Article contributed by Field Staff Writer J. McFarland.
For the past 30 miserable miles on my snowmachine (snowmobile) I have been breaking through snowdrifts and plowing through seemingly bottomless powder. White out conditions with sideways blowing snow and dense fog make visibility next to nothing. The temperature is a brutal 40 below zero, not factoring in wind-chill. Exposed skin is immediately frost bitten. Hands and feet are beyond numb. No warm cabin or man-made structure awaits my arrival to the lake, as I am towing a large homemade sled full to the brim with gear. No towns, stores, or gas stations within 100 miles. No other people nearby to fall back on in the event of an emergency. If you didn’t know better, you would think this was a polar expedition of some kind, but in fact, it is a routine ice fishing trip in Alaska’s Interior.
Winters in the last frontier are some of the coldest and longest in all of N. America, and likewise, so are the ice fishing seasons. Ice fishing generally begins in October and runs well into May. Most people prefer to fish the hard water during the spring because of increased daylight and warmer temperatures. Power augers with extensions are mandatory for this time of year, as ice thickness may exceed five feet. Because the majority of lakes and rivers are not road accessible, they require extensive backcountry travel to access, making day trips out of the question and full weekend (or week) expeditions the norm.
So is all the effort accessing lakes and misery enduring weather worth ice fishing? If you can tough out the weather and trek to the lake, then yes! Ice fishing in Alaska can be just as thrilling as the renowned open water season for salmon and trout. Burbot, Rainbow Trout, Arctic Char, Northern Pike and especially Lake Trout are the most commonly sought after winter sport fish. Fishing techniques vary per species, but usually involve active jigging with scent or bait tipped lures. Just like fishing open water, ice fishing effort is concentrated around structure (underwater points, submerged islands, drop offs, etc.). Successful fishing depths vary per species and range from 2-50 ft, with the highest success around 5-30 ft. Because many lakes do not have bathymetry maps available, strategically drilling numerous holes to identify depth and structure is essential.
Fishing pressure during the winter months is at a minimum, mostly because of the difficulty in accessing lakes and the fact that the amount of lakes outnumbers people in this region. In fact, in some of the more remote lakes you likely will be one of the only people to fish it for the entire year. Despite the lack of pressure, fishing for large, resident predatory fish, like Lake Trout, can be tough. Like most freshwater fish at the top of the food chain, Lake Trout are not abundant and research has shown that less than 5% of the entire population might be considered a “trophy fish”. Because of the relatively short summer growing season (< 4 mo.), and basic biology of Lake Trout, and most other species, growth is extremely slow and large fish can be up to 60 years old. Furthermore, the largest fish are the most important spawners in the population and are vital to maintaining a sustainable fishery. For these reasons it is critical that anglers practice mindful fish handling and catch-and-release practices.
Back to the snowmachine journey! After another 10 grueling miles, we finally arrived to the desolate lake and set up camp. With the snow still flying, we headed out into the white abyss of the lake in search of Lake Trout. Body temperatures rapidly rose after tediously drilling a handful of evenly spaced holes straight off a point. From depth measurements, we found a steep drop off beginning in 15 ft of water and focused fishing effort there. Having never fished this lake, a sense of excitement overcame me as I watched my tube jig disappear down the hole. Before the jig even hit the bottom, WHAM! a laker slammed it! Despite 30 lb test, the brute peeled line off the drag and stayed deep. I could hear the line rubbing on the underwater ice edge and prayed that it would not fray. Ten intense minutes later the giant fish surfaced through the hole. The Lake Trout appeared ancient, with battle scars and frayed fins. We quickly released the monster, high fived, and got back to fishing, as we knew this would be the start to another great ice fishing trip in Alaska’s Interior.