of the day on jerkbaits and Krocodiles—right at our feet. The only ones on the shore for miles, it was the picture-perfect end to a great day on the water.