Alaska provides unique opportunities for extreme winter fishing experiences. I am not talking about sitting idle on an empty bucket turned upside-down at twenty below trying to entice an eight inch stocker trout. I am talking about offering ice anglers legitimate possibilities of catching trophy size monsters, fish which may never see the surface because they are simply too large and unable to fit through a ten inch hole. Where, you ask? Kotzebue!
The city of Kotzebue is remotely located on a peninsula off the western coast line of Alaska thirty-three miles north of the Arctic Circle. Airplanes or boats are the principle means to reach the community, as there is no road system to reach the area from other regions of the State. The Noatak, Selawik, and Kobuk Rivers all drain near the vicinity of the coastal city and serve as transportation routes inland for the regional communities. The rivers also host a very large population of migrating sheefish. Sheefish (Inconnu) are the largest species of whitefish in Alaska growing in size up to and over 60 pounds. Their bodies are bright sliver in color with very large scales, closely resembling a salt water tarpon. (Sheefish are often called "Tarpon of the North" by sport fisherman) Seasonal conditions during late April have a large population of sheefish congregating under the frozen surface of the brackish water near Kotzebue preparing for migration into the rivers. Visiting anglers have a realistic chance of catching a trophy caliber size sheefish, and was exactly what I planned on doing during my own extreme winter fishing trip to “Kotz”.
I was meeting up with my long time friend and fishing cohort Christopher Cox. The month of April normally has us meeting up with each other in Southeast Alaska on the Situk River and pursuing goliath steelhead. However, his invitation to rendezvous in Kotzebue for a new experience instead of our annual spring steelhead ritual was not difficult, especially after seeing photos of huge sheefish he shared with me from his previous outings in the region. Planning for the adventure with Chris was simplified due to his experience, knowledge, and established connections in the area.
We planned a five day event during the latter half of the month accounting for adverse weather and travel time in hopes for 3 full days of fishing. Chris coordinated logistics for the trip taking care of all the transportation, lodging, and equipment essentials. All I had to do was pack some warm weather clothing, grab my rods, and purchase a plane ticket. So off I went!
Armed with intelligence information from a local sources, our plan of attack for the first day was to travel by truck out of town and across the frozen brackish water of the Kotzebue Sound too an area a couple miles off shore where local fisherman had been having success. Reports had the ice at over 5 feet thick, which is normally plenty safe for driving a vehicle on.
A snow plowed path, which was about as wide as the truck, unmistakably marked the route as we drove off the land and onto the ice. Driving the three thousand pound vehicle on the ice-covered road and seeing Kotzebue get farther away in the rearview mirror had me a little uneasy, particularly with not knowing thickness or condition of the ice. However, with visions of 50 inch sheefish dancing in our heads and the road looking well traveled and maintained, we cautiously continued on.
The narrow ice road paralleled the shore line for approximately one mile, eventually to a point where the graded ice lane forked. Hardly hesitating we took the fork that led us away from the shoreline. Driving the plowed path until it abruptly ended about another mile from the fork. With no road left, we exited the vehicle and began surveying the area. It did not take very long before finding several iced over holes which appeared too had been used previously for fishing. The blood stained snow, most likely from dispatching fish for harvest, was another dead giveaway. Neither of us required CSI credentials to determine this location was a good place to start fishing.
Chris anxiously took a spud bar and began chipping away at the surface of the ice covered the holes. With only a couple of forceful thrust he managed to crack the crust and reveal that they were not frozen solid. The recent activity meant we did not have to drag out the auger and drill new fishing holes. Although potlicking is considered to be lazy, the area was void of any other fisherman, so we made an exception and prepared our gear for fishing.
Local fishermen use a traditional triangular wooden handle with about 30 feet of dacron type line attached and a large shiny spoon (replicating bait fish) to efficiently catch sheefish. Their method is proven and very effective; however our idea was to employ ice fishing gear which was a little more modern.
