Ice Fishing Alaska

by  Rene Limeres

The inevitable descent of the snow line and accompanying freezing temps 
ends our open water season here in Alaska in late fall. This can be a time
 of great sadness for most anglers, when they put their rods and other gear
in the closet and prepare for a long, fishless winter.

 

z1_ice jigging rig

But the true 
diehards, for whom the "tug is the drug", merely view this as a transition 
to a different form of the sport they love, one that provides unique and 
exciting diversion all winter long - the world of ice fishing.

 Now, standing out in the cold and dangling a line through the ice isn't for
everyone, but if you haven't yet done so, you need to embrace the season
 and give Alaska's abundant winter angling a shot, if only to say you've 
tried it. Who knows, you might even like it and join the frostbitten ranks 
who don't mind their fishing served cold and with ice. Other than the 
initiative and a little specialized gear, it doesn't take much. Read on
for the basics of how to ice fish in Alaska.

Comfort & Safety

The greatest challenge to winter fishing in Alaska is, of course, 
maintaining a reasonable measure of comfort and safety. Setting out across 
ice-covered bodies of water is risky business anywhere, but especially so
 here, where conditions can vary so quickly and help can be far off or 
non-existent. Likewise to staying warm outdoors in
 the depths of winter;
 Alaska's cold demands your utmost respect and preparation.

You should not plan on doing any ice fishing along the southern mainland
 of Alaska until early December in most years, when a 4-6 inch layer of
 clear hard ice 
uniformly covers most of the bodies of freshwater. (Any 
prolonged spells of unusual weather during late fall-early winter may
 affect the formation of this safe ice layer- unseasonably warm 
temperatures, early heavy snowfall, etc., so keep track of the conditions 
as the season develops.) Larger lakes such as Skilak, Louise, Summit,
 etc., ice-drillingtake longer to develop uniformly safe ice than the numerous smaller 
lakes scattered across the Matanuska and Tanana valleys and northern Kenai
 Peninsula. Lakes along the coast, particularly those in Southeast, may not 
freeze adequately until much later in winter, or in some years, not at
 all. Be wary of overflow conditions that can flood the surface of lakes
 with a layer of water. Early heavy snows can likewise create extremely
 hazardous conditions as they insulate lake surfaces from the cold. Always 
check with local sources on current conditions before venturing onto any 
frozen lake.
When planning your trip, remember that going off alone on any remote 
Alaska wilderness foray is never a good idea, especially in winter, so 
you'll want to include a buddy or a small group of friends for anything 
beyond an outing to local urban waters. Warm clothing, some kind of
 shelter and personal survival gear are essential.  Here's a list of the
 bare minimum of personal gear I would bring:

 

  • Layered wool, silk or polypro undergarments
  • Warm socks & hat
  • Insulated coveralls or snowmachine suit
  • Hooded, Arctic weight, insulated parka
  • Rubber coated insulated footwear (bunny boots)
  • Arctic weight mittens with wool or polypro glove liners
  • Long insulated rubber gloves
  • Personal light source- flashlight or lantern
  • Large Thermos with coffee/tea
  • Water/Snacks/Food
  • Handwarmers
  • Winter weight sleeping bag or down comforter
  • Matches/Lighter
  • Cell phone

 

Access

Many of the state's less remote but productive bodies of water for ice 
fishing can be accessed from the road system or by short trail. (Check 
with the Alaska DOT and land managers for winter road and trail
 conditions.)  For the harder-to-get-to places, Alaska ice anglers use skis 
and snowmachines pulling sleds to transport themselves and their gear. 
Small planes equipped with skis are another option to open up endless 
possibilities off the road system.

Ice Fishing Gear

For the gear you'll need for most Alaska ice fishing forays, you can keep 
it quite simple: some basic tools for cutting and clearing holes, a 
shelter of some kind, a fire or heat making device, and your rigs and 
paraphernalia for fishing.

For early season fishing, an "ice spud" bar will work fine to chip through 
the thin layer of ice covering the surface of most lakes, but as winter
 progresses, ice augers become the tool of choice for lessening the chore
 of boring through thick ice. (The ice spud remains an essential tool 
throughout the season for enlarging and chipping ice pikeaway ice from the hole.) 

If you plan on only fishing urban ponds and some of the more popular lakes 
along the road system, you can get by with an ice spud or hand auger
 throughout the season, to open up and enlarge holes that have been kept in 
use by locals. But if you plan on fishing remote sites, especially larger
 lakes, where numerous test holes may be required, you should get a power 
auger, to save time and energy punching through thick ice (which can reach
 several feet by late winter in Alaska). Whether you use hand or power 
augers, make sure your blades are sharp before leaving home, and take care 
in the field not to dull them.

Sitting on the ice out in the open, where you are totally exposed to 
Alaska's winter chill, you'll have a difficult time staying warm, no
 matter how well you are dressed, unless you bring some kind of wind break.
This can be something as simple as a tarp or an old dome tent (with a hole 
cut in the floor)  or more elaborate, like the trick, portable ice
 shelters sold nowadays, that fold down into sleds, or more permanent,
 plywood ice houses like those used in the upper Midwest and Canada, that 
are hauled to site by trailer. Anchoring tarps and tents down so they
don't blow away is simplified by freezing stakes, guy lines and frames 
into the ice. (You can use the ice spud or small hatchet for chopping.)

A wood fire is essential for warmth if you're fishing out in the open, but 
if you have some kind of enclosed shelter, a space heater (propane or 
kerosene) will do the job. (Don't forget sawing/chopping tools and wood if
 you plan on building a fire; fuel if you going to use a space heater.)

For ice fishing rigs, you can go simple or elaborate. There are specially
 designed, short ice fishing rods and rod-reel combos sold through the 
catalogs (and stores) that work great for fishing through ice holes, but
 you can do just as well for most situations using the bottom half of an 
ultralight spinning rig (filled with 6-10 lb. line for rainbow trout and 
landlocked salmon; heavier for pike, lake trout, burbot and charr) or 
light fly rod (spooled with floating or sinking line & 6-10 lb. mono 
leader for trout & salmon; heavier for pike, lake trout, burbot and
 charr). For fishing bait unattended, the classic "tip-up",  a rig with 
expandable cross members to hold it above the hole and triggered flag to
 signal a bite, works great. (Remember that in most Alaska waters, you are 
limited to fishing only two baited lines.) For hand jigging, you might
 forego the rod altogether and opt for simple, trouble-free, coiled
 hand-line jigging rigs. 

Bright metal lures adorned with some kind of bait or scented oil are the
 standard enticements used to rouse sluggish fish this time of year. For 
rainbow trout and the various landlocked salmon species stocked by ADF&G,
  small (less than an ounce) attractor-colored jigs and jigging spoons fished
 with cured salmon eggs or shrimp are most popular and effective, as are 
small spinners (1/2 ounce or less).  Bait can be fished alone, with lead
 shot and usually a bobber. For lake trout, arctic charr and northern pike, 
large, bright spoons, 3-5 inches, featuring a splash of attractor color 
(red, orange, chartreuse) are the ticket, especially when fished with a
 strip of bait such as herring, whitefish, smelt or sucker. (Remember it is
 illegal to fish live bait in Alaska.)

Techniques for Alaska Ice Fishing

Planning a fishing strategy for these ice-bound waters can be as simple as 
looking for well-used holes in the most popular lake locations, and 
lowering baits or lures down into them. But if you're the kind (like me) 
that seeks more remote and isolated waters, you'll have to work at finding 
fish in a much different environment than you deal with during the open 
water season.
 Winter fish are not necessarily going to be found in the same locations 
and depths
ice tip up rig that they are in summer, as the reduced temperatures, light and 
water inflows/outflows of winter greatly affect the movements and feeding
 habits of the resident fish.

 Knowing the overall morphology of the lake you are going to fish will be
 extremely helpful. ADF&G has numerous lake charts available (as hard copy 
in field offices and on-line) that show depth and bottom contours of many 
popular ice fishing destinations, as well as quite a few of the more 
remote  and obscure sites. If you can get one of these lake maps, look for
 dropoffs, shoals, bars, stream mouths, weed beds, outlets, points, and any
 other structures that might attract fish. If you can't get any lake maps, 
talk to locals or other fishermen who might have knowledge of the waters 
you are interested in and can direct you to the most productive fishing 
areas.  Otherwise, you'll have to rely on guesswork and trial and error to
locate the best spots.

 Standard procedure for fishing remote and untried waters is to punch a 
series of well-spaced holes following the bottom contour along the most
 likely stretch of shoreline or other structure and try fishing them until
 you find some action. Work the holes for at least an hour before moving on
to a new location. It's always a good idea, if you have enough bait with
 you, to chum the holes with some finely chopped bait. Don't overdo it; the 
idea is to create a scent trail to entice fish in, not to feed them. (If 
you have some kind of shelter erected over the hole, it will cut down on
the ambient light so you can peer down into the waters and watch for any
 action after you drop the bait down.)

 You should work your lures/bait vigorously up and down at various depths
 on your attended lines, and check all your rigs frequently to make sure 
your baits are intact and fresh. Deeper areas don't necessarily hold fish 
like they might during open water season, as they become anoxic (devoid of 
oxygen) as winter wears on and fish seek the warmer and more oxygen-rich
 shallows. So typically you might hook up well above bottom when fishing
 trout, landlocked salmon and northern pike, especially later in the
 season.

Ice Fishing Gear 
  • Small sled to haul gear
  •  Snowshoes (if needed)
  • Small snow shovel (if needed)
  •  Ice spud or large chisel
  •  Ice auger (hand or power, with gas)
  •  Ice skimmer
  •  Portable shelter (tarp, tent, shed)
  •  Fire-making essentials and / or portable heater of some kind
  •  Small chainsaw or brush saw (optional)
  •  Hatchet
  •  Small cooler
  •  Five-gallon plastic bucket (to carry fishing gear and to sit on)
  •  Towels for hand wiping
  •  Electronic fish finder (optional)
  •  Fishing rigs
  •  Lures / bait

Arctic charr, lake trout and burbot are generally taken deeper 
than other species. 

If you're one who uses electronic fishing aids to enhance productivity on 
wide open marine and lake environments, you might want to consider using a 
fish finder for your ice fishing forays. There are reasonably priced,
 portable, cold weather-resistant units available now that can save a lot 
of time on unfamiliar waters, particularly on the larger lakes.

 Once you do locate fish, the fun begins. They tend to school up this time
 of year, so you can generally expect some fast and sustained action once
 the bite begins, particularly with trout and landlocked salmon. A hole in 
the ice that lets light and food in, not to mention the added stimulus of
a bright lure and frenetic movement (and noise) of a hooked fish, creates 
a powerful draw for fish near and afar. And on many occasions, I have had 
bigger fish drawn in the longer I continued fishing through a particular 
hole.

Much has been said about the best time of day for the bite when ice
fishing, but I have had good action fishing just about every hour of the 
day, including the dead of night, so I think it isn't as much a factor as 
it is during open water season, though I know many experienced ice anglers 
reading this may disagree. Early morning and late afternoon are said by 
many to be the most productive times for ice fishing. 

If you want to keep a good hole open for later, like if you plan on coming 
back the next day, best thing to do is cover it with something like a
 piece of wood or cardboard, or even some spruce boughs, then shovel a pile 
of snow over it. That will insulate it and at least keep the ice formation
 to a minimum for a day or two.

 Any fish you want to keep should be cleaned (use the offal for chum) and
 put on ice (easy to do this time of year). Fish to be released should not 
be taken out of the hole, but freed using a pair of pliers to grip the 
hooks and twist them out.

Where to Go

There is a super abundance of easily accessed and productive ice fishing 
in Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a stocking program 
for hundreds of lakes (consult their website or visit one of their offices 
for current listings of local stocked lakes, with additional info like
 access, stocking history, contour maps, etc.), many pike through the iceof which receive 
regular fish plants right before freeze up, to benefit ice anglers. The 
majority of these waters are within easy reach of the state's major urban 
areas- around Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula.

If you don't care to fish for stocked trout and landlocked salmon, there 
are nearly limitless possibilities for fishing wild rainbows, pike,
 burbot, charr (arctic, Dolly Varden and lake trout), grayling and even
 sheefish across the state's trackless interior, western and far north 
regions. (ADF&G is also a great resource for information on remote,
unstocked lakes.)

 Traditionally, the best times for ice fishing are early and late in the
 season. Late winter (March into early April) is a favorite time for many 
ice anglers as the longer, brighter days and warmer temps have a
stimulating effect on anglers and fish alike. Fishing as soon as the lakes
 develop a safe ice layer is also very productive and easiest, with the 
least amount of hole drilling.

 If you do some local day trips, take some kids along with you. Their
 enthusiasm and appreciation for even meager fare like put-and-take
 rainbows is contagious and will warm your heart (if not your feet and
 hands), plus it's good to get them outside and show them there's more to 
do in winter in Alaska than be couch potatoes.

 Here's a small list of some of the more popular lakes to try:

Anchorage Area: JewelMirrorBeachClunieOtterDeLongSandGreen

Fairbanks Area: ChenaPolarisBallaineMoose and Grayling lakes; 28
Mile Pond

Tanana Valley: Tangle, Minto and Tetlin lakes systems; HardingBirch,
 QuartzGeskakminaDuneOttoRainbowCraigKoole and Bolio lakes

Kenai Peninsula: Summit, Trail, Kenai, Hidden and Skilak lakes; Swanson 
River Road lakes, Swan Lake Road & Canoe System lakes

Matanuska & Upper Susitna Valley: Big Lake system; Nancy Lake System, 
Kepler-Bradley lakes, Petersville Road lakes, WasillaRed ShirtLong,
 Seventeen Mile,BenkaChristiansenCarpenterMemoryDiamondChelatna, 
Clarence and Stephan lakes

Glennallen & Copper Valley: Louise/SusitnaCrosswind, Deep, Fish,
 TolsonaPaxton, Summit, Tonsina, Strelna, Silver, Van, Copper-Tanada and
 Long lakes

Bristol Bay: Wood-Tikchik Lakes, Lake Clark; headwater lakes, Togiak and
 Kanektok rivers, Katmai lakes

Northwest: Walker, Feniak, Wild and Selawik lakes; Hotham Inlet (spring
 sheefish)

Arctic: Teshekpuk, Elusive, Galbraith, Chandler, Old John, Chandalar, and
 Bob Johnson lakes

Editor's Note: Many other lakes suitable for ice fishing can be found at the ADF&G Lake Fishing Information pages, which include access information, bathymetric maps, and other items of interest to fishermen.

Rene Limeres is a long-time Alaska wilderness fishing guide and
 writer/publisher who lives north of Anchorage. Check out his publications and fishing program atwww.ultimaterivers.com

 
 
 
 
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