This Arctic Alaska sheefish story and photos are by Dan Paull

Arctic Alaska sheefish or Inconnu (derived from the French word for “unknown thing”) have been a wonder to a lot of anglers looking for something different. I think the wonder is the fact that there is not a lot of places in the world that you can catch sheefish. Additionally, this species lives in places where there aren’t a lot of people. It seems that they live a solitary existence.

Alaska Sheefish

Sometime between mid-June and early July Alaska sheefish get keyed into topwater presentations.

Where the Sheefish Are

Looking at their home water in Alaska, they can be found from the Kuskokwim River, north to the Kobuk, and in almost every drainage in between. The Yup’ik and Inupiat of Alaska, as well as some Athabascan people, call these fish “shees” and thus in Alaska the common name is sheefish. However, in other parts of the circumpolar north, this species is commonly called Inconnu, because early explorers, upon seeing this fish for the first time, did not know what they were.

Alaska Sheefish

Dan Paull shows off a typical Holitna River sheefish.

Regardless, Arctic Alaska sheefish can be found in great numbers around the waters of Alaskan Adventures Lodge on the Holitna River, which is a drainage of the Kuskokwim River. Sheefish typically are some of the first fish to make their presence known after ice out. We typically can catch sheefish before any of the pike turn on. Usually this early in the season we are catching them on spoons or soft-plas

tic swimbaits. It’s rare real early in the season for sheefish to break the surface of the water to chase smolt or bait.

Sometime between mid-June and into July is when we see big schools of Arctic sheefish break the surface as they fly out of the water chasing smolt. It’s not uncommon to see up to two dozen fish flying out of the water at the same time as you look down the run. During June and July this is really a common occurrence all over the river system. We typically find the schools of fish when they are rolling and fish them. In the past we have done really well with small swim baits and flies fished on a heavy sink-tip.

Baby Lamprey Bait

Being successful in fishing is a construct of paying attention to what is happening in the water with fish and attempting to replicate that to achieve some sort of success. For example, when a fish is caught that we intend to keep, it is brought back to the lodge. When cleaning it for dinner we open the stomach contents to see what it’s been eating and then attempt to replicate that until we have keyed into greater success. In the past, one of the things we have seen a lot of in the stomachs of Arctic Alaska sheefish are baby lamprey eels. From there we have and continue to perfect a fly that imitates a baby lamprey. What we have created over the years has gotten better and better.

On another note, we have dreamt and talked about catching sheefish on topwater. This conversation has often come up around the campfire however it was never attempted… until this year. When attempting to figure a fishery out most of your attempts come from deductive reasoning based on what has worked and what hasn’t worked. Most of our deductive reasoning AND minor attempts made us shy away from any attempt at topwater. As guides our job is to put people on fish, so experimenting with new techniques is not usually a standard

practice. Hey, we want you to put fish in the boat, so basically we have always done what works well and experimenting is for free time. Free time is rare.

An Experiment turns Fruitful

Arctic sheefish on topwater flies is a unique and exciting fishery.

One night after dinner guides Sam and Scott decided to “experiment.” So, they ventured from the lodge looking for rolling fish. Sam had tied some deer-hair poppers to try out. It seemed as if the stars aligned, and Scott and Sam were in heaven. What was only dreamt about was happening. Arctic Alaska sheefish were clobbering the topwater fly. Absolutely blowing up on it and I don’t mean one or two strikes here and there. I mean fish after fish was blowing up on and literally destroying the fly. What was a pipe dream was becoming reality.

After that we started to really target sheefish on topwater with clients and for the first time I was able to witness complete adults turn into little kids in the candy store. Arctic Alaska  sheefish on topwater are not an everyday occurrence. However, in June and July when it does happen it’s truly magical. Adding to this magic are all the other species one can find at the lodge. Alaska is an amazing place filled with endless adventures you truly need to see.

If you are looking for more reading, check out Fish Alaska’s entire Freshwater Fishing Blog.