Lake Trout Species Profile for Anglers

lake trout
An over 30-pound lake trout from Lake Athabasca, Saskatchewan.

Ken Schultz

The lake trout, Salvelinus namaycush, is one of the largest members of the Salmonidae family, and not actually a “trout” but a char. Lakers are generally one of the least-accessible freshwater gamefish to most North Americans because of their preference for cold, dark, and mysterious nether depths, or because the greatest numbers exist in far-off or hard-to-access regions of northern Canada. Lake trout flesh has a high-fat content and is especially good when smoked.

Identifying Lake Trout

Lake trout have the same moderately elongated shape as salmon and other “trout” species as well as other char, although they grow much larger than Arctic char and their char-cousin brook trout. Extremely heavy specimens have a distended belly and a less elongated shape. Their tail is moderately forked, more so than other char, their scales are minute, and they have several rows of strong teeth, which are weak, less numerous, or absent in other char. Their head is generally large, although fast-growing stocked fish will have small heads in relation to body size, and there is an adipose fin.

The lake trout have white leading edges on all its lower fins and light colored spots on a dark background. The body is typically grayish to brownish, with white or nearly white spots, which extend onto the dorsal, adipose, and caudal fins. Coloration is highly variable. Lighter specimens are often the deep-dwelling fish of light-colored southerly lakes with alewife and smelt forage bases; darker specimens, including some with reddish and orange tones, come from less-fertile, tannin-colored shallow northern lakes.

The lake trout have been crossed with the brook trout to produce a hybrid known as a splake. The hybrid’s tail is less deeply forked, and its body markings more closely resemble those of the brook trout.

Lake Trout Habitat 

Overall, and especially in the southern portions of its range, or where introduced south of its native range, the lake trout is an inhabitant of cool waters in large, deep lakes. In far-northern regions, it may occur in lakes that are generally shallow and that remain cold all season long, and it may occur in either the shallow or deep portions of lakes that have large expanses of deep water. It is also found in large deep rivers, or in the lower reaches of rivers, especially in the far north, although it may also move into the tributaries of large southerly lakes to forage. They rarely inhabit brackish water.

The Diet of Lake Trout 

The diet of lake trout varies with the age and size of the fish, locality, and food available. Food items commonly include zooplankton, insect larvae, small crustaceans, clams, snails, leeches, and various species of fish, including their own kind. Lake trout feed extensively on such other fish such as whitefish, grayling, sticklebacks, suckers, and sculpin in the far north, or cisco, smelt, and alewives elsewhere.

Angling for Lake Trout

In spring, when lake waters are cold, trout are found near the surface and along the shoreline. As the season progresses, lakers go deeper; in waters where the surface temperatures warm considerably, they finally reside beneath the thermocline.

Some early coldwater lake trout fishing is done by casting from shore with spoons, spinners, plugs, and flies, especially along rocky shorelines and around tributaries. Most anglers then and throughout the season fish from a boat, occasionally by casting and jigging, but primarily by trolling. In the winter, ice anglers use jigs, live baits, and dead cut baits.

In most large waters, lakers are predominantly caught by anglers trolling slowly with flashy spoons and deep-diving plugs. Jigging for lake trout is possible, as is casting with spoons, spinners, and flies in northerly locales.