When fishing for lake trout in New York’s Finger Lakes, a vast majority of anglers troll deep with spoons and cow bells. Trolling has a long, proven record of success when it comes to locating and catching fish on these deep lakes, yet there’s a more hands-on, but seldom-used technique that will also bring lake trout up from the bottom and into the boat. It involves fishing vertically with leadhead jigs dressed with soft plastics. It’s not really jigging; instead, a more accurate description is “vertical retrieving.”
I had never even seen a Finger Lake, or fished specifically for lake trout, when I learned about vertical retrieving from my friend, Al “Buzz” Boyer, an experienced and enthusiastic Fingers Lake angler who takes pride in catching lake trout without trolling.
The plan was for Boyer to fish with my friends and me on my boat so he could provide an on-the-water demonstration of this effective technique; however, a late change in Boyer’s work schedule would prevent him from fishing with us. But it only took one living room conversation for Boyer to provide us with all of the information needed for us to catch a near-limit of nice lakers during our first-ever trip to Keuka Lake at Hammondsport, N.Y.
Boyer is aware of only one lure that works well when vertical retrieving for lake trout. I’m looking forward to experimenting and hopefully identifying others, but for now the hot bait is a 4-inch white plastic tube with tentacles. (To be very specific, it’s a Cabin Creek Salty Critter Gitter.) The tentacles are cut off, and the plastic is hooked on a 1-ounce jighead with a round, white head. It’s critically important that the tube is threaded on so it’s straight on the hook. Any curl or bend in the plastic will seriously hinder its ability to trigger strikes.
This technique involves dropping the jighead and plastic to the bottom and reeling it in. Instead of immediately retrieving it, I have tried bouncing and jigging it on the bottom, yet nothing seems to work nearly as well as slowly and steadily reeling it in.
A key point that Boyer emphasizes is that the jig must lift straight up off the bottom and travel straight up through the water. Cast the jig in the direction the boat is drifting, and allow the jig to sink as the boat drifts toward it. The jig should be on the bottom by the time the boat drifts directly over it, and then begin the retrieve by reeling it up. Do not reel before the boat has moved over the jig, and do not allow the boat to drift past the jig before reeling, as in either case the retrieve will not be straight up or effective.
Evidently, this white soft plastic lifting straight off the bottom closely resembles sawbellies and other Finger Lakes baitfish and the escape route they attempt when threatened by the presence of lake trout and other predators.
In late spring, summer and fall, lake trout are often found in depths of 75- to 125 feet. On days when a breeze increases the speed of the boat drift, longer casts will be needed to provide enough time for the jig to sink to the bottom before the boat drifts over it.
Many strikes occur within several feet, and sometimes even mere inches of the bottom, just as the jig lifts off the bottom. Other times bites will come much higher in the water column, so don’t give up and start reeling in fast in anticipation of the next cast. Evidently, lake trout will sometimes follow a jig for a considerable distance before striking, as we have hooked fish within 10- to 30 feet of the surface.
A spinning or baitcasting reel filled with 12- to 17-pound braided line works well for vertical retrieving. The no-stretch, thin-diameter braid slices through the water and gets the jig to the bottom quickly. The sensitivity of braided line makes it easier to detect when a lake trout has inhaled a jig more than 100 feet down. A 16- to 18-inch piece of fluorocarbon is used as a leader; attach it to the braided line with a uni-knot.
In addition to Keuka Lake, Boyer says vertical retrieving also works well in Seneca and other Finger Lakes, and they’ve also caught big brown trout to 10 pounds on jigs as they are reeled off the bottom and straight up toward the surface.
Give this technique a try some time!
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