I brought a couple 32 inch heavy action lake trout rods. The specialty ice fishing rods are made by a local Alaskan business, Two Rivers Rods and feature a stiff spine to handle heavy fish, yet are sensitive to feel a bite at deep depths. Low profile Abu Garcia Revo bait casting reels were seated on each of the sticks to ensure enough line would be available and a proficient drag system would assist in landing any huge fish. P-Line Spectrex braid 80lb test was spooled on the reels, maybe a little overkill, however never having caught a large sheefish through the ice previously, I did not want to be under gunned. Additionally I wanted a positive hook up with zero stretch factors, and also avoid line fray on the sharp edge of an ice hole. A barrel swivel & locking snap (in order to quickly change lures in the cold conditions and avoid line twisting while jigging) were attached to the end of each line. To attract the fish we brought a dozen four inch Doctor Spoon brand original 1-3/8oz spoons in various colors which completed our gear list.
Just like kids at the front counter in a candy store we enthusiastically hovered over separate holes, simultaneously dropping our large offerings in for a bite. We discovered the water depth was about twenty-five feet to the bottom. Once hitting the bottom, I reeled enough line up in order to present the spoon a couple feet off the ocean floor. I alternated my jigging between long pulls and short quick strokes allowing the spoon to free fall flutter and flash during its descent. I continued vertically dancing my spoon as I took in the vastness of the sound. The miles of ice covered water had me feeling like I was fishing for needle in a haystack, and then it happened. It was a definite forceful strike from something below the ice attempting to eat my lure, but I failed to set the hook.
I yelled with excitement, “I just had a bite!” My volume was probably loud enough to be heard by all the residents two miles away in Kotzebue. Anticipation in full throttle, Spiderman senses tingling, I increase focus on my jigging pattern to persuade another bite and this time actually set the hook. I imagined myself as the fish, watching the action of the large spoon like an offer which could not be refused. Then it happened again, wham! My instinctive reactions took over pulling up and setting the hook just after feeling the tip of the rod react to the lure getting smashed. With heavy resistance felt and line rolling off the reel I knew it was a positive hook set.
My adrenaline kicking in now, I scream at the top of my lungs, “Fish On!” in the direction of Chris. The fish took out about ten yards of line after the initial hook set. As Chris made his way over to me, I reeled down on the fish. My rod flexing as I put pressure on what felt like a decent size sheefish, I continued to reel up line and feel strong head shakes. The fish seemed to be easily controlled as I guided the head towards the ice opening to breach the surface. Not a huge by sheefish standards, but a respectable thirty-four incher and not too shabby for icing my first one ever. After a couple grin and grip photos and exchanging high fives it was back to fishing.
Fishing the rest of the day was slow by any standard. It seemed we needed a new location. I was just about ready to suggest a change when I heard Chris shout “Fish on!” Looking over to where he was standing and seeing his rod doubled over, I quickly reeled up to go over and see what he had on.
Upon walking up and taking a knee beside his hole I began eagerly watching the opening, jaw wide open, my eyes strain trying to look into the waters shadowy glare attempting to get a glimpse of what was below. His low profile reel sings a chorus as several yards of line is quickly ripped out against the drag. His rod wildly bends from massive head shakes and resistance. With the look of euphoric shock on his face and music coming off the reel I realize he must have one enormous sheefish on the other end of his line.
Excitement fills the air, as we begin asking ourselves out loud, “Is this fish going to be a fifty incher?” Expectations grow in both of us as the tug of war fight subsides and the fish is coaxed closer to being brought to the surface. However, after approximately ten minutes of unsuccessful attempts guiding the fish up the hole; we both succumb to the notion that this fish was simply going to be too big for the opening in the ice. Our enthusiasm gets totally deflated when the hook is slipped and he reels it up his rig void of any signs of a victory.
