There are certainly plenty of options for the ice-fishing angler in Alaska, from local lakes pumping out ADF&G stockers to both roadside and more remote expanses of ice housing wild, and frequently trophy, fisheries for pike, trout and three species of char. Even though this is Alaska, with winter fishing to make even the Midwestern angler envious, it's those latter fisheries—particularly the char populations—that require a conservation-frame-of-mind from prudent anglers as they gear up and go into the field.
Lakers, maybe the most significant trophy fish available to Alaska's ice-bound anglers, are a particularly slow-growing species. Overall, a lake trout can live to 50 years of age or more, but in Alaska, the typical maximum age is closer to 20. Still, that's an old fish, and almost certainly a very big fish, reaching weights of greater than 20 pounds, depending largely upon the lake.
Across most of the state, the biggest percentage of the lake trout biomass in a given body of water will consist of fish between five and 15 years of age. On average, anglers on the hunt for bigger, better fish tend to gravitate toward the older end of that spectrum; there's certainly nothing wrong with that, unless those fish are habitually removed from the population. It should go without saying—but it takes a long time to replace a 20-year-old laker.
Similarly, growth is slow for Arctic char in Alaska's cold, often nutrient-poor lakes. In more than a few areas of the state, char of over 20 years of age have been documented, but with this species maximum size varies significantly and is related almost entirely to the productivity of the individual lake system and to the presence of other fish species. According to ADF&G, Arctic char over 10 pounds are not uncommon is some Alaska lakes, while others barely produce any fish over two pounds, even if those same fish live to reach a comparable age.
If you add this size-to-age correlation to the fact that neither species has exactly been branded as remarkably fussy when it comes to chasing lures or bait, you get to the idea that continued removal of the largest fish from a population will over time decimate a trophy fishery. For instance, just take a look at the recent history of Hidden Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, which was once known for lakers of greater than 20 pounds but in the past decade seems to hold a population that tops out much nearer 10 pounds. The relative ease of catching large lakers (or at least in getting them to eat if you're in the right place at the right time) provides us with a view that's almost the exact opposite of the impression a lot of anglers grow up with—think the wily old brown trout, or the unnaturally large rainbow, taking up the best lies, sheltered beneath overhangs and parked deep in a root wad, suspicious and careful and downright difficult to catch. No, 20-pound lakers and 10-pound-plus Arctic char are both old and rare, but they're not smart. If we want to ensure they remain, we need to bonk fewer of the largest fish, taking five-pounders (or smaller) for the table and leaving the trophies for the picture frame.
This, of course, brings another issue to the fore—namely, proper handling techniques for catch-and-release fishing through the ice, where, needless to say, the angling environment is quite different from what we experience (and are experienced at handling) during the flowing-water seasons.
First of all, anglers intent on catching and then releasing their large fish need to be prepared ahead of time. Have your camera close at hand and a soft measuring tape on your person, both easily accessible. Also, when you're setting up to fish, think about the photos to come: prepare the area around your hole, keeping it clean and flat; think about lighting, including shadows and glare, the angle at which you'll shoot the photos and backgrounds. The entire idea is to preserve the memory while making sure the fish is released to survive. The more prepared you are, the better the fish's chances, especially in extremely cold temperatures, as fish corneas and gill filaments are very susceptible to freezing.
When it comes time to actually land the fish and get to work with the camera and tape, have the angler holding the laker keep its head down in the hole. Big lake trout are fairly docile, and the bigger they are the more of the hole their heads fill—there shouldn't be a lot of thrashing around with large fish, in other words. Once you're ready to shoot the photo, the angler can carefully slip his or her fingers under the gill covers, being exceptionally careful to not touch the gill arches. Then slide an arm down the hole next to the fish, grabbing as close to the caudal peduncle (the narrow ‘wrist'-area just before the tail) as possible. Lift with both hands and essentially slide the fish from the hole, the lower arm drifting to a more secure hold on the caudal peduncle. The fish is out of the hole, ready for a quick couple of shots, and most importantly, it hasn't been laid on the ice, minimizing slime loss, cornea damage and internal injury.
After a few photos have been snapped, take a length measurement with your tape and then have the angler ease the fish's head back into the hole. With him or her still gripping the peduncle, a girth measurement can be taken. Then just lift and lower the fish in the hole to get water flowing over its gills until it shows revived strength, and let it go. Done right, the entire production should last less than 30 seconds.
A great example of catch-and-release ice fishing, and of conservation leadership, was evident at last year's (first) annual Big Lake Ice Fishing Derby & Raffle (www.biglakechamber.org/events/icefishing.html). In a clear departure from the results of many derbies, 25 of the 27 fish measured, recorded and turned in for scoring during the one-day event were released alive back into the lake. It's that kind of awareness, hopefully spreading across our growing ice-fishing contingent, that will help ensure the kind of trophies we see today remain for those fishing tomorrow.