Fishing for Arctic Char in Alaska

by Roy Hawkins


My reel screamed in agony, and my five weight fly rod bent double as the big Char ran downstream, apparently headed for the Bering Sea twenty miles away. It was late June and our party of four anglers, along with our guide and pilot had splashed down a little while before at Ugasnik in Southwest Alaska. We had flown the hundred miles or so out from Kulik Lodge specifically to fish for Arctic Char. Angling for these beautiful fish had long been a dream of mine, so I jumped at the opportunity when my friend Bill Newman invited me to accompany him to Alaska. So, now, after spending a successful couple of days fishing for big Rainbow Trout in the Kulik River, I was ready to tie into my first Char. Fortunately, I didn’t have long to wait. After getting off the plane as quickly as possible, our guide Chad McBride and I rigged my fly rod with a tandem set consisting of a dry fly (A Stimulator) with a Salmon Fry pattern (A wet fly) on a short drop tippet beneath.

Moments later I was fishing, and soon a gentle swirl appeared at the end of my leader as a fish took very softly. Assuming it was a small Grayling, I quickly raised the rod and then just as quickly revised my opinion as a powerful fish rushed toward mid river. I very foolishly attempted to control his run by holding onto my fly line, only to have the leader snap, ending the fight as quickly as it had begun. My guide immediately told me what I’d done wrong. He said, “Keep your hand off the line and use your reel to fish the fish!” A few casts later, the big Char mentioned at the beginning struck, and the battle was on. This time I did play the fish off my reel by simply letting him run. The Char never slowed until all my line was gone, and he was well into the baking. At that point, the fish finally stopped, and for the next twenty minutes, we engaged in a seesaw battle with my gaining a little line only to have the Char take it off the reel again. Just when I thought that would go on at least until the resurrection, the Char surfaced and I had my first look at the fish I’d come to Alaska to catch. Then, at McBride’s instruction, I held my line tight, and walked down river to get below the Char, avoiding having to pull the big fish upstream against the heavy currant. Gradually, I worked him in close until our guide was able to grab my trophy just in front of the tail, and lift it from the water. (The use of landing nets by guides and guests at Kulik Lodge is forbidden.) Grinning, Chad measured my Char at twenty-four and one half inches, a nice fish by any standard, and certainly a great “First Arctic Char.”

After we took pictures of my fish, the guide released it, and I resumed fishing. A few casts later, I was into another Char, and in all, caught five very good ones, plus some nice Grayling, before time compelled us to board the float plane for the flight back to the lodge.

The fishing was even better the following day on the Lower American River, only a ten minute flight from Kulik. This time the plane dropped us off at a point on the river where a boat was waiting to take us upstream to our fishing area. On the way we saw a Bull Moose splash ashore and disappear into the timber along the river bank. A little later we arrived at our destination, and stepped out of the boat onto a sand bar covered with the tracks of moose, wolf and bear. The first order of business was spraying down with Alaskan Cologne (insect repellant). Only when that was done, did we begin fishing.

On the American we used leech patterns of various colors, with a split shot to get the fly deep. Our guide suggested I cast to a slick below a small island in midstream where he said fish were sure to be holding. He was right! Immediately I was into a Char, and that was only the beginning. The river was literally alive with fish, and I ended the day with some thirty five Char. In fact, we all did well, and a lady angler in our group took top honors with a beautiful Char that measured twenty-six inches. Often the fishing was so furious it was like being in a Brim bed in Mississippi. Frequently everyone had a fish on at the same time. All too soon however, the float plane arrived to take us back to the lodge, and on the approach to the landing site, we spotted a huge male grizzly on the tundra right above the camp.

After the evening meal, I went “night fishing” on the Kulik, the only time I did so during our Alaska trip, and caught only one fish. (The sun was so bright at 10 p.m. we could not stay on the water without sun glasses.) The next day we flew back to Anchorage, and after dinner that evening at the Rum Runner Restaurant, boarded our plane for the flight back home.

Since the fishing on our trip was all catch and release, I don’t have a mounted Arctic Char on my study wall. But there is a silver lining in that little cloud, for those majestic fish I released will be there for me to catch again when I return to Alaska.