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The thrill of big lake trout: A changing vision on Lake Michigan

Bobby Bergren caught and released the biggest laker, showing the scars of a long life, Monday on an early outing on Lake Michigan.
Credit: Dale Bowman

LAKE MICHIGAN, Ind.–As Capt. Ralph Steiger motored out Monday morning, he eyed the the occasional floating ice chunks and floes.

Vision matters.

There’s many meanings to vision. Steiger doesn’t talk in these terms, but he has a vision when it comes to lake trout in southern Lake Michigan.

His vision reshapes our thinking on lakers, often an afterthought on Lake Michigan. Reality is lakers are a native species reproducing in southern Lake Michigan. They anchor salmon and trout in the lake.

Lakers are not the fighters that Chinook, steelhead or brown trout are, nor as tasty as coho. The practical genius of Steiger is turning chasing lakers into a sportfishery.

He fishes them near shore in fall and winter, when the lake allows, casting and jigging with light spinning tackle. Monday we used rattling baits, which I enjoyed, and white tubes and other plastics.

“I don’t think the way I am doing is the only way to catch them,” Steiger said.

But his ways are effective.

“This is not like fighting a smallie,” said Kyle Danhausen, noted smallmouth bass fisherman and Shimano rep, who caught his first fish of the year and his first laker.

The morning started with a double on big lakers. Our average laker was 8-12 pounds, with a handful over 15 pounds. We also had two triples. Part of being a sportfishery is a focus on catch-and-release with limited harvest.

“You can’t scoop them up, dump them on the floor of the boat and let them flop around,” Steiger said.

For photos, he found a good method. For right-handers, grab the tail with the left hand, then put the right under the laker and find the line on the belly to tuck fingers in. Don’t mess with the red gill plate. Handle them as little as possible. A coated net is best.

Mid-morning, Steiger picked up Bobby Bergren after he got off college. Bergren had the sugar for the big ones, catching and releasing the two biggest (17 pounds).

Over the past few years, Steiger found areas that hold lakers in fall or winter. He said, “You want a drop, the steeper the better [he hand gestured a straight vertical], and rocks going to sand.”

He said lakers should hang near shore until Lake Michigan warms into the mid-40s. On Monday, the water was 32-33.

“Water clarity makes a big difference,” Steiger said. “If the water gets nasty, they just leave.”

Kyle Danhausen added the beauty of a steelhead against the industrial backdrop of the Indiana shoreline. Credit: Dale Bowman

Kyle Danhausen added the beauty of a steelhead against the industrial backdrop of the Indiana shoreline.
Credit: Dale Bowman

We also jumped around classic late-winter spots for brown trout and coho. Good to see coho beginning to show, both the typical early coho of a pound or two and some small 10- to 12-inchers (Indiana minimum is 14 inches). Danhausen caught and released a beautifully colored steelhead, caught by the industrial shoreline, to give us four species.

But lakers were the focus.

At one point, Danhausen said, “You just have to rejoice in it.”

Verily.

Most days ice is out enough to launch at Hammond or Portage in Indiana; or at Cal Park.

Steiger may be reached at (219) 688-3593 or at captsteiger.com. He is doing an extensive seminar March 4, click here for details.

STRAY CAST: If that was the greatest Super Bowl ever, billions of people had the vision of one of those Mexican blindcats found last year in a deep limestone cave at Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas.

The wonder of fishing Lake Michigan in Indiana by an industrial shoreline. Credit: Dale Bowman

The wonder of fishing Lake Michigan in Indiana by an industrial shoreline.
Credit: Dale Bowman