The first day ended with a grand total of only two sheefish to the surface and an incidental catch of one starry flounder. The largest of the two sheefish went about forty-five inches in length. As we headed back towards Kotzebue our thoughts and conversation was more about the fish which was never seen rather than the ones we hoisted above the ice. With two more days of fishing, we regrouped and got ready to adventure out again to find a fifty plus inch sheefish.
Instead of driving out to the same location as the day prior, it was decided to simply try right off the city shoreline. An area less than 500 yards with the tell tale signs of several holes and crimson colored ice was within walking distance of the city shoreline road, Front Street. It would be a short drive and maximize fishing time by continuing to potlick holes already available.
Upon arrival we found several holes already open and ready to fish. Reinvigorated after some sleep and the promise of a new day, we rotated fishing several holes like musical chairs hoping to land on the right place and get an elusive sheefish strike. The action was slow, but we did annoyingly catch several small longhorn sculpin. The big take downs never came, and after about 4 hours decided to call it for lunch. However, as promising as it first looked, the location simply did not pan out.
Just as we packed up to head in a local resident came by inquire about how the fishing was going. The look of skunk on our faces probably encouraged him to share with us that the fishing had been much better a week prior. He went on to suggest we try farther out towards a far point situated about five miles northeast of the city, in an area called Pikes Pit. Acquiring a snow machine was going to be in order for us to access the location.
Our second day finished with not a single sheefish caught or even hooked. With all the slow action and visions fading of the limited first day success, I was starting to believe sheefish were the Alaskan unicorn. Back in town, Chris made short work of securing transportation for the next day. We were going too doubled up on a 2-seated sled for the trek and last chance of the trip to catch big sheefish
Weather reports had a cold front with snow coming into the region beginning sometime in the late afternoon of the third day. So at first light, and full of hope, we set off zooming along the snow covered ice out of town on a snow machine headed in a direction Pikes Pit. Navigation was made easy by tree branches which are strategically placed and spaced in a single row to mark a trail for snow machines to follow at the beginning of winter.
Nearing the five mile mark was a predominant point of land which extended out from the shoreline and on the white horizon of the sound I could see what looked like another snow machine sitting stationary with a person standing next to it. Pointing in the direction of the motionless sled and raising my voice over the sound of the snow machine engine I told Chris, “That must be the area” Promptly he steered the sled in the direction I was pointing and accelerated.
As we glided to a stop upon nearing the idle machine and its owner, I noticed it had a tow behind skid with large objects on top. First glance had me thinking they were much too large to be fish, second look had my eyes confirm to my brain that yes indeed they were sheefish. Two enormous sheefish well over 45 inches in length and fat, conservatively they must have weighed over 30 lbs each. The fisherman was just packing up and heading back to town with his harvest.
After a brief chat with the local fisherman, he mounted his snow machine and left in a direction towards town, with both his prizes in tow. Scanning the area we could see several holes opened and lots of indicators of fish harvesting. We each found an open spot on the ice to fish and began jigging away. It did not take long for the fish to start hammering our spoons.
Fishing was fast and furious, catching numerous fish in the under thirty five inch mark with a total of twelve sheefish meeting or exceeding 45 inches. A few of the fish hooked would not turn and fit through the hole to get to the surface, so we ended up cutting the line. We continued to catch & release many sheefish for about 4 hours, so many we lost count. Chris ended up catching the beast of the day which went a whopping forty-eight inches in length. My largest catch was only one inch shy at forty-seven, and I also managed a bonus starry flounder in addition to all the big sheefish. We ended the day with harvesting two fish to bring back with us.
Kotzebue turned out to be a refreshing alternative to end my winter fishing season in Alaska. The trip provided an outstanding adventure targeting a new species of fish which I never previously caught ice fishing, and Chris and I both met our goals of catching several trophy size sheefish. I found the local community friendly and helpful, willing to share their knowledge in assisting others towards their angling success. The experience left me thirsty to return and maybe next time eclipse the fifty inch mark.