Don Allphin

A large cutthroat trout is shown on Strawberry Reservoir. Cutthroat trout are willing to strike a jerkbait after partially digesting a 10-inch rainbow trout. Trout gorge themselves when forage is available.

A lot of you have asked me over the years how to catch small lake trout, called “pups” by most lake trout aficionados, and I have written on the subject fairly often stretching back a decade or more.

Now, since the “virus” has kept me at home, isolated, and safe, I have developed a better understanding of pup lake trout behavior than ever before. This week’s column explores a few of my new discoveries.

Due to overpopulation of smaller lake trout, the limit on fish under 28 inches has increased to 12 per day. On the surface, that might seem that pups would literally be everywhere and would be very easily caught.

However, that is far from the truth.

Yes, they may be everywhere in the reservoir but locating and catching them is a completely different story.

For example, at times each year, the “pups” simply disappear. I can’t describe it a different way.

They don’t show up on fish finders, their normal haunts look like the Dead Sea, and concentrations of fish seem like empty dreams. This happened most recently during March. No matter how I tried, the only pup lake trout I caught were associating with rainbows in shallow water not deeper than 30 feet.

There were no visible concentrations, no schools, and except for two to three bites against 10 rainbow bites, pups were noticeably absent.

Then, without drumrolls or any fanfare whatsoever, the smaller lake trout showed up in HUGE schools that may have been 20 feet thick and ran for 200 yards. This is no exaggeration, and encountering such schools for many is a very rare occurrence.

Finding and fishing those huge schools has lasted through the writing of this column in early May. However, in just the last few days many of the schools I chase have dispersed and pups are now showing up in the backs of coves in fewer numbers, not really schools any more but ready to bite none the less.

If you start chasing pups in early spring on Flaming Gorge you must follow the rainbows. That means in every stream, channel, or launch ramp where rainbows come to spawn (and believe me when I say there are rainbows spawning almost every month of the year somewhere on Flaming Gorge) and expect them to surprise you when you cast and retrieve a 1/4-ounce tube tipped with a small piece of night crawler aimed at rainbows on their way to spawning grounds.

Don’t look for them on your finders unless you target water less than 30 feet deep. Even then, you will mistakenly think you’ve found pups but are really seeing rainbows, browns or cutthroats.

Then, in April and on into May, look for kokanee salmon — and note that the “kokes” are generally in 30 to 70 feet of water but schools of lake trout are in 80 to 120 feet (below the kokanees).

At that time, use a 3 1/2-inch white or green tube and a 3/8 to 1/2-ounce weight and drop down to them. You don’t need to “jig” them, just keep the jigs either near the bottom or at the very top of the schools.

If you notice a school becoming active (fish darting up and down) then drop a 1/2- to 3/4- ounce spoon tipped with a tiny (no bigger than a fingernail) piece sucker or chub meat, and “jig” it up, allowing it to free fall down to a taut line.

I have discovered that “active” lake trout will chase spoons up from the school, and when they don’t seem active, they will mouth and eventually eat tubes. When you find an active school, the 12-fish limit is almost automatic.

Pups like tubes and spoons tipped with sucker meat and tubes tipped with night crawlers, you can cast to the shore or vertically jig for them and they will respond. Be looking for more about catching “pups” in columns throughout the summer and into fall.

Don Allphin can be reached at don@donallphin.com.

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