They don't come any bigger. No matter what name you know it by -- togue, mackinaw, or fork-tail -- the lake trout is the largest North American trout.
As the name implies, lake trout are at home in flat water. Although a few populations live in rivers between lakes, that is not the norm. The lake trout is actually a char and is more closely aligned with brook trout than rainbows, cutthroats, or browns. Chars are characterized by light colored spots on a dark background.
The lake trout is found throughout Canada, with the exception of Newfoundland and parts of the prairie provinces and British Columbia. In the U.S., lakers live in the Great Lakes, parts of New England, New York, Minnesota and Montana. The lake trout has been introduced in deep lakes in New Mexico, Colorado and California. No matter where you find them, one thing is in common -- deep water. Lakers have been hauled up from as deep as 600 feet.
But they don't always live deep. In the fall, spawners move into the shallow shoals to lay eggs. Throughout their range, they may be in the shoals from October to December, spawning at temperatures 50 to 57 degrees. Research shows that lake trout have a very strong tendency to return to the same shoal whenever they are ripe again. The same fish doesn┐t spawn every year; there is usually about a three-year lapse between spawns. Unlike other trouts, lakers do not make a redd, or nest. They simply broadcast their spawn in the lake bottom gravels, and the eggs and young fend for themselves. The females may shed up to 17,000 eggs that take up to six months to hatch, quite a long time considering other species may hatch in a matter of days.
After spawning, the adults go back to business as usual in the deep water. That long incubation time of the eggs makes them quite vulnerable to predatory fish like suckers and carp. Less than one percent of the eggs laid will live long enough to spawn themselves. The young hatch in the spring about the time that microscopic plankton and tiny crustaceans are coming to life. At a small size, young lakers start heading to the deep where, like their parents, they will spend most of their lives.
Lake trout make a living eating fish, a habit that starts at an early age. Yellow perch, suckers, sculpin, ciscoes, and minnows are on top of the menu. Salamanders and song birds have turned up in the gullets of lake trout in diet studies. Even in the presence of ample forage, shrimp and insects are also heavily eaten.
It would be an understatement to say that lake trout are slow growers. It might take five years for a laker to reach 12 inches. These fish mature much more slowly than other related species, sometimes not maturing until age 15. As you might guess they also live a long time, up to 30 years or more. A fish that old could easily grow to 80 pounds.
Lake trout populations in the Great Lakes took a severe hit from commercial overharvest and the invasive sea lamprey that came up through the St. Lawrence Seaway. At its worst, 70 to 90 percent of lakers died each year from the parasite. Lamprey control has been successful and things have improved slightly since. Lake Michigan now sports a viable lake trout fishery.
--Springer is a fisheries scientist in New Mexico
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