Ice Fishing Alaskan Arctic Char

By Tom Gruenwald

For me, the inner Alaskan landscape carries a mystique: Thousands of acres of remote, raw wilderness encompassing steep mountain ranges, massive glaciers, wide expanses of tundra, vast herds of roaming caribou and salmon filled streams.

Tom Gruenwald Outdoors

Yet despite my deep reverence, while staring into the distant mountains I sense a somewhat unsettled, misplaced feeling and can’t quite come to grips with reality. From a disoriented Midwestern perspective, my mind wants to register the hazy, purplish-gray peaks highlighted against vivid blue skies as uniquely configured, low hanging clouds lining the horizon.

I can’t describe it any other way. Hallucinatory visual signals blur in and out of mental focus. Clouds…no, mountains…mountains, no, clouds… I suddenly find myself seemingly experiencing my own Mt. Katahdin Thoreauism: Where am I? Who am I?

My thoughts soon become grounded, however, as I look back down at a much more familiar view: A dark hole within snow covered ice; my colored Vexilar screen positioned harmoniously alongside, the blip representing my lure moving in direct correlation with my rod tip as I jig. I’m intently focused, watching for any signs of fish moving into view or more importantly, toward, that blip.

Here, any significant red mark is likely to be one of two native species: Burbot or arctic char. While I enjoy catching the former and they’re well respected within this region—char are the primary target.

Tom Gruenwald Outdoors

Fifteen feet away my trip partner and friend, George Krumm, jigs every bit as intensely, if not more so. He’s been here, worked these waters, used his talents to tease strikes and catch gorgeous arctic char fully emblazoned in their brilliant red-orange spawning regalia. I’ve seen pictures of him posing with these striking fish, and I’m hoping to share a similar experience.

George soon proves his prowess by hooking up first, and as his catch appears at the hole, I again feel a sense of the surreal. A member of the trout family, arctic char share enough attributes to draw strong similarities with their close cousin, the lake trout, yet feature a unique shape, distinctive markings and a notably smooth, glossy gill cover. Just seeing one brings an air of excitement, a sense of something special.

George handles the fish with utmost respect, gingerly cradling it while unhooking his tube jig, then slips its head back into the water. With a sudden flash, the fish disappears back into the clear, icy Alaskan depths below.

Tom Gruenwald Outdoors

I note his gear is similar to what many Midwesterners might use when fishing lake trout: A medium-heavy rod and small bait cast style reel spooled with 10# braid, a length of fluorocarbon leader and 4″ tube—but because we’re fishing water less than thirty feet deep, the tube is rigged on a relatively light, 1/8 ounce jig head.

“This allows slow, enticing falls,” George explains. His jig head features a single hook—necessary due to a strictly enforced law prohibiting use of trebles–and also per Alaskan regulation, no bait or scent. George staunchly supports these rulings, fully aware they help protect the arctic char and preserve the species for future generations.

I’m using a 42″ medium-heavy HT Sapphire Ice spinning combo, also spooled with ten pound braid and a fluorocarbon leader. However, my lure choice is a flashy, silver colored Jig-A-Whopper Lazer Rocker spoon; the standard treble hook replaced with a single Si-Wash.

My first catch comes soon. There’s plenty of excitement as an admirable fight ensues, but rather than the desired char, a very determined, darkly mottled burbot appears in front of my outstretched hands.

Tom Gruenwald Outdoors

The next fish is the right species, again brought to the ice courtesy of Mr. Krumm. I rush over to assist, watching as he skillfully guides another hard-fighting char toward the surface–slowly enough to tire the powerful fish, yet blended with steady pressure to keep his line tight and maintain control—things I’ll soon learn are critical when battling these exceptional fish.

My turn eventually arrives. I mark something rising abruptly toward my lure, attacking in a wild, erratic rush, but the sequence doesn’t result in a solid strike. Instead, it’s more akin to a warning shot. Excitement turns to disappointment, but quickly returns to heightened anticipation as the fish makes a sharp directional change, charges back and strikes authoritatively.

What I encounter next is nothing short of extraordinary. There’s no question I’ve hooked a remarkable fish, one I’d have to count among the most worthy adversaries I’ve ever fought. It attacks powerfully, then charges into a series of sharp, forceful runs tempered with unpredictable directional changes and violent head shakes resulting in tackle busting pulls alternated with abruptly slack lines, providing continuous challenge. George approaches, watching closely as I work to keep the crazed fish in check, and soon, my first arctic char is iced.

Shortly thereafter I hook another, and now semi-experienced and better prepared, respond much more comfortably, handling the subsequent fight with much greater proficiency. George nods approvingly, and following gentle release of my fish, returns to his hole where he admirably hooks up again. But the best is yet to come.

The next red mark appearing on my Vexilar is solid and wide. This fish attacks viciously, and when I set the hook, the vigorous response clearly indicates I’m tangling with another char—but this time, one thing is sharply different: My rod bends deeply under substantial weight. Thankfully I’ve gotten the hang of this, and adeptly work to tire the hefty fish–a gorgeous, richly colored 26″ inch beauty.

My heart is racing, passionately pumping a rush of adrenaline through my veins; I shake uncontrollably. This is wild Alaska, America’s final frontier, and it’s churned out a sizable, impressively chromatic arctic char—exactly what George and I had hoped for, providing the ideal crowning moment on an incredibly memorable day.

Be sure to watch this all-new episode of TGO, Tom Gruenwald Outdoors, coming soon on Sportsman Channel! Check local listings for specific air dates and times.

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