Fly fishing for sheefish is both thrilling and challenging, but it certainly isn’t easy. You may have heard it said that, “To fish for sheefish, first, you have to find them.” It’s true. They are more elusive, mysterious, and harder to track down than any salmon, trout, char, grayling, whitefish, steelhead, lake trout or pike you’ll ever pursue. This dilemma doesn’t arise only because much of their habitat is up and around the Arctic Circle or the Kuskokwim or Yukon Rivers though. It’s also because of their migratory nature. Sheefish have been known to make journeys of up to 1,000 miles from winter habitat to spawning habitat and back again, all in one season. Obviously, they need to be almost always on the move.
Years ago, when I first met and fished with Lorry & Nellie Schuerch, owners of Kiana Lodge on the Kobuk River, I learned that sheefish made these super-lengthy journeys. Wow, was I ever impressed by those gorgeous, tasty fish and their incredible “story.” Then, fishing the Kuskokwim and a couple of its tributaries a few years later, I was dumb-founded all over again. The fish’s journeys in both rivers explained why we’d search and search for them until we finally connected, but then, sometimes within just a few hours, they were gone again. Believe me, the hunt quickly became part of the allure of these magnificent creatures.
A lot of years went by before I was lucky enough to have another encounter with these remarkable fish. That opportunity presented itself this past summer, when Fish Alaska Magazine sent me back to fish with Lorry & Nelli in the sheefish mecca of Alaska, the Kobuk River.
A waterway over 300 miles long and surrounded by mountains that seem to go on into infinity, the mighty Kobuk slices a path between and around them until it reaches its broad delta in Hotham Inlet in Kotzebue Sound approximately 10 miles southwest of Kiana. The river’s headwaters lie within the Gates of the Arctic National Park just north of the Arctic Circle, and it traverses Kobuk Valley National Park, which includes the famous Kobuk Sand Dunes, as it heads to the sea. It is truly the lifeblood of the native people living along its shores.
The Kobuk is surprisingly shallow in many places, and requires an experienced boat captain to manage it. It is Lorry’s kingdom, and he watches over it with a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Every bend, every rock, and every gravel bar are intimately familiar to him, as are the deep, secret channels the sheefish use as they navigate up-river to spawn.
After taking the early morning plane to Kotzebue, we met up with Jared Cummings, the owner of Golden Eagle Outfitters, for our trip onward to Kiana. Jared’s dad was visiting and he became our pilot in one plane while Jared ferried other folks to a different location. The weather was not ideal, but the village came into view pretty quickly, and Lorry was there to pick us up. After a quick tour of the village, we jumped in the boat and went with him to talk to a couple of ADF&G researchers who were seining fish just below town. They were catching both sheefish and chum salmon in the net as we watched, and prospects looked good for our fishing.
Lorry, his granddaughter, Kaya, Tanya Pemberton, our angling photographer, and I took off on our first excursion up-river that afternoon to check out one of the channels that often holds fish. Lorry had recommended that we come armed with sink-tip lines and heavy white, yellow, and green and other light color flies decorated with lots of sparkle and flash, and we were prepared. I remembered the sheefish’s preference for white and for glitter, so I’d brought some of my large streamer boxes with articulated leeches, large bunny streamers, and lots of clouser minnows as well as some of my favorite pike boxes. Since I knew that we would also be catching pike during our trip, those flies really came in handy for both species.
Lorry anchored the boat near a fairly wide trough in the water between us and the bank, and Kaya checked out the scene with her spinning rod while we got set up. No hits for her, and none for us with the flies, either. We pulled anchor and maneuvered a bit closer to the channel before trying again. Still nothing. So, then we went back down river a ways, put the boat on the bank, and hiked back to fish the channel from the shore side. There we had a few hits that turned out to be white fish and chums. I gave Kaya a lesson or two on casting a fly rod, and then we moved on.
At a different spot later that day the sheefish were somewhat more cooperative. Lorry’s advice to cast as far away from the boat as possible and let the heavy fly drift deeply down along the channel, did the trick. Some of the hits were aggressive and solid, and a few were gentle and rather tentative, but we set the hook hard on all of them and brought a number of fish to the boat. True to their reputation, they put on dazzling displays of leaping and cartwheeling once they were hooked, re-enforcing their reputation as “tarpon of the north.” Their other similarities to the saltwater fish, a large, broad gill plate, huge scales, and a square mouth, were clearly evident once we landed them. We kept two fish for dinner, took some pictures, and carefully released the others.
