Fishing the Big Three

Story and photos by Dennis Musgraves

Beginning in late October sunlight starts fading daily, temperatures eventually drop to double-digit negatives and water surfaces become locked up harder than asphalt. This is the time fishermen start deciding where to go ice fishing in the central region of the state.

In all, interior Alaska hosts some of the best ice-fishing opportunities in the state. Winter anglers literally have dozens of lakes swirling with fish to choose from; however, most end up on one of the three principle lakes found along the Richardson Highway. I call the lakes the “Big Three.”

Harding, Birch and Quartz lakes are located adjacent to the roadside between the cities of Fairbanks and Delta Junction. They are the predominant and most popular locations for winter fishing north of the Alaska Range. The lakes are stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, feature state recreational areas and have public access.
Anglers willing to endure freezing conditions will find several species of fish to catch, including rainbow trout, Arctic char, landlocked salmon, Arctic grayling, burbot and lake trout. Each lake has its own character, unique landscape and distinct scenarios of vertical fishing for every experience level. I approach each one of the Big Three a little differently, depending on the angling goals I am attempting to accomplish.

Quartz Lake

As late October arrives, I am hoping for a quick freeze and first ice-up at Quartz Lake. Experience has shown me over the last 12 years that fishing here is best early in the season from ice-up through mid-January. At Quartz Lake I am specifically targeting trophy-size rainbow trout. I find myself often driving in drifting snow for almost two hours on the dimly-lit highway from Fairbanks. The journey can be an arduous task. The payoff is when you feel the bite, set the hook and bring up one of the elusive 20-plus-inch rainbows to the frozen surface.

I like starting early in the morning for the drive, which allows me to reach the lake at an optimal time to set-up and be ready for the morning daylight transition. Generally, fish can be caught anywhere on the lake. My tactics for targeting bigger rainbow trout is executed by fishing the shallower edges and perimeter areas. Drilling a couple holes with an auger and using an underwater camera assists me in determining what the bottom looks like and if fish are present. My preferred method of enticing the big rainbows is accomplished by using a light/medium-action ice-fishing rod and then simply sitting static while my offering sits 2- to 4 inches off the bottom of the lake floor. I like fishing shallow areas and I consider depths of about 3- to 4 feet to be perfect for my technique of “dead-sticking” the rod. Hooks are normally baited with a cocktail combination of fresh shrimp and scented synthetic floating trout eggs. Using a larger bait-holding style hook, ideally size 4, aids in keeping the smaller fish away. This type of presentation is just too big.

Quartz Lake is the farthest in distance when traveling from Fairbanks—at about 90 miles. Access is reached by a three-mile winding road that starts at MP 277.8 on the Richardson Highway and ends at a State Recreational Area and boat launch. The road is usually plowed and maintained during the winter; however, during some periods of heavy snow you may want to consider using a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. When ice conditions allow, access is via the state boat launch by either walking or driving a vehicle easily right on the lake. The lake is midsized at about 1,500 acres of surface and a maximum depth of about 40 feet, but with the majority of the lake less than 20 feet deep. Restrooms are open for use near the front parking lot of the recreational area entrance. If you do not have your own shelter/hut, reservations can be made through the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to rent one of the four hard-sided ice-fishing huts that are usually positioned and ready to use on the lake by mid-December.

Although my intentions are to catch big rainbows, Quartz holds a healthy population of other stocked fish. Arctic char, coho salmon and Chinook salmon can all be found in good numbers. The landlocked salmon reach average lengths of around 13 inches. The rainbows and char mostly range in sizes from 10- to 18 inches, with occasional larger fish that can reach lengths over 20 inches.

Another tip: throwing a handful of large white lima beans or crushed egg shells in your ice hole and letting them sink to the bottom will reflect light, allowing you to clearly see what swims between the bottom of the lake and the bottom of the ice hole. In most cases you can clearly see the fish swim over the top of the beans/shells as they come in for the bait. As you see the fish come in, your heart starts racing. You must remember to be patient and vigilant.

Since regulations in Alaska allow anglers the use of two lines while ice fishing, I like to stay engaged by jigging a second rod with a small spoon in close proximity to my dead-stick line. Anticipating a giant rainbow coming in on my baited line and waiting for the feel of a strike from my jigging rod is just doubling the fun.

Birch Lake

Birch Lake offers a shorter driving distance from Fairbanks when compared to Quartz. It features great accessibility and dependable fishing, which makes this lake the most popular of the three for ice fishing. The attractiveness for winter fishing on the lake is evidenced by a good amount of privately-owned hard-sided ice-fishing huts, which are registered with a permit and set up around the lake during the winter season. I personally have had inconsistent success with large fish being caught at Birch; however, I enjoy fishing this location for its sheer numbers of catchable fish. The lake seems to always produce, even during the colder months of winter.  

Located 59 miles southeast of Fairbanks at MP 305.3, the lake is the smallest of the Big Three, covering just a little more than 800 acres, with the deepest point at 43 feet. Species present in the lake basically mirror those that can be found in Quartz. Good amounts of rainbow trout, coho salmon, Chinook salmon, Arctic char and the inclusion of lesser available grayling. Commonly, most fish will be in the 10- to 13-inch size range, with a few larger fish found from 16- to 20 inches. The state recreational boat ramp permits access on the lake both by walking or using a vehicle. A lakeside cabin and four ice huts managed by DNR are available for reservation rental. Restroom facilities are maintained and located in the parking lot area near the boat ramp.    

Employing presentation techniques and tactics similar to those used at Quartz Lake will work well at Birch Lake also. Dead-sticking or jigging small spoons or bait (salmon eggs or shrimp) on a light/medium-action ice-fishing rod both off the bottom and close to the surface will bring in the fish. Try fishing the natural points and steeper drop-offs of the lake. Referencing where the congregations of ice huts are located will assist in knowing where to go. Most veterans of the lake that catch fish are setting up those stationary ice-fishing huts in certain locations for a reason—they produce.
Birch Lake is ideal for introducing both children and adults to winter fishing activities simply because of the better catch-rates that are found there. Most of the fish caught in this lake will not be wall hangers, but catching your first hardwater fish, no matter what the size, should still be celebrated. My personal best catch from Birch is a 20-inch rainbow trout, so don’t count this lake out for having only small fish.   

Harding Lake    

My friends and I have affectionately coined a nickname for Harding Lake, which is “Hard Luck” Lake. Fishing can be brutally slow and challenging, even for the most avid ice fishermen. Employing expensive fish-finding electronic gadgets or a fancy lure will not always promise a hookup; in fact I roll more doughnuts fishing Harding than you can find at a bakery. Avoiding the skunk takes patience, persistence and a little luck. Once in a while, when the stars get aligned correctly and lady luck lends a hand, I am able to catch a mammoth-sized fish from its depths.

Located only about 45 miles from Fairbanks, Harding Lake is the closest of the three lakes to reach by the Richardson Highway. The lake is also the largest and deepest of the Big Three, having a 2 ½-mile distance across and reaching depths of 145 feet. Access can be accomplished at two different locations—by following the signs from MP 321.5 to the Alaska State Park Recreational Area boat launch, or by continuing to travel a little farther down the highway for the lake perimeter road turnoff, which leads to a lakeside residential community boat launch. The only toilet facilities for use are located at the state recreational area.  

Arctic char and lake trout are the fish I am in search of here. Expect the majority of both species to be around 20- to 25 inches in length, with larger fish around 28- to 33 inches. In addition to char and lake trout, there are also burbot and northern pike present in the lake; however, no pike fishing is permitted per ADF&G regulations. Make sure you familiarize yourself with current ADF&G regulations prior to doing any fishing, at any of the Big Three lakes. Understanding and following gear requirements and retention rules is every angler’s individual responsibility.

Equipment plays a vital role in success at Harding. Vertically fishing in a 10-inch hole on 2,500 acres in 130 feet of water can be random at best, if you’re actually trying to catch something. It is more like the proverbial needle in a haystack. In order to compensate for the dynamics that Hard Luck Lake presents, I use an electronic fish finder. Fishing becomes more like stalking. I use the electronics to locate depths I want to fish in an area of the lake, usually between 100- and 130 feet deep. The fish finder will not only determine the depth, but it will also detect and display objects that are present in the water column. When fish move under the transducer, at any depth, a mark is made on the display. The idea is to move your lure to the depth of the marked fish to entice a strike for your offering. Electronics will not guarantee you catch fish, but having a fish finder will greatly enhance your ability to determine which depth to bring the lure up or down to depending on where the fish is located in the water column.

Having the proper rod, reel, line and lure selection are other factors that you need to take into account to avoid failure at Hard Luck. I use a specialized 32-inch medium/heavy-action rod designed for ice fishing for larger fish. The spine of the rod and action of the tip allows for lures up to an ounce, offers the ability to set hooks at deep depths and handles the pressure of a large fish. I use a low-profile baitcaster reel, which is strung with 20-pound braided line. I add a heavy-duty swivel at the end of the line with a 3-foot leader of 15-pound test monofilament. My lure is tied on the end of the leader. Lure choices include large spoons, plastic tubes on jig heads and occasionally, herring.

You won’t see a hard-sided hut city on this lake, and there are no rental ice huts from the state either. A combination of difficult access and very slow fishing action keeps most driving right on by for either Birch or Quartz. The lake is also the most difficult to access throughout the majority of the season because of large snow drifts at the entry points. Expect to either walk or snowmachine out on the lake.

Investing in good equipment and spending hours on the lake will definitely give you an edge on dialing in and catching a beast, but it won’t be easy. The one constant of fishing this lake is the apparently ever-changing pattern of the fish—here one day, gone the next.

Additional Considerations

There are a couple of additional planning considerations to ice fishing these lakes that are very beneficial to be familiar with. Ice grows thick on Interior lakes, commonly reaching three feet or greater in depth, which usually occurs by mid-January. Auger extensions will be a necessity in order for a drill to penetrate all the way through the ice. Fishing out of a raised hut normally increases drilling depth and the distance needed to punch a hole through the bottom of the ice.

Obtaining a bathymetric map of the lake is another helpful tip. Having a bathymetric map will enhance your ability to understand water depth changes and identify terrain below the surface. These maps can also be used as a reference tool for future fishing endeavors by marking productive areas and patterning fish activity. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska DNR Division of Parks both have maps available of the three lakes at their websites

Using the basic formulas and methods described will give any angler a good foundation to begin fishing these three lakes during the winter season. Fishing at these locations will increase your knowledge, sharpen skills and help you develop greater success rates. Whether it’s the allure of a Quartz Lake trophy rainbow trout, the dependability of catching fish at Birch Lake, or the challenge of Harding Lake’s trophy char, Interior anglers on a winter fishing quest can find what they’re looking for by traveling the Richardson corridor taking them to one of the Big Three.

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