Overall, the members of the genus Salvelinus—the char—can be exceedingly beautiful fish, well marked with reds and oranges when doused in spawning hues, and shaped in the streamlined, aesthetically pleasing shape of the trout. They’re distinguished from species of Oncorhynchus by those colors, as char don’t have the characteristic black spotting of North American salmon and trout. However, they might not always be so easy to distinguish from each other, which is why for many years the world record Dolly Varden was a 32-pound fish taken from Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, an area biologists now know never held the species. Instead, that record fish was likely a bull trout (recognized as a distinct species in 1978). Similarly, the Alaska state record for Arctic char had long been a 19-pound Wulik River fish, a river that hosts only Dolly Varden, not Arctic char.
Even into the early 1990s, in fact, many biologists classified the Dolly Varden of northern Alaska as Arctic char. Once the northwest Alaska fish had been properly classified, that record “Arctic char” became the world record Dolly Varden. Since then, even larger fish have been taken from the Wulik, including the current record—an immense 20-pound, 12.5-ounce Dolly Varden. The two species are now clearly separated by biologists in Alaska, even if they’re sometimes hard to tell apart, and even if many of the old char classification arguments still prevail.
For anglers on the water, differentiating between Dolly Varden and Arctic char is typically not too hard; broadly speaking, the latter generally displays a more blunt head, a narrower base of the tail and a deeper tail fork. Arctic char can also display larger, less numerous spots (an old angler’s trick—if the spots on the flank are the size of the fish’s eye or larger, it’s an Arctic char). In actuality, the simplest manner in which to distinguish the Arctic char from the Dolly Varden in Alaska is by environment and life history, for in the great majority of cases, Alaska’s Arctic char are a lake-adapted species of freshwater fish, while the Dolly Varden are much less choosy.
Arctic char are available throughout the Alaska angling season (including being a primary ice-fishing quarry for Fairbanks-area anglers. Primarily a stillwater fish, Arctic char will be found in different parts of their lakes and at varying depths during certain times of the year. Thankfully their movements are largely predictable, dependant as they are upon water temperature and the abundance and type of forage. For the most part, spring char can be found closer to the surface, as lake temperatures at this time of year will be largely uniform and cool. Areas near outlets can be excellent during the early season as well, particularly where the fish can home in on the staging in groups of out-migrating salmon smolt.
Generally, one can find Arctic char in the headwater and foothill lakes of the Brooks Range, in some lakes in the upper Kobuk watershed, most notably Walker and Selby lakes, in some lakes in the Kigluaik Mountains north of Nome and within a small area of the Interior in Denali National Park. Arctic char are also distributed in some of the lakes surrounding Fairbanks, oftentimes in populations stocked or augmented by ADF&G. Try the Coal Mine Road Lakes (eight small lakes located about 20 miles south of Delta Junction at mile 242.4 of the Richardson Highway). Quartz, Birch and Harding lakes—the “Big Three” for ice anglers—are your best bet for the winter months.