ERIE — With every pump of the casting rod, the big fish pulled down, down, down toward the southern slope of The Mountain, a giant submerged hump spared by the last glacier some 14,000 years ago. Each spring in most of that time, and maybe longer, lake trout in eastern Lake Erie have staged in those 45- to 65-foot waters prior to attempts at spawning in shallower depths off what is now North East.
Pollution-related habitat changes and the invasion of exotic species such as the sea lamprey resulted in the loss of all native Lake Erie lake trout by about 1965. An initial Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocking program morphed into a multi-state, provincial and federal effort that has slowly taken root. The big fish are holding on in the face of challenges, and anglers are noticing. In 2012 a new state record was set at 29 pounds, 4 ounces.
While their char-family cousins the steelhead often taunt anglers with tail-walking surface acrobatics, lake trout respond differently to the hook, digging deep and daring anglers to haul them up -- one pump of the rod at a time -- all the way to the surface. The 91/2-pound 28-incher on my line was one of 15 lake trout released by our party of four on a successful half day of fishing with Reel Obsession charters out of Presque Isle Bay.
"They're always here this time of year. They're here for the water temperature," said captain Burt Campbell of Penn Hills.
Every spring, during five years as a mate and six years as owner and captain, he has run the 12 miles east of the peninsula to find the big lakers on The Mountain.
"We're at 45 feet on top of the hump, dropping off into 55 to 60 feet. It's 41 degrees at the surface and at 40 feet," he said, pointing to the electronics in the cabin. "Once the water starts warming up they'll drop off into the deeper part of the lake into 100, 130 feet of water. This time of year it's all spoons, trolling with downriggers or Dipsy Divers."
The strategy is simple, said mate Ryan Johnston of Erie.
"You don't need to know a whole lot to come here and catch a couple of these," he said. "In the spring, you know where they are and about how deep. Just get some green spoons, some oranges -- bright colored stuff works best -- sometimes you get them on purples."
Johnston set the Dipsys at the 31/2 setting for 110 feet on the outside with a planer board, and at the 11/2 setting for 70 to 90 feet on the inside. He ran the downriggers so close to the bottom they sometimes bumped, with the lures 2 to 30 feet off the ball.
"There was still ice on the lake in late April. I think they were probably staged here three weeks ago, but no one could get out to them," said Johnston. "They get finicky at times. Speed is important."
Campbell kept the boat moving "a hair slower than we would for walleye," he said, from about 1.7 mph to about 2.4. When a fish hit, he set a GPS marker and continued circling over that spot, searching for a pattern.
"You're looking for what works best. Every day's different," he said. "Speed, depth, color, direction -- sometimes they won't take it if you're going the wrong way. Today [the surface] is pretty flat, but it's usually better when there's a little chop. Generally when you find a couple, if you work that spot you'll get more, and whatever's working will work for the rest of the day."
Over the past five years, lake trout fishing has gotten better, said Campbell, a trend he attributes to a stocking program now coordinated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the catch-and-release preference of most anglers.
Lake trout and brook trout are the only trout native to Pennsylvania waters. Lake trout exist naturally in Lake Erie and Susquehanna County's Silver Lake. They have been planted in Harvey's Lake (Luzerne County), Raystown Lake (Huntingdon) and Allegheny Reservoir (Warren).
In Lake Erie, more than 200,000 yearlings of several strains were stocked annually in the 1990s, but the number was cut to 120,000 due to concerns about a shortage of forage fishes and relaxed sea lamprey controls. Lamprey controls have been tightened but their population continues to spike. Tell-tale sea lamprey suction marks are common on lake trout.
A March 2014 report by the interstate and provincial Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group found lake trout struggling to survive the virtually unchecked expansion of the invasive sea lamprey. In 2012, 260,040 yearling lake trout were stocked in Lake Erie. Young fish age 1 to 5 years dominate typical angler catches while big bruisers of 10 years and older are caught sporadically. The number of adults age 5 and older increased in 2013 to an all-time high that nevertheless remains below the project's goals.
"Recent estimates indicate very low rates of adult survival," said the report. "Natural reproduction has not been documented in Lake Erie despite more than 30 years of restoration efforts."
The problem is sea lampreys, which prefer to target large adult lake trout and steelhead. According to the report, the lamprey wounding rate on lake trout was 14.3 wounds per 100 fish in 2013, a 42 percent increase from the 2012 wounding rate and a 73 percent increase over the previous two years.
Recreational fishing impact is virtually nonexistent. Despite a Pennsylvania harvest limit of two per day, very few lake trout are intentionally killed.
"Angler harvest of lake trout in Lake Erie remains very low," said the Coldwater Task Group report. "Approximately 824 were harvested in New York waters out of an estimated catch of 1,805 in 2013. An estimated harvest of 176 lake trout occurred in Pennsylvania water in 2013."
Campbell said most of his clients are happy to throw them back.
"I've been pushing the lake trout charters at the outdoors shows, and more people are showing an interest," he said. "It's something different. I believe the more interest, the more attention will be given to these fish."
Reel Obsession can be reached at www.ErieCharters-ReelObsession.com, 412-612-7506.