So it has been a long time since I have actually stood on a river with a fly rod and it seemed that I would not be able to fish again until June. I actually got a chance to do something that I previously had absolutely no interest in doing. It involves a shovel or auger, a wooden one inch dowel rod (about 2 feet long), 30 pound test line, a huge lead weight the size of a chihauhau, and a treble hook with some fish flesh as bait. Oh and lots of really warm clothing. Ice fishing is nothing like fly fishing at all, but it surprisingly has its own style and technique here in Bush Alaska.
I was skiing along the coast yesterday and saw some people out on the bay not too far away, ice fishing. I, being the curious and social person that I am, skied out to see what this Eskimo tradition and lifestyle is all about. One of the fisherman turned out to be an eighth grader that I know fairly well. He caught a couple of fish and then asked if I would like to try. I unclipped out of my skis, which probably removed that chance that I could have done something totally unique in the sport of fishing, fish with skis on, and took the stick he handed me. Basically, it is a dowel rod with line tied on the end and then wrapped around the end of the stick. Winding or unwinding line off the stick allows you to adjust the depth your bait sits in the water. You generally want your bait not more than 12 inches off the bottom, because the closer you get to the top, the colder the water is and the less fish you will find. On the other end of your line is a pretty big lead weight and a treble hook tied about 8 inches from the weight. The bait was a small piece of smelt (type of fish). You lower your line in the water until you find the bottom and then lift your stick about 6 to 12 inches. Occasionally you can gently raise your bait a little higher and then lower it back down. Eventually you should feel a little nibble and you just lift the stick to set the hook. Then you lift the stick above your head, grab low on the line, bring the stick back down below where you grabbed the line and lift under the line again. By pulling the line to the side with your hand and then lifting the line with the stick again, you should be able to bring your fish out of the hole in the ice and let it lie on the ice. Generally it is one quick motion and your fish is lying on the ice. Then with a quick tap on the head, you should be able to put the fish out of misery. Pull the hook out and drop it back in the water. This whole process can take about 10 seconds for some of the natives I have watched. Yeah, most of the time spent ice fishing is just ........ standing there, holding a 24 inch stick, and jerking it in the water everyonce in a while. I haven't seen too many women doing it. I guess it's a guy thing.
People can catch up to about 50 fish in a few hours this way. Most of the fish you catch are Tom Cod, which are only about 12 inches long. You can also catch smelt, which are generally used for more bait, but can be fried and are very tasty as well, according to some native friends I talked to. The fishing hole is only about a mile from my house, so it would be easy to ski to on my own. A lot of people travel about 20 minutes by snow machine to the Toksook River, which is near Night Mute (a neighboring village on Nelson Island about 20 miles southeast). Anyway, the Toksook River has lush fish, which are considerably larger (about 15 - 25 inches). I hope to travel there sometime and give that a try.
Make sure you bring some food, lots of hot coffee, and plenty of really warm clothes. Fishing license???? forget about it. I'm sure that ice fishing in Alaska is a very different experience from ice fishing on the great lakes somewhere. For one thing, fishing here is done on the bay, which due to the tides, develops cracks from the water swelling. Plus it is salt water, which does take a lot lower temperatures to freeze. Don't worry, it's cold enough up here.
Well, see you out on the ice.