Break The Winter Ice To Fish Alaska Refuges


The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


Alaska’s national wildlife refuges are open year-round to winter-based recreation, including fishing. Safely accessing and enjoying Alaska’s wildlife refuges in winter takes careful planning.

The National Wildlife Refuge System ( is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a host of other refuges offer ice fishing in the Lower 48, while year-round quality fishing opportunities are available on more than 270 national wildlife refuges. 

In the Last Frontier, there are three such refuges that should be on any ice angler’s bucket list. 

These two were both happy to pose with a nice Kenai NWR rainbow. (MATT CONNER/USFWS)


Alaska residents know that fishing on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge changes with the seasons. Winter brings many anglers who pursue native trout through the ice. 

The refuge’s Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, featuring lakes like Hidden, Engineer and Kelly, can be reached by road and offers an easily accessible day of fishing. 

More hardy souls willing to travel by foot, snowmachine or cross-country ski are rewarded with backcountry lakes that see little angler pressure but have high fish concentrations. 

A few remote lakes that offer incredible winter fishing and have refuge cabins for rent include Trapper Joe, McClain and Snag. Each year, a few winter anglers will make the trek to one of these remote cabins and experience some truly amazing winter fishing in blissful solitude and surrounded by the beauty of the refuge.

Getting some fishing time at sprawling Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which features several iced lakes right off the road system that make for easy opportunities. (USFWS)


Fishing opportunities are many and varied on Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s rivers, streams, ponds and sloughs give visitors a chance to harvest fresh fish at almost any time of year. 

Ice fishing is common, especially in March and April, when the days are longer and temperatures milder than in midwinter. Anglers most frequently target inconnu (sheefish) on Selawik Lake and Hotham Inlet. These areas are most easily reached by snowmachine from Kotzebue or nearby villages. On rivers, sloughs and smaller lakes, northern pike and burbot can also be caught through the ice. 

The refuge has no developed tourist infrastructure. Most visitors access the refuge by commercial aircraft from Anchorage to Kotzebue. In Kotzebue, small scheduled commercial flights can be taken to nearby villages or chartered directly to the refuge. 

USFWS ice fishing 5
USFWS-sponsored ice fishing events bring friends and families together on Alaska’s wildlife refuges. (USFWS)


Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, with 2.3 million acres of designated wilderness, offers visitors the challenges and rewards of remoteness. That’s why the staff urges visitors to be prepared to handle any situation on your own. Bring emergency survival supplies and carry and know how to use a map and compass or GPS. 

The refuge adjoins other public lands. To the east is the nation’s largest state park, Wood-Tikchik . To the north lies the massive Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Together, these lands cover more than 24 million acres to form one of the largest protected areas in the world.

If fishing is your passion, Togiak Refuge might well be your place to catch Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, northern pike and rainbow trout. Access to the refuge is by chartered airplane from Dillingham. ASJ

Editor’s note: Martha Nudel is the chief of communications for the USFWS. For more, go to


Follow these guidelines when ice fishing:
Dress appropriately for the weather. Winter conditions can include extreme cold, high winds and precipitation (snow, sleet, rain). Getting/staying wet in freezing temperatures can result in frostbite, hypothermia and death. Make sure you have enough spare dry clothes.
Bring extra food. Being in cold weather burns extra calories. Weather delays and emergencies can happen – so make sure you have enough food for several extra days.
Bring extra water. Keep extra hydrated in cold weather. Be sure your water is stored in a way so that it doesn’t freeze or that you have a way to heat it. Always make sure you have more than you think you might need. Emergencies happen.
Travel with someone. Having someone with you is a bit of an insurance policy in case of an emergency or if you’re injured.
Communicate your plans. Leave a detailed plan with someone. Be sure to include where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Your point of contact will need to know who to contact in case of an emergency. Bring something to signal rescuers along on your trip.
Have a reliable way to communicate. Cellphone coverage can be poor or nonexistent, depending on where you travel in Alaska. Other options, like satellite phones, may require practice before you can use them.
Be knowledgeable in first aid. Bring a first aid kit.
Be familiar with your destination and weather conditions. Thoroughly research your destination and listen to weather advisories. Talk to local sources about terrain and conditions.
Carry maps and other tools to help you find your bearings.
Be familiar with ice. Ice is strongest where it’s clear. Five to 6 inches of clear ice is recommended for foot traffic. Inflowing streams or creeks can cause layers of slush, water and ice.
Overflows are sometimes hidden under snow, and may suddenly give way. Underwater springs may also cause sections of ice to be thinner than surrounding areas. Because spring activity thins the ice from underneath, this type of thin ice is sometimes undetectable. Ice thickness can vary on flowing waters as well, such as on creeks and rivers.
Have a shelter. At a minimum, bring a space emergency blanket. A small portable bivvy or four-season tent also make for good options. Your shelter should be able to keep you dry and protect you from the wind. Katrina Liebich