Blog by Paul D. Atkins
Many people ask me about sheefish—what they’re like to catch, eat, how cold it is, but mostly they ask how they can go about getting a chance at catching one themselves. It’s easy, I say, except for getting to where they live and also, like all fishing, if they’re biting. Let’s look at some answers to questions people often ask.
What and Where
Sheefish, or Inconnu, are sometimes called the “Tarpon of the North” and can be found only in the Arctic and subarctic areas in Alaska. They are a beautiful fish, silver in color with a dark-bluish sheen along the top of their backs. These fish are big fighters that like to thrash once the hook is set, which is fun, but 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 quantity 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, this will be the toughest part. The ice gets pretty thick during the winter months in and around the Kotzebue Sound. During the coldest years it can be as much eight-feet thick in some places, but it’s usually between five and seven.
Most augers or ice drills come with extensions (and you’ll need them up here) for the really thick stuff and can cut either an 8- or 10-inch-diameter hole. I prefer the ten-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.
A Niksik (an Inupiaq 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 and has been used for generations. Rods and reels can also be used, but 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 a sheefish.
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 I usually don’t fish more than 15 feet. It all depends on water depth. You drop your lure to the bottom and then “wrap up” three- to four feet, letting the lure swirl in the current. A 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! A medium-sized spinning reel spooled with 40-pound-test braided line combined with a heavy Two River ice rod made the experience that much more enjoyable. For me it provided more feel, allowing 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 15- to 30-pound fish (or bigger) hit such a light setup. Many low-profile baitcasting reels or spinning reels with strong drags would be suitable.
However, not any rod will do. I use Two River rods, which are made in Alaska and come in a variety of sizes. Light, medium, and heavy weights are available, but if you plan to try your hand at sheefish you better choose the latter. A big fish will break a rod if it doesn’t have the stiffness to withstand their sheer power. Rods that are suitable for big lake trout would be a good match for sheefish.
As far as lures, there are a variety that can be used to catch these “whitefish,” as they are sometimes called. The more popular ones are those such as Yellow Bird Fishing Products’ Doctor Spoon or the Blue Fox Strobe. Spoons come in various sizes, but the four- and five-inch spoons are the most popular and usually end up catching more fish. Like all fish, lure color can also have an effect on a sheefish. I’ve had the most luck with gold and silver spoons, but it doesn’t really matter if they’re biting!
In the Arctic, March through May are special months for many reasons. 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 sheefish can be the trip you’re looking for.
Mid-to-late March is usually the beginning of the ice-fishing season in the Arctic and it usually extends throughout the spring months or until it isn’t safe to venture onto the ice anymore. Primetime usually starts in late April with the first week of May being ideal.
Getting to Kotzebue is easy. Alaska Airlines arrives twice a day from Anchorage, plus there’s a hotel and many bed-and-breakfasts available. If you want the ultimate experience, however, there is a guide service. Arctic Fishing Adventures provides a full four-day excursion complete with everything. However, spaces are limited. They can be contacted via email, or you can book online here.
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 blog originally appeared as the sidebar alongside the article World Record Fun by Paul D. Atkins in the October/November 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.