The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY SCOTT HAUGEN
I loved the winters when we lived in Alaska’s Arctic through the 1990s. Cold temperatures amid total darkness for weeks on end left no doubt as to what season it was. Severe winters forced us to slow down and afforded time to get inside projects done, ones that went overlooked during the summer and fall months.
But when the sun started showing itself, we felt an urge to get outside. Yes, temperatures were still well below zero, but that didn’t matter. Bundle up, don’t stay out too long and even a two-hour outing can make you realize how special of a place the Arctic is, no matter what time of year.
While hunting dominated our semisubsistence life in Point Lay, once Tiffany and I moved to Anaktuvuk Pass, fishing became a part of it. Fishing for grayling and char in summer and fall on the streams lacing their way through the Brooks Range was fun and yielded good-eating treats, but it was the ice fishing I highly anticipated. Perhaps it was because I never fished through the ice where I grew up in Oregon. Perhaps it was because of the people and the place.
Looking back on my more than 30 years of traveling through Alaska – nearly a decade of which was spent living there – ice fishing has created some priceless memories.
THE FIRST TIME I went ice fishing on a frozen river near Anaktuvuk Pass was one I’ll never forget. I joined two elders from the village, and Ruth was the one who set me straight. Aunty Ruth, as everyone affectionately referred to her, was in her 60s, and in addition to ice fishing in the winter, she ran her own wolf trapline alone.
“Walk to where that line is, then use this to break a hole in the ice,” she said while handing me a round river rock she picked up after kicking it free from the frozen, wind-swept gravel bar that we stood on along the banks of the Anaktuvuk River. “Don’t step over that line or you will fall in; the ice is thin there.”
Gingerly, I stepped onto the ice. It was clear, 2 feet thick and frozen solid to the bottom. When I reached the line on the ice Ruth had pointed out to me, I could see it was thin. Using the rock, I punched an 8-inch hole in the ice, then started jigging my little lure. It didn’t take long and I had my first Arctic char through the ice. My rod line was tied to a willow branch the way Ruth did it. She smiled.
Without Ruth I would have had no clue where to start fishing on the ice. She taught me how to read the river ice, pointed out how deep holes and currents affected ice formation, and shared some of the best fishing spots with me. She encouraged me to take only what we needed to eat. I did, just like the locals.
YEARS LATER, I FOUND myself in a very different ice-fishing scenario. I was with some friends on a stocked lake just north of Anchorage and we used modern gear, including an ice auger to drill multiple holes and tip-up rods that set the hook when there was a bite.
We were surrounded by houses on the lake, but it was still peaceful, as winter always seems to be in Alaska no matter where you are. On this day we caught Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and kokanee, or landlocked salmon. The fish were delicious and my time with friends was relaxing and fun. I wanted more.
My next ice fishing adventure will be tough to beat, as it took place in a familiar place but for an unfamiliar species. I was in Kotzebue, fishing with longtime friend Lew Pagel. For many years Lew has had a chiropractic practice in Kotzebue and he loves his hunting and fishing there. He especially revels in fishing through the ice for big sheefish.
The first time I tasted sheefish, it left me wanting more. I’d caught them on spinning gear and a fly rod, but never through the ice. “This time of year the sheefish will come into the bay in big schools, swimming in circles looking for herring,” Lew shared. “We can either drill holes and wait them out or go on the move in search of them.” We did both.
I’ve fished sheefish through the ice with Lew multiple times in March and April. Drilling through 7 feet of ice is the norm. Bundling up to cope with subzero temperatures is a must. When it was brutally cold, we’d put up an ice fishing tent and turn on a heater, but we only did that twice. We preferred being in the wide open spaces and enjoying the grandeur of this special place.
The first time I fished with Lew I was by myself. It was such a wonderful experience that the next time up, my teenage son joined me. And the year after that, my wife Tiffany came.
When Kazden, my then 12-year-old son, went with me, it was his first time to the Arctic. He’d been to other places in Alaska, but never above the Arctic Circle. His whole life he’d heard stories about mine and Tiffany’s years in the Arctic, so for him to experience the desolation, the unique fishing, the warm people and the brutal conditions was life-changing. It also taught him patience, as it took three days to find the sheefish. Until then we’d not had a bite.
As the sun descended toward the frozen ocean to the west, Kazden finally got a bite on the big spoon he was jigging. Soon after he was pulling a 22-pound sheefish through the ice. More followed. In fact, for the next 30 minutes it was nonstop action. It made the prior few days of effort well worth it. We ended up with a pile of sheefish and took home 100 pounds of meat. Sheefish is my favorite smoked fish, even over any of the salmonids.
THE FOLLOWING SPRING, TIFFANY joined Lew and I. It was her first time back to the Arctic since we lived there in the 1990s.
She loved the experience, especially the fact it only took a few hours of fishing on the first day to find a big school of hungry sheefish.
The first fish Tiffany pulled through the ice pushed 30 pounds. I soon followed with a 40-pounder. Then I hooked one so big it wouldn’t fit through the ice hole. What I would have given to have seen that monster!
Lew is friends with most of the locals, and since we weren’t far from town, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by anglers. Elders, parents and children joined us, and everyone caught fish. We shared stories, laughed, butchered fish on the ice and left as darkness brought an end to the day.
This was one of the most enjoyable, most memorable fishing experiences of our lives, and Tiff and I still talk about it. That day I captured Tiffany smiling, her fur-ruff parka on, and holding a big sheefish. It still might be my favorite photo I’ve ever captured of her.
“It’s a magical place and more people are eager to experience it; that’s for sure,” Lew shared. “We’ve been booking trips the past couple seasons and folks are loving it! They love being above the Arctic Circle, visiting the village and, of course, catching sheefish.”
Next on my bucket list of ice fishing adventures in Alaska is for big lake trout. And burbot. And monster northern pike…And… The list goes on. ASJ
Editor’s notes: Lew Pagel offers guided and fully outfitted do-it-yourself ice fishing trips for sheefish (arcticfishingadventures.com) and is based out of Kotzebue, Alaska. He has all the gear you’ll need, willarrange accommodations and clean and vacuum-seal your fish for the trip home. Alaska Airlines offers two flights daily in and out of Kotzebue, making planning a trip to this remote destination simple. To order signed copies of author Scott Haugen’s many popular fishing and hunting books, visit scotthaugen.com. Follow his adventures on Instagram and Facebook.