The Ice Fisherman Comes: Memories of Alaskan Winter Fishing
The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sports Magazine:
Written by Scott Haugen
I loved the winters when we lived in Arctic Alaska during the 1990s. The cold temperatures and darkness for weeks on end left no doubt what season it was. The harsh winters have forced us to slow down and given us enough time to complete projects that were overlooked during the summer and fall months.
But when the sun started to appear, we felt like going out. Yes, the temperatures were still well below zero, but that didn’t matter. Pack your bags, and don’t stay out too long. Even a two-hour hike can make you realize how special a place the Arctic is, no matter the time of year.
While fishing dominated our semi-subsistence life at Point Lay, once Tiffany and I moved to Anaktuvuk Pass, fishing became a part of it. Summer and fall fishing for grayling and char on the creeks that weave their way through the Brooks Range was fun and resulted in good eating, but it was the ice fishing that I was most anticipating. Maybe it was because I never fished through the ice growing up in Oregon. Maybe it was because of the people and the place.
Looking back, as I’ve spent over 30 years traveling through Alaska — I spent nearly a decade living there — ice fishing has created some priceless memories.
The first time I went ice fishing on a frozen river near Anaktuvuk Pass was one I will never forget. I joined forces with two village elders, and Ruth was the one who fixed me up. Aunt Ruth, as everyone affectionately referred to her, was in her sixties, and in addition to ice fishing in the winter, she ran her own wolf hunting line on her own.
“Walk to where that line is, then use it to break a gap in the ice,” she said as she handed me a round river rock that she had picked up after I kicked it free from the frozen, windswept strip of gravel on which we stood. Banks of Anaktuvuk River. “Don’t cross that line or you’ll fall in; the ice is thin there.”
Gingerly, I stepped onto the ice. It was transparent, two feet thick, and frozen at the bottom. When I reached the line in the ice that Ruth had pointed out to me, I could see that it was thin. Using the rock, I cut an 8-inch diameter hole in the ice, then started shaking my little bait. It didn’t take long and I got my first arctic char through the ice. My penis line was tied to a willow branch as Ruth had done. She smiled.
Without Ruth I would have had no idea where to start ice fishing. She taught me how to read river ice, pointed out how deep holes and currents affect ice formation, and shared with me some of her best fishing spots. She encouraged me to eat only what we needed. I did, just like the locals.
Years later, I found myself in a completely different ice fishing scenario. I was with some friends on a stocked lake just north of Anchorage, and we used modern equipment, including an ice auger to drill several holes and flip bars to set the hook when a bite occurred.
We were surrounded by homes overlooking the lake, but it was still quiet, as it always seems to be winter in Alaska no matter where you are. On this day, we caught Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and kokanee, or landlocked salmon. The fish was delicious and my time with friends was relaxing and fun. I wanted more.
My next ice fishing adventure will be hard to beat, because it took place in a familiar place but for an unfamiliar species. I was in Kotzebue, fishing with my old friend Leo Pagel. For many years, Leo has been practicing chiropractic in Kotzebue, and he loves hunting and fishing there. He especially enjoys catching big fish through the ice.
The first time I tasted ceviche, it left me wanting more. I’ve caught them with spinning gear and a fly rod, but never through the ice. “This time of year, the sheepshead will come into the bay in big schools, swimming in circles looking for herring,” Liu said. “We can either dig holes and wait for them or go ahead and look for them.” We did both.
I’ve ice-fished for kingfish with Leo several times in March and April. Drilling through 7 feet of ice is the norm. Assembly to handle sub-zero temperatures is a must. When it was really cold, we would set up a fishing tent and turn on the heater, but we only did that twice. We preferred being in the wide open spaces and enjoying the grandeur of this special place.
The first time I hunted with Leo I was alone. It was a great experience and the next time my teenage son joined me. The next year my wife, Tiffany, came.
When Cazden, my 12-year-old son, went with me, it was his first time in the Arctic. He has been to other places in Alaska, but never above the Arctic Circle. All his life he had heard stories about my and Tiffany’s years in the Arctic, so experiencing the desolation, unique fishing, warm people and harsh conditions was life-changing. It also taught him patience, as it took three days to find the fish. Even then we didn’t have a bite.
As the sun descended toward the frozen ocean to the west, Cazden finally got a bite out of the big spoon he’d been shaking. Soon he was dragging a 22-pound sheepshead through the ice. More to follow. In fact, for the next thirty minutes, there was nonstop action. She had made the previous few days of effort worth it. We ended up with a pile of lamb and took home 100 pounds of meat. Ceviche is my favorite smoked fish, above even any salmon.
The following spring, Tiffany joined Leo and me. This was the first time she had been back to the North Pole since we lived there in the 1990s.
I loved the experience, especially since it only took a few hours of fishing the first day to find a large school of hungry manefish.
The first fish Tiffany pulled through the ice pushed 30 pounds. She soon followed with a 40-pounder. Then I screwed one too big to fit into the ice hole. What I would give to see that monster!
Leo is friends with most of the locals, and since we weren’t far from town, it didn’t take long before we were surrounded by fishermen. Old people, parents and children joined us, and everyone caught fish. We swapped stories, laughed, butchered fish on the ice and left as darkness fell at the end of the day.
This was one of the most enjoyable, most memorable fishing experiences of our lives, and Tiff and I still talk about it. That day, I took photos of Tiffany smiling, wearing her fur jacket, and holding a large sheep. This is still probably my favorite photo I’ve ever taken of her.
“It’s a magical place and more people are eager to experience it; it’s a magical place.” That’s for sure,” Leo shared. “We’ve been booking trips for the past few seasons and people are loving it! They love being above the Arctic Circle, visiting the village, and of course catching sheepshead.
Next on my list of Alaska ice fishing adventures is big lake trout fishing. And burbot. And wild northern pike…and…the list goes on. ASJ
Editor’s Notes: Lew Pagel offers guided, fully equipped ice fishing trips for sheepshead (arcticfishingadventures.com) and is based in Kotzebue, Alaska. He has all the equipment you will need, and will arrange accommodations, clean and vacuum your fish for the trip home. Alaska Airlines offers two daily flights in and out of Kotzebue, making planning a trip to this remote destination simple. To order signed copies of many of Scott Haugen’s popular hunting and fishing books, visit scotthaugen.com. Follow his adventures on Instagram and Facebook.