Ice fishing for lake trout

Lake trout are found in deep, clear and cold lakes in northern and north-central Minnesota. They strike lures hard and make powerful head-shaking runs.

They are prized table fare, too. Lake trout is delicious when grilled, baked, fried, or smoked.

The right habitat conditions are crucial. A lake must be cold enough to support lake trout through warm summers as well as having abundant open water prey such as cisco.

A lake trout being pulled from a hole in the ice after being hooked
When to fish

The lake trout open water season begins with the general May fishing opener an continues until the last day of September. In winter, the season opens January 1 and continues until the end of March for lakes entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. For waters outside or partially outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the season begins on a Saturday in mid-January and continues until the end of March.

Regulations, including season lengths, size, or bag limits also may differ on Minnesota's border waters with Canada.

Complete and comprehensive fishing regulations are in the fishing regulations booklet. The most up-to-date version is available online. Printed copies, which do not include the most-recent updates, are available where fishing licenses are sold.

Where to fish

Only a few select Minnesota lakes have the right habitat conditions to support lake trout. These clear, cold, rocky lakes are primarily found in far north-central or northeastern Minnesota. These lakes have to be cold enough to support lake trout through warm summers as well as having abundant open water prey items such as ciscoes.

To find lakes with lake trout, you’ll want to refer to this map trout lakes.

Lake trout are open water predators, cruising over basins searching for prey items. Finding forage species – such as suspended ciscoes or rainbow smelt – is a good way to find a likely place to fish for lake trout. If you find their prey, you are likely to encounter a lake trout at some point in the day.

You also can find lake trout cruising habitats that are likely to hold prey, such as slow-dropping shorelines, islands, reefs, points or entrances to bays. Lake trout anglers prefer structure that is adjacent to deep water. Lakefinder includes underwater topographic maps – also called lake contour maps – that can help you find some of these prime locations.

In years with particularly cold weather, Lake Superior gets sufficient ice out from its shoreline to allow safe ice angling. Superior has a tremendous lake trout fishery and by virtue of how quickly the depth drops from shore, anglers don’t have to go out far to get deep enough to encounter lake trout. Check with local bait and tackle shops for updates on ice conditions before venturing out; Superior’s ice can last as long as a few weeks but can be destroyed by wind and wave action in just a few days.

Lake trout anglers can catch fish in water shallow enough for sight fishing, but more frequently begin in depths of 30 or 40 feet and move out to as deep as 90 or 100 feet, or even deeper on especially deep waters such as Lake Superior. You may wish to move around and try a variety of different structural locations on a lake or park over a likely location and wait for the roaming fish to move in under you.

How to fish

Lake trout can be caught via active rod and reel jigging, or by passive placement of a set line on a tip up rig. A tip-up rig is different than a rod-and-reel combination because there is no rod at all. Instead, a tip-up is an apparatus in which the reel is placed in the hole you drilled, and when a fish unspools line a signal flag “tips up.” Tip-ups can be purchased at virtually any bait shop or retail fishing outlet.

Once you have lowered your tip-up line into the water it is largely a waiting game. It is smart to check your sucker or shiner minnow every half hour or so, and even to jig it once in a while. You can use a live or dead bait; lake trout are opportunistic predators. A tip-up is a great way to utilize a second fishing line, which is allowed while ice fishing on Minnesota inland waters.

When fishing as part of a group, it makes sense to apply some strategy as to where you drill your holes and how deep to suspend your minnow in each hole. For example, if fishing a deep drop-off, you may want to place tip-ups at the 40-, 50- or 60-foot contour. Similarly, if you are fishing a point that extends into the lake you may want to set tip-ups at various depths along the point, starting in shallow and then drilling additional holes every 20 or 30 yards into deeper water. You must fish within 200 feet of your tip-ups.

Once a flag does fly, avoid the temptation to run toward it. Ice is slippery and there is no sense hurting yourself. Grab the tip up, raise it slowly to not create too much resistance, and grasp the line. If the fish is still swimming with your bait, set the hook with a quick snap of the wrist and arm. If 15 seconds or more have passed and this fish is swimming slowly – or you simply feel a dead weight on the line - well, that’s is a good time to set the hook too. It’s also possible that you’ll feel nothing at all. That means the fish has dropped your minnow.

When fishing lake trout with a jigging rod, use a medium heavy or heavy rod. You’ll be fishing heavy baits to cover the water column quickly and the fish you catch can be anywhere from a couple pounds to as large as ten or twenty pounds. You could even hook into a trophy of 30 or 40 pounds. Inspect your bait and jig it in the hole. Try to learn how to make it swim and dance delectably, and commit to memory the cadence used to impart the action. You’ll need to use the same delivery to your bait under the ice.

Gear

Basic

  • Auger for drilling a hole
  • Scoop for removing ice and slush from the hole
  • Rod, reel, lure and live bait
  • Plastic bucket or chair to sit on, or more commonly a pop-up fishing shelter
  • Warm clothes and boots

Useful & handy

  • Sled or plastic bucket for hauling your gear
  • Emergency ice picks to stab into ice in the event you break through
  • Pop-up ice fishing shelter
  • Propane heater
  • Disposable hand and toe warmers
  • Face mask
  • Sunscreen to prevent sunburn
  • Fish-finding sonar unit
  • Underwater camera
  • A Smartphone app (they are quite inexpensive) that will show you lake depths and where you are in relation to bottom contours
  • Small towel or rag for drying hands
  • Warm, waterproof gloves
  • Head-lamp or flashlight for seeing in low light conditions
  • Sunglasses
  • Tackle box with a variety of lures, weights and bobbers
  • Ruler for measuring fish if fishing on a lake where special sunfish regulations are in place
  • Compass in the event snow squalls prevent you from being able to see shore
  • Slip-on ice cleats for your boots
What's important to know
  • When jigging your bait, work it throughout the water column. As you drop to lower depths, keep control of the line and play out slack line. Many times, lake trout hit baits on the drop and you’ll detect a bite by the fact that the line is not playing out any longer.
  • Carefully play hooked fish. Lake trout have hard mouths so you’ll need to set the hook quite hard and use sharp hooks. Many lake trout are lost at the hole, as they do not give up as easily as other fish and will come to your hole thrashing all the way. Some anglers cut a double hole or have a partner help land their fish. Many times, lake trout knock the hook out of their mouth at the hole or a treble hook catches on the edge of the ice, offering the fish leverage and a chance to escape.
  • Lake trout anglers often choose silver or white baits to mimic lake trout prey such as ciscoes and rainbow smelt. Popular baits include jigging spoons, jig and tubes, airplane jigs, blade baits, plastic hardbaits and soft plastic swimbaits. Try tipping your jig or jigging spoon hooks with heads or chunks of suckers, chubs or large minnows to provide the right smell and taste to an approaching lake trout.
  • Lake trout are physostomous, meaning they have a pneumatic duct that connects their alimentary canal to their air bladder. This evolutionary adaptation allows them to maintain their neutral buoyancy while swimming and even while rapidly changing depths. Frequently lake trout anglers see a lot of bubbles coming up their hole as a played fish nears. These bubbles are air being “burped” out of the mouth of the fish that originated in the air bladder. This adaptation allows lake trout to rapidly swim up and down, making it a highly effective predator. Lake trout often chase their prey down and pin their prey against the bottom of the lake, or in the winter up against the top of the ice. This means that while jigging, you want to move your bait up and down and cover the entire water column, as you can catch fish at all depths. It also is important to move the bait rapidly, to gain the attention of the fish and to elicit a predator chase response. If you feel a tap, set the hook, but also reel rapidly up or drop quickly to the bottom. Chances are, the fish is still stalking your bait and will follow it up to strike again.
  • Tip-ups typically don’t come with line attached. So, you will want to buy monofilament or fluorocarbon line in the 10- to 20-pound test range. Thicker line makes hand-over-handing the first out of the hole easier on your skin. Purchase treble hooks or a pre-packaged “quick strike” rig, preferably in fluorocarbon so that you don’t deter a lake trout from biting.
  • Most anglers hook their minnows, chubs, or suckers on tip-ups between the dorsal fin and the tail. This way they are suspended naturally.
  • Some lakes are subject to special regulations that restrict harvest beyond the normal statewide regulations. Make you know how many fish you can keep by checking the fishing regulations booklet. Many lakes with special regulations have very good fish populations, and though you can keep fewer fish the size quality may be better.
  • Fish are a healthy source of protein but any fish – even those bought in a store – can contain contaminants that can harm human health, especially in children and fetuses. You can learn more by checking out fish consumption guidelines in the fishing regulations booklet.
Basic biology
  • Lake trout are coldwater species found in deep, clear, and cold lakes in northern Minnesota. These fish are the top predator, along with northern pike, in many inland lakes in Minnesota’s “Arrowhead” region in the northeast. They prefer living in water that never exceeds 65 Fahrenheit.
  • Lake trout are in the trout and salmon family and are technically a char.
  • Lake trout are slow-growing but long-lived. The oldest reported lake trout was 50 years.
  • Scientists have documented a number of lake trout “morphs” within the species. Most common to anglers is the “lean” lake trout. In Lake Superior, you can find “lean” lake trout as well as “redfin” lake trout found near shorelines, “siscowet” lake trout at extreme depths and “humper” lake trout near mid-lake shoals and reefs. Differences in morphs were found in physical habitat use, buoyancy, body shape, as well traits that were linked to locomotion and feeding.
  • Lake trout have white or yellowish spots on their dark green to light gray background, with a deeply forked tail fin and a small adipose fin on their backs near their tail. The adipose fin is unique to the trout and salmon family and the catfish family.
  • Lake trout teeth are sharp and conical. While not as sharp as pike and muskellunge they can cut and care should be taken when handling lake trout near the mouth.
  • Lake trout spawn in the fall, typically at night over large rocks and cobble. Females are courted by a group of males or a single male. Fertilized eggs fall in between rocks and develop slowly over the fall and winter, hatching after approximately four months. Fry move to deeper water and reside in rocky areas while developing further.
  • Lake trout stomachs are unique. They have numerous folds in their stomach tissue, called pyloric caeca. Lake trout have over 100 of these folds, which provide additional surface area and speed up the process of digestion.
  • Lake trout begin their life feeding on copepods and other zooplankton. As adults, they will also feed on crustaceans, insects, and even small animals, however they are predominantly piscivorous, with a preference for ciscoes. Some populations will feed on plankton their entire lives, growing slower, maturing earlier, and reaching smaller maximum sizes than piscovorous lake trout.
Helpful information
  • An internet search of how to ice fish for lake trout will yield various articles and videos that further expand on how to catch lake trout.
  • An internet search of ice fishing augers is something you may want to research because drilling a hole is the very first step to catching fish. Hand and power augers come in a wide variety of price ranges and styles with battery powered augers increasingly popular because they start reliably with the flip of a switch. If you choose a hand auger, you may want to consider one with cutting blades either 8 or 10 inches in length, which will be large enough to land a lake trout.
  • An internet search of ice fishing electronics will yield various articles and videos on sonar units, underwater cameras and GPS units. These days the majority of ice fishing anglers use some sort of fish-finding technology rather than, as they say, “fishing blind.” You will also have the benefit of knowing when a lake trout is in the area and when it is chasing your bait. Many times you will need to play “cat and mouse” and take the bait away from the fish to illicit a strike.