Ice Fishing for Sheefish: World Record Fun
Story and Photos by Paul D. Atkins
“What’s tomorrow’s weather supposed to do?” I asked Lew.
“It’s supposed to be decent with sunshine and clear skies until mid-afternoon,” he replied.
“We better go drill some holes then, don’t you think?”
The weather had been difficult this year. Snow, snow and more snow had played havoc on our adventures and the chance to do much had been halted by frequent blizzards that, for some reason, only seem to occur on the weekends. Whiteouts with wind are not much fun and even though the best ice fishing isn’t far, it would be crazy to venture out into it. “March Madness” doesn’t just apply to basketball; it occurs here in the Arctic, too.
Ice fishing is a bit iffy this time of year anyway. Lew and I have done it with some luck, but trying to hook a sheefish in and near Kotzebue Sound in early March can be quite a challenge. The first time out is more like a scouting trip than anything else; hitting old fishing spots that have produced in the past is usually our primary goal. Sometimes it works, while most of the time it doesn’t. But like all things in the outdoors, whether you’re hunting or fishing, you can’t catch anything sitting on the couch, so when opportunity arises you have to gear up, get out there, give it your best shot and hope luck finds you. This first good-weather day we did just that!
That Saturday was the clearest day we’d had in some time. Clear blue skies with beams of sunshine peering above the tundra were a pleasant sight, giving us a sense that maybe spring was just around the corner. The entire village seemed to think the same. Snow machines roared in the distance and the old, familiar smell of gas, oil and two-stroke engines hung in the air like wood smoke. It was time, and you could tell. Everybody was eager to get out and enjoy the country while they could!
Lew and I loaded gear into his old, red sled. Ice auger first—the propane one. I don’t know how we ever lived without one of these incredible inventions. It’s easy, fast and makes ice fishing much more enjoyable. The key is to not forget the propane like I have done a couple of times before. It makes for a long ride back to town and a waste of precious fishing time!
Rods, reels, lures and “Niksiks” loaded in bags were next. You always wonder which lure will work and which won’t; it’s one of the great challenges and fun things about fishing, whether through the ice or along the river during the summer months. Most sheefish will bite anything (if they are biting) that is dropped through the ice, but there are times when certain colors seem more appealing than others.
In go the chairs, and last but not least, our newly acquired ice hut. Most people here in the Arctic don’t use ice huts or shacks. They take time to set up, and if you’re running and gunning from place to place looking for fish, they become time consuming. But Lew and I wanted to give it a try, so we tied it down with the rest of the gear and started our snow machines.
The first time out on the ice with fishing gear is always special. It holds promise of what’s to come. The feeling of past experiences can overwhelm you, especially remembering how it feels to pull one of these big fish through the ice. There is nothing quite like it. That may sound a little over the top to some, but it’s true. Hooking into a big fish, guiding him up through the hole and then grabbing a gill plate for that final pull is one of my favorite things to do here in the Arctic; it always has been.
There are pieces of gear that are important, like a GPS. It’s an amazing piece of technology. Most people use them while hunting, flying, boating or everything else you can possibly imagine doing in the outdoors. They can save your life, and get you home, but they can also lead you to fish; more specifically, to old fishing spots that Lew and I have marked throughout the region. Some spots are better than others and the old GPS would lead us to the best ones first.
Some of these best spots, believe it or not, are close to town. Over the years they have produced with little effort, other than drilling a hole and dropping in a line. However, this early in March might be different. But like they say, you have to start somewhere and if nothing else, we had opportunity.
The trail was bumpy and the ride out was slow going. Previous storms had blown drifts along the marked trail making the ride a bone-jarring experience. With Lew in front and me behind I watched as gear, tightly bound to the sled, bounced in every direction. There have been many times that we’ve lost an item or two, having to stop and re-strap and in most cases, reorganize, but not this time. We were lucky.
Out in the middle of it all we had miles of ice spreading in every direction. Driving north, the GPS finally indicated we had arrived. Our favorite spot was void of people. In no time, we had the sled unloaded and two holes drilled through the ice. Drilling holes is a no brainer. Find a spot and go, it’s that easy. Placement doesn’t matter either, as long as the holes are apart, but not too far. We usually try and place them 10- to 12 feet from each other, giving us plenty of elbow room for chairs and gear. If we’re using a fish hut, they’ll be closer, as was the case for this day.
Ice fishing can be a funny thing, when it comes to choosing a hole. I’ve seen some holes that seem to be luckier than others. There have been occasions where one particular hole will produce fish after fish, while another, only mere feet away, will catch zip. It happens all the time. Luck of the draw, I guess.
On this trip, we wanted to use a shack, more for fun than for protection, even though that afternoon was supposed to bring another storm our way. Our new, insulated, Eskimo fish hut—the Taj Mahal of ice-fishing huts—shined bright red against the never ending white. These new huts are enormous, warm and well-built. They’re big and spacious enough that if you wanted, you could actually camp in one and fish for weeks if need be. It was nice!
Settling in, we broke out the rods and lures. Choosing what to use is always fun and over the years we have developed a system of favorites. For many years we only used “Niksiks,” an Inupiaq word for fishing jig. They’re simple and work great. Made from either a piece of willow, or wood, or if you want to get fancy, maybe one made out of a caribou rib or piece of antler. Each has a length of line, usually braided, tied to the end and wrapped tightly around the jig itself. The line is dropped into the water with a spoon tied onto the end of the line. With a simple up-and-down jigging motion you’re fishing. It has only been recently that we’ve started using rods and reels, but not just any rig will work. These sheefish are big, sometimes bigger than 40 pounds, and no ordinary setup will do. Thick, sturdy poles with tough reels are called for, and a line that won’t break easily is required. We’ve found that fishing with a rod and reel is a lot of fun, creating more of a feel for the fish itself and the challenge of getting it up and onto the ice.
On this day, Lew chose his old standby: a Niksik with his favorite silver spoon. I, on the other hand, grabbed a rod and reel, tipped with a shorter, blue and silver spoon that had brought me luck many times before. The key to ice fishing in the Arctic is knowing your depth and how far to let the spoon sink towards the bottom. Finding the “zone,” that middle area where the current carries the lure just right is ideal. The catch zone, as we call it, will entice those that wander by, producing more hits, more action and in most cases, more fish.
Getting a bite is always exciting and when Lew hollered, “Got one, and it’s big!” I knew we were in business. Hand over hand, Lew inched the line up, keeping it tight as he pulled on the weight below. Hooking a fish this big and not knowing what it looks like until it makes its appearance through the slush is exciting. You know it’s a fish, but until you see the big tarpon-like head peer up at you, you never really know what you have. I think this is what makes ice fishing for sheefish so special and addicting.
Eventually, with a lot of muscle, Lew was finally able to get the big guy through the hole and what a fish he was! Measuring 42 inches and weighing in the 30-plus-pound range, the fish was impressive! The event put us on a mission and as fast as we could get him unhooked, measured and a few photos taken, we had our lines back in the water. A tip about ice fishing up here: When they’re biting, you’ve got to capitalize on the moment and keep fishing.
It wasn’t long until I had a hit. The Two River rod twitched, bent in the middle and I knew I had hooked him good. It was fight and a challenge to get him up, making me think I should have been using a Niksik instead, but the rig held and moments later the silver-gray fish came out of the hole easily. It was such a great feeling! Two fish, back to back!
We caught a couple more during the day, but nothing as big as the first one. We released them all, hoping to catch more for the freezer next time. However, we later found out Lew’s fish made the record book and is now considered the new Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame catch-and-release world-record sheefish! We didn’t plan it that way, but it was a success and we’ll take it, plus it was a lot of fun.
Calling it a day, we broke things down and started loading the sled just as the snow began to fall. Another big storm was on its way for sure, but no worries. Lew and I made plans for our next Arctic fishing adventure as soon as it clears. Same place, same time and hopefully same luck!
Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big-game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a longtime contributor to Hunt Alaska and Fish Alaska magazines.
This article originally appeared as World Record Fun in the October/November 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.