Sheefish are excellent table fare both for subsistence needs and for sport anglers. We put our harvested fish on ice and Nellie baked them to perfection for dinner that evening in her well-appointed kitchen. I actually had “seconds” and then “thirds” without much urging. She also deep fries, cans, smokes, and dries sheefish for year-round use as does everyone else along the river.
As we talked about the importance of the sheefish to local people, Lorry gave me a copy of the amazing book, Iqaluich Niǵiñaqtuat “Fish That We Eat,” Anore Jones, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 2006, that contains page after page of recipes and recommendations for preparing sheefish the Iñupiaq “fish food wisdom way.” I was quite intrigued by the long-used and shared methods and techniques of preserving and utilizing this and other fish species for a variety of traditional dishes. For instance, on page 133, Jones advises that
“Smaller fish tend to be more lean and are not quite as good for general eating, but make better dried fish (paniqtug), whereas the medium-sized fish (15-25 pounds) are too fat to dry, but excellent for all eating, freezing, and fermenting. The fattest, largest fish (30-60 pounds) are perfect for roasting.”
Our fish were in the 10-15 pound range that day, so they would have been perfect for drying, but we kept our hopes up for larger ones on our next excursion.
The following day after a huge breakfast of Nelli’s sourdough pancakes and homemade blueberry syrup, Lorry said he was going into Kiana, so he asked if we’d like to go pike fishing in the Squirrel River that flows into the Kobuk near the village for a while before heading back to find the sheefish. He knows a very, very muddy, but incredibly productive back channel chocked-full of lots of toothy, cooperative fish, and we jumped at the chance.
We weren’t disappointed. We added some 40lb test monofilament to our leaders as bite tippet, tied on some #2 light-colored & weighted flies, and got to it. Every single cast produce a hit, and Kaya had a great time with the pike-release grabber tool taking off fish after fish like a pro. We had one large fish that broke me off, but about ten cast later I caught it again, and got my first fly back. Finally we were all filthy so we did our best to clean up ourselves and the boat, as well as the rods and the flies as Lorry pointed the boat up the Kobuk to the sheefish.
We stopped in a wide bend on the river with a small creek running into it to prospect for sheefish, and suddenly saw lots of wakes in various spots all across the surface. Some extremely beefy chums were the wake-makers, however, and not the sheefish we were after, but we had fun with them for an hour or so. Kaya suddenly hollered, that she had a monster fish on, and we all paid attention. Not a sheefish, but a 23 or 24 lb chum kept her busy and Lorry held on to her so that she wouldn’t get pulled out of the boat.
Further up-river Lorry slowed the boat at another of the special places he knows the sheefish will be in mid-summer, and, sure enough, we hooked right up. A few fish pushing 18 -20lbs were now the prize and with both large, tan & white clouser minnows, and white bead-head bunny and marabou lake leeches, we started hooking up consistently. One particularly large fish twisted and twirled in the air in several astounding leaps straight up out of the water, but, unfortunately it managed to get de-hooked with all the antics so we never got to measure it.
Sheefish are the only predatory whitefish in North America. Their distinguishing characteristic from other species of whitefish is a much larger, extended lower jaw. Female sheefish live longer and achieve a greater size than the male. He matures at age 6-9 years, depending on his location, while she will mature between 7-12 years of age. So, our large fish could have been a girl.
Sheefish generally spawn every two years rather than annually. This is thought to be because of the large amount of eggs a female produces. Sheefish are also “broadcast” spawners and do not dig a nest for the eggs. Instead, they release their eggs and milt directly into shallow water areas where most of them were, themselves, hatched. Fertilized eggs then drift downstream and sink, lodging in the gravel. Spawning fish leave the area within a short time afterwards and return to the brackish water of the bays.
My research for this article produced an old report from ADF&G containing some interviews with residents of the area. One resident related that sheefish spawn in late September in the