Can’t be Done: Flyfishing For Lake Trout

Indeed, there are strange things done under the midnight sun and secret tales along arctic trails, though the strangest thing I ever saw wasn’t by the men toil for gold but by the fish which swim in the cold.

Lake Trout are normally known for their propensity to keep to the depths of large lakes and, certainly in their southern range, it is unlikely to take them on a fly from any depth that could be reasonably reached with even the heaviest of sinking lines.

In the north however, we find that the rare opportunity for food and the cold, highly oxygenated, water brings them close enough to the surface that we can actively seek them out with a fly rod.

Catching Lakers on the Fly

It was in the May of 2017, my father and I found ourselves in Whitehorse, Yukon, and the opportunity was afforded to us to fish for Lake Trout on the fly.  Although the ice had been slow to come off the lakes that year, we were lucky to find that the day we had set aside for our trip, the ice was all but gone.

Local guide and owner of Heawaters2Ocean, the only mobile fly shop this writer has ever seen, Steve Hanh, picked us up to and drove us down a deserted highway an hour past endless forests to the small lake and the boat launch.

Steve gave us the most thorough (only?) safety chat I’ve ever had from a fishing guide and then we loaded into his well-equipped aluminum drift boat and pushed off.  Before long we had motored across the glass lake to the marls.

Ready to fish!

Braeburn Lake is particularly interesting lake.  Charts indicate that the lake reaches a maximum depth of about 150’.  Spread out across its acreage are marls rising from the full depths right to the surface, terminating in a flat top about 30’ radius.

This wonderful structure pushes baitfish and aquatic insects towards the surface.  Lake trout, northern pike, grayling, and whitefish follow the bait all the way to the surface.

The water of the lake is very clear, one can see to depths of about 30’.

The shallows had a beautiful aquamarine coloration to them, blue-green water backlit by the white sand below.

Given this clarity, we took great joy in watching the fish, hiding out of sight in the black depths, rocket to the surface to eat our flies.

2 Techniques – How To Catch Lake Trout On The Fly

We fished with two different techniques:

1. First – We would station ourselves drifting 40’ – 60’ off one of the marls, cast the fly perpendicular to the boat so that it would nearly hit the top of the marl, but no so close that it would get hung up on the shallows or the weeds.

2. Second – We would set up on top of the marl, still unanchored, casting into the depths, as far as possible.

In both instances the retrieve was the same. After the cast we would allow the weight of the sinking line to drag the fly down into the depths.  The uneven sink rate of the line cause a belly to form between the fly and the rod, using this belly we were able to control the position of the fly so that it would drag just a few inches from the sand of the marl.

The hope here is to imitate the swimming like a baitfish.

The lakers would sometimes spot the skinning fly and come from depth to hit it aggressively and rarely requiring a hookset, other times a varying retrieve was required to entice the fish.

The retrieve starts after the line vanishes in the depths, the fish were inconsistent as to what they would take, some fish took our flies on long fast pulls with intermittent pauses of varying length. Others preferred short jerky swimming without pause and others, still, would hit in the middle of a finger-over-finger steady slow retrieve without pausing.

Fly choice was simple, a 0/2 streamer representing a baitfish.  The classic black ghost out preformed all else, but that might have been the fisherman’s, and not the fish’s, personal preference.

Lake trout.

We would drift around each marl for a while until the fish had either been caught or stung on a missed bite. Then move to the next one and repeat the same casting/retrieving process.

The fish were no record breakers and, while they never put us into the baking, they took line and fought harder than any other laker I’ve ever caught.

In one or two cases some of the fish even treated us to a small jump for good measure.

Flyfishing For Lakers

My first fish came in after about 10-15 minutes of fishing. It was a beautiful laker, about 16” weighing in around 1-1.5 lbs with stunning red fins and a red underbody.  My father, Nick, saw his first fish shortly after that and not much different in size.

As we approached the second or third marl, there was a dark shadow hanging motionless a few inches from the surface.

Expecting that this was a sunning lake trout I cast my fly.  Placing the hook several feet beyond it with the fly line crossing its path.  I started my retrieve.

Jerking the streamer into view of the looming fish, we could see it slowly turn to face the fly.  I paused.  A short jerking motion set the fish off, taking my fly in a flash.

I felt the weight on my rod as I lifted it into the air and as suddenly as it hit, the line went slack.  Misidentified at distance, this was no lake trout but rather a Esox Lucius, a northern pike, who’s sharp teeth parted my line with little resistance.

As the laker action slowed down and we wanted to rest the marls, we motored down to the far end of the lake to see if the grayling were active.  Thankfully they were.  Nick caught his first grayling on the fly and one that met the tape measure at 18”, given that the slot limit for retention of grayling in Yukon is 16-19”, we all agreed that this was a decent fish.

Grayling.

The grayling provided exciting sight fishing.  The fish cruising the shallow clear water visibly devouring insects, both on the surface and below.  I fished the top water for a while and took only one fish after giving up and switching to a nymph. Nick fished a chironomid dropper, under a caddis nymph, under a small bubble indicator and, despite nearly as much time undoing tangles as actually fishing, he took ten or twelve of varying sizes.

After an hour or so chasing the cruising grayling we went back to the marls for another shot at the lake trout before heading home.  As the sun had risen higher and pierced deeper into the depths, we had fewer takes, but still managed to land a couple more lake trout.

The trip to and from the lake carried us past the (in)famous Braeburn Lodge, an old road house from days past that now serves as a welcomed checkpoint on the annual Yukon Quest dog sled race and, more importantly, as the purveyor of cinnamon buns as big as your head.  A mandatory stop on the way home.

On the way home, we reflected on our success, catching deep-dwelling trout on shallow water gear. With sustaining images of their luminous red fins standing out in the clear water: sight casting to lake trout in a crystal-clear lake and we couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of these red finned lake trout, a stark contrast to the bland, grey and white, behemoths dredged up from the darkness of famous lakes.

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