Story and photos by Paul D. Atkins
My snowmachine stood ready in the front yard, much like a horse waiting for its rider. The big blue sled made by Northern Sledworks sat at its rear loaded down with gear for the day’s events.
The blue plastic tub that was LoopRoped inside the sled was packed with all the necessities an adventure such as this would require. Niksiks (fishing jigs) made of willow branches and caribou horn were placed carefully inside, plus rods, reels, tip-ups, extra line, lures, pliers, extra gloves, a fillet knife, a thermos full of coffee and enough Pop-Tarts to feed an army were all assembled for the short ride across the ice.
Buried underneath it all was the most important piece of the ice-fishing puzzle, the auger. Wrapped in a blanket to provide a little cushion was the new Jiffy Pro 4 propane ice drill. Its big 10-inch blade and 49cc motor would not only make drilling holes easy and fast, but also a fun experience. I was eager to use it in hopes of finding some monster sheefish!Jiffy Ice Drills are the latest and greatest when it comes to digging your way to water. The Pro-4 pictured here runs on a small propane bottle and makes drilling through the ice a piece of cake. No smelly gas or oil to mix and they always start even in the coldest weather.
Sheefish, or inconnu, are sometimes called the “tarpon of the north” and can be found only in the Arctic and subarctic areas of Alaska. They are a beautiful fish, silver in color with a dark bluish sheen along the top of their back. These fish can be big fighters that like to thrash and crash once the hook is set, and they can be tough to handle at times.
Here in the northwest Arctic they are most commonly found in the Selawik and Kobuk river drainages of Kotzebue Sound. These fish can get big, weighing upwards of 50 pounds, and are commonly found in the deep, cold water where the current is the swiftest. Their tremendous size and meat quality make them one of the most unique fish in North America.
Fishing for these monsters is a pretty simple process. You first must find where the current is leaving one of the river channels and cut your holes. Unless you are lucky enough to find a hole that has already been cut/fished this will be toughest part. The ice gets pretty thick during the winter months in and around Kotzebue Sound. During the coldest years it can be as much 8 feet thick in some places, but it is usually between 5- and 7 feet thick.
Most augers or ice drills come with extensions for the really thick stuff and can cut either an 8- or 10-inch diameter hole. I prefer the 10-inch model as mentioned earlier, which will allow a little more room for hauling in the big boys that don’t count calories or care about their waistlines.
Niksiks (Inuit word for fishing jig) is a simple tool, which is most commonly made out of a willow branch or pieces of wood screwed together in the shape of a semi-circle. The curve of a caribou antler works well, too, and so does a caribou rib. This is the most common tool used by the locals. Rods and reels can also be used, of course, but then that require a little more finesse when it comes to hauling these big boys in. Either method provides intense action and great fun when you hook into one and bring it up through the ice.
The amount of line needed depends on the depth you will be fishing. I usually attach 20- to 22 feet of Dacron line in the 50-pound-test range to my Niksik, but usually never fish more than 15 feet. It all depends on water depth. You then drop your lure to the bottom and “wrap up” 3- to 4 feet, letting the lure swirl in the current. A small or slight jigging motion is required, giving the fish a more appealing look at what you have to offer.
It wasn’t until recently that I started using a rod and reel while pursuing Sheefish. Boy was I missing out! It allowed me to experience the fish biting and a bent rod tip instead of the quick jerk you get using the traditional method. It’s a pretty incredible experience, feeling a 50- to 60-pound fish hit such light line and tug on the end of the rod.
There are a variety of lures that can be used to catch sheefish through the ice, but the four and five-inch spoons are the most popular and usually end up catching more fish. Lure color also has an effect on sheefish. I’ve had the most luck with solid gold and silver spoons, but it doesn’t really matter if they’re biting!
When you do hook a fish the chore of getting it up through the hole becomes your main concern. If you’re a first-timer eagerness and excitement sets in and you’ll try to get them up as fast as possible, which sometimes can result in a slipped hook and a lost fish. Patience combined with a little muscle and finesse and you’ll have them up and out of the salty slush with ease. Believe me the first time you pull a 40-inch fish out of the ice, it’s an amazing experience.
Here in the Arctic, March through May are special months during the year. The daylight is plentiful and the dark, cold days of January and February have become distant memories. Spring bear hunting has begun, plus snowshoe hare and ptarmigan are still available to those that want to wade the willows or wander along one of the many creeks in search of them. However, if you want to try something unique, something totally different, where Arctic adventure and big fish come together, then grab your Niksik, spoons and Pop-Tarts and head north to the pack ice in search of sheefish; it will be one of the grandest times you will ever experience.
Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s written hundreds of articles on big-game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa. If you’re interested in booking your own Arctic fishing experience, contact Paul Atkins or Lew Pagel of Arctic Fishing Adventures at FishtheArctic@gmail.com. They’ll get you setup and provide all the information to make your ice-fishing trip a reality.