One question I get asked a lot is regarding how good lake trout are on the table. It seems like half the fishermen I run into don't like them. Others think they are tops on the table. What's the real deal?
The first lake trout I remember catching were in Lake Ontario when I lived in Rochester, I think it was off of the piers. I didn't eat many trout or salmon from the "Big Lake" back then due to the fish consumption advisories and the general "Lake Ontario algae taste" many species seemed to have back then. Even walleyes out of LO sometimes tasted mediocre. So they all went back into the lake.
In the mid to late 1980s I started fishing with my buddy Terry out in his boat for perch, mainly on Seneca Lake. I remember catching a bonus laker once in a while. I'd put it in the live well and was very excited to eat it. They were good. I moved to Trumansburg from Rochester in 1995 and started catching lakers off of Taughannock Park in October. I'd put them on a stringer in the tepid water, or just let them sit on the bank of the lake (in 70 degree weather.) Some of them were OK, but a lot of them didn't taste too good. Kind of mediocre. And I had a few that were terrible - fish that I'd frozen for a while. Just rancid! Awful.
My turning point with eating lake trout came around 1998. I was waiting tables at "Kidders Landing" in Interlaken NY. Right on Cayuga Lake! It was a stressful, but fun job. The owner was Jim Haviland, a Charter Captain for many years on the lake. His father also chartered years earlier and they had ran a restaurant, ice cream place and bait/tackle shop all in one building. Jim knew I loved to fish even though I didn't have a boat at the time. One of his local buddies was a copper puller (if I remember right) and on a regular basis this guy would leave a 5-gallon pail with 3 fairly large lakers in it for Jim in our walk-in cooler.
Jim took me aside one slow night and said "I want to show you something." He went out to the walk in cooler and brought in the bucket of lake trout. He laid a laker on the kitchen counter and filleted it. He then flipped the still-attached fillet over and ran the knife parallel to the meat, which removed nearly all of the lateral line, plus a fair amount of meat, which was still attached to the skin. He said it was important to remove the entire lateral line because that's where some of the mediocre eating/flavor comes from. Jim said, "Some guys say I waste meat, but I tell them I got a bunch more of them - no big deal!"
If I remember right he then cut out the rib cage (or maybe he had filleted it out originally - it was a long time ago) and then meticulously cut out every piece of fat or non-good looking meat he could find. The fatty base of the fins - gone. The rest of the lateral line - gone. The fat on top of the fillet - gone. The bone line (calcium) where the fillet knife scraped against the backbone - gone. This took some time. He trimmed off the smallest bits of fat he could find - as if the stuff was poisonous! Every little bit! He then carefully wiped off the blood on the fillet with paper towel. "Never wash the fillets - these fish soak up water like a sponge," he told me.
He then cut the fillet into serving size portions, dredged them in flour and into the fryer they went. He handed me a piece to try - they were fantastic! As good a fish as I have eaten. He told me a story about how a lot of the locals didn't care for lake trout, but he'd secretly fry some up and serve the bar, all the while telling the guys that the fish were "brown trout." They'd eat them up and then want more. After a while, Jim would tell them what they'd been eating.
Since then, I make a point of bleeding out lakers (killing them in the livewell) then putting them right on ice. I'm not as meticulous as Jim was, but I try to do my best to trim the fillets. Lake trout do take extra effort. Think of lake trout flesh as something easily spoiled - like mayo. They are volatile and every minute they lay in tepid water, or in a cooler without any ice in the summer time, you are losing texture and flavor. Some of the recent lakers I've eaten has been amongst the best eating fish I've had - absolutely fantastic. And I've eaten plenty of ocean fish, walleyes, crappies, perch and more. Take care of your lakers and they'll take care of you, whether you choose to grill, poach, fry, saute, bake, broil, make chowder or smoke them, you'll find they are tops on the table when prepared properly from the lake to the plate.
And with any oily fish like Tuna or trout/salmon, lakers do not freeze well. Eat them within 2 or 3 days of catching them. If you freeze them, double wrap them in Saran Wrap and then wrap again in freezer paper. Don't freeze them for longer than 3 weeks. Some guys claim that freezing them in water works; I'm not a fan of it. You'll avoid freezer-burn but you're basically marinating the fish in water - a tasteless substance. I ate smelt preserved this way once and they were absolutely tasteless. There are ways to quick freeze fish by spraying them with water, but I haven't tried that. It is described in the Northwoods Fish Cookery cookbook.
There are tons of great recipes online for lakers. The LL Bean Cookbook has some, as does the "Northwoods Fish Cookery" book - my personal favorite. I think the big lakers taste fine too, but they are harder to cook properly - the outsides get overcooked and middle doesn't cook well, so if I keep large fish it's for the smoker or chowder. I love the 19" to 25" fish best.
As an aside, I think that the Keuka Lake lake trout are probably the best tasting in the area. There isn't a lot of bait in the lake for them to eat, so they also consume freshwater shrimp and perch fry. "You are what you eat" to some extent. But these fish do consume a lot of alewives as well. They are perfect eating sized fish - 17" to 23" on average, all wild and have a lower fat content than most lake trout. They are absolutely superb on the table! Lakers from the other lakes are fine eating as well, but I think there is something special about the Keuka fish.