Lake Champlain’s Lake Trout Present Challenges
To Biologists and Anglers Alike

As Published In The 2008
Rotary Fishing Tournament Tabloid
By Captain Mickey Maynard

Brett Carnright
Brett Carnright hoists a 9-pound lake trout that he caught
at ice-out on the New York side of Lake Champlain

The lake trout is the primary representative of Lake Champlain’s coldwater fishery. This largest member of the trout family is abundantly stocked by Vermont and New York agencies for recreational fishing. It is one of the most highly sought after game fish on the North American continent. The lake trout is actually a freshwater char and is known by other names including mackinaw, lake char, touladi, togue, and gray trout. In Lake Superior, there are three distinct varieties known as siscowet, paperbellies and leans. The all-tackle International Game Fish Association record laker weighing 72 pounds was caught on Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories, in 1995. Lake trout on Lake Champlain average from 4-6 pounds and a specimen in the 12-pound range is currently considered a trophy. A 14.45-pound fish was caught and entered in the Lake Champlain International Fishing Derby in 2006. The largest laker entered in the Rotary International Derby weighed 14 pounds 5.5 ounces.

Invasive Species and Biological Mystery Test Lake Champlain Managers

Lake Champlain’s unique and ever changing ecosystem presents several challenges to lake management officials as they foster lake trout populations here. The sea lamprey in Lake Champlain has been decimating lake trout since stocking programs began. A cooperative effort by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Vermont Fish and Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife to control the parasite showed brief promise but populations rebounded and recently lamprey-wounding rates soared to an unacceptable 98 hits per 100 lake trout. Awkward permitting processes in Vermont combined with social protests and legal wrangling have hampered thorough and coordinated lamprey control. On some tributaries permits have been issued authorizing less than sufficient levels of TFM lampricide to reasonably impact lamprey proliferation. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of New York and Vermont Sportsmen’s dollars have been spent throughout the years and lake managers have never reached or maintained an acceptable wounding rate. Lake health and lamprey control petitions are currently circulating on the Internet and all anglers are encouraged join the movement. There are hopeful indications that the era of lamprey proliferation is nearing an end. A number of previously untreated tributaries have been tended to and more are scheduled for treatments in the near future. Alternative methods of lamprey control are continually being explored and some are actually being utilized in the Champlain basin at present. As lamprey control becomes more methodical and timely biologists believe that lake trout specimens may reach sizes comparable to those in the Great Lakes where fish in the high teens and twenty pound range are widespread.

Dr. Ellen Marsden, Professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources is a highly respected biologist who has studied lamprey on Lake Champlain. She is an authority on lake trout as well and has been documenting reproduction and recruitment of trout populations in Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes for several years now. “We are seeing healthy reproduction in lake trout and there are plentiful eggs and sac-fry, but for some unknown reason Lake Champlain’s naturally spawned lake trout never seem to reach adulthood”, says Dr. Marsden, “The lake trout spawn successfully in the fall as usual, but the young never seem to survive beyond the fry stage.” This mystery continues to puzzle Dr. Marsden and other dedicated biologists as they explore the possible causes of recruitment failure within the watershed’s laker population. The recent advent of alewives in Lake Champlain will likely present other new challenges to management officials. According to Dr. Marsden, “When lake trout forage primarily on an alewife diet the chances for a self-sustaining population is again severely diminished”. The alewife diet causes a thiamine deficiency in both lake trout and Atlantic salmon. While treatments such as injecting thiamine into fish or treating eggs with thiamine are possible, the process has not yet become necessary. Thus far testing of lake trout in Lake Champlain has shown no significant reduction of thiamine levels.

Lake Trout Fishing Techniques Evolve As Stocking Strains Change

Successful fishing techniques on Lake Champlain have evolved over the years as management officials have altered stocking patterns and indeed changed the strains of lake trout that are being introduced. In the not-to-distant past anglers were very successful trolling the lake’s shorelines in the spring season with light spoons like Honey Bees, Evileyes, Suttons or Alpina Diamonds, using planer-board outriggers to get the lures quietly into target range. The trout were most often following their favorite forage, smelt, into the shallows. Once fishermen here mastered the planer-board technique the trout became an easy mark. Shore fishermen also had great success casting dead smelt from points and drop-offs at a good number of easily accessible hotspots along the lake.

More recently, lake management officials increased stocks of the Seneca strain of lake trout. These fish were stocked due to their ability to evade lamprey in very deep waters. Seneca brood stock and their progeny, “Champlain” brood stock, are the strains used in hatchery operations to populate the lake today. These trout tend to group up on broad, deeper flats as the water warms in the spring and they aren’t typically found along shorelines. While the fish can still be occasionally found suspended off bottom or cruising shallows, the majority of trout and certainly the bigger, more dominant fish are most often located in depths of 40 to 60 feet in spring, and up to 150’ or deeper in summer. These deepwater fish are usually situated very near the lake floor. The need for a shallow, subtle application in fishing methods has given way to deeper and more boisterous techniques.

The use of downriggers and flashy, noisy hardware has become the norm from ice-out through fall as successful fishermen target lakers in these dark, deepwater haunts. Great Lakes anglers and other regional trout fishermen have known the benefits of this flashy terminal tackle for many years. Savvy Lake Champlain fishermen began adapting the practice back in the 1980s during the warmer months when the temperature sensitive lake trout disappeared from the shorelines and headed for cooler depths. Lake trolls, sometimes referred to as cowbells, or Christmas trees, were originally made of a series of oversized spinner blades organized on wire or cable, with swivels and a keel to keep the device from twisting the fishing line. The spinners were designed to attract the fish’s attention, while the actual bait was a lure like a stick bait, streamer, small spoon or even cutbait with a 20 to 30 inch leader trailing behind the blades. The primitive trolls had blades made of metal and were quite heavy and cumbersome. One local fisherman, Joseph Wojewodzic, introduced a trolling device he named after himself. These “Jo Jos” were manufactured locally and anglers who were lucky enough to acquire them soon found that they could easily out fish their competition. The flash and noise from the trolls stimulated the otherwise lethargic fish and the angler’s catch rate improved substantially.

Today, lake trolls are manufactured by a number of big name lure companies like Orbit Lures, Luhr Jensen and Northern King. The state-of-the-art spinner blades are much lighter and the vast assortments of rigs are often adorned with colored beads and reflective tape.

Many die-hard anglers continue to boast modest success using large spoons, jigs, in-line flashers, and even smelt from shore to target lake trout. These methods still work, but I’ll be dragging cowbells during this year’s Rotary International Fishing Derby. Good luck to all participating anglers. May someone in your boat be lucky enough to shout “Holy Mackinaw”!

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