By Andrew Cremata
It took only 30 minutes to hook up on the first lake trout of the day. As my buddy Blair reeled in the fish, I prepared the net. Even before the ten-pound laker was safely on board the boat, my thoughts turned to bait.
My worry stemmed from the fact that we only had one cisco to use for bait. Ciscoes are small whitefish, and lake trout find them almost as irresistible as humans find tacos. Usually, lakers eagerly strike artificial baits, but sometimes they refuse to eat anything other than baitfish — specifically, ciscoes.
This is especially true when ciscoes are schooling in the spring, and I saw multiple schools of baitfish swimming in and out of the shallows while motoring out to the fishing grounds.
Ciscoes are notoriously difficult to catch. They’re small, have tiny mouths, and it’s against the law to harvest them with a net.
Ten days earlier, Blair and I were fishing for pike along a sandy Yukon lakeshore when we stumbled upon a dead cisco washed up on the beach. It appeared to be in perfect condition so I scooped it up, took it home, and tossed it in my freezer.
Sure enough, Blair was using the cisco for bait when he hooked into the first lake trout of the day. As I prepared to net the fish, I peered into the water to see if our scavenged cisco was still tethered to the hook. Unfortunately, it was long gone.
Over the next two hours, I tried just about every lake trout lure in my tackle box — fork-tailed jerkbaits, diving plugs, Apex trolling lures and scented tube jigs.
Even though the fish finder marked dozens of fish suspended throughout the water column, neither Blair nor I entertained so much as a nibble.
Even worse, the anglers on a nearby boat full of very loud and very inebriated Canadians were hooking up on trout every 30 minutes or so. The captain was a stocky man in his mid-forties with a fondness for classic rock.
I surmised this because his stereo was turned up to eleven. Unfortunately, the loud stereo made it impossible for the captain to communicate with his shipmates without shouting at a volume most human beings would find unreasonable.
Even when the Canadian captain’s boat was nearly a mile away, Blair and I had no trouble hearing his banter over the unending din of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Conversation between the captain and his boatmates mostly consisted of various hoots, hollers and unmentionable expletives.
While singing along to a very off-key version of Welcome to the Jungle, I heard the captain admonish his partner to, “Cast out another (expletive deleted) cisco!”
This confirmed to me that the lake trout were only interested in one particular kind of bait and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any.
Or did we?
Earlier that morning, Blair and I targeted northern pike in a nearby shallow backwater. Between the two of us, we managed to put three thick slough-sharks in the cooler.
With so many schools of ciscoes in the lake, I began to wonder if any of the pike gobbled up a cisco or two before falling victim to our diving plugs.
Looking at Blair, I said, “We need some bait. It’s time to perform a pike appendectomy.”
I pulled two pike out of the ice chest and made a three-inch incision in each of their bellies. The first fish’s stomach was empty but the second pike’s stomach was noticeably distended. I gave it a squeeze and out squirted two partially digested ciscoes. The baitfish were mushy and the tails were mostly gone but the heads and eyes were surprisingly intact.
At that moment, they were the most glorious things I’d ever laid eyes on.
After delicately threading the hooks through the gloopy decomposing flesh of the ciscoes, Blair and I carefully pitched our baits behind the boat and began trolling.
Less than five minutes passed before I felt the first tap. Then another. The hungry fish took its time, gently giving the zombie cisco a taste, and likely sensing that something wasn’t quite right.
After a half dozen taps, my fishing rod bent hard toward the water. I set the hook but missed the fish. A wave of disappointment washed over me because there was little to no chance the bait was still attached to the other end of my line.
Much to my surprise, the mangled ciscoe barely hung on. After figuring out a way to resecure my battered bait to the hook, I tossed it back out and let it sink. Within seconds the tapping returned, as though the fish had been swimming behind the boat waiting for the opportunity to finish its meal.
My second attempt at setting the hook proved successful and minutes later Blair scooped the eight-pound lake trout into the net.
While fighting my fish, the boat drifted out of position. As I steered back toward the hot spot, I accidentally cruised into shallow water. Blair was using a stout heavy-action boat rod outfitted with 30-pound monofilament line. When it bent over double, both Blair and I assumed he’d snagged the bottom.
Suddenly, Blair’s rod tip began shaking violently.
Blair exclaimed, “That’s not the bottom. It’s a fish!”
The trout made a hard run, taking line as Blair held on for dear life. Every attempt at making ground on the laker ended up in another run.
The water was crystal clear, but it took some time before Blair managed to work the trout close enough to the boat to get a good look. Even from 25 feet below the boat, the laker looked massive. I grabbed the net, waiting for Blair to reel the trout within range.
This was a mistake.
When the enormous fish caught sight of the landing net, it immediately turned and ran parallel to the boat, around the bow, and back toward the stern. Blair twirled in place, extending his rod to keep pace with the trout’s unpredictable trajectories. Then the feisty laker dove under the boat, which is never a good thing. I quickly fired up the motor and put the boat in reverse until the fish was in a more favorable position for landing.
Moments later, I managed to get the net under the chunky trout and lift.
Happier than an inebriated Canadian, I high-fived Blair and measured the lunker laker. At 28 and a half inches long, it easily weighed 25 pounds.
The entire experience taught me a valuable lesson … If you don’t have the right kind of bait, grab some from someone that does. As long as you have the stomach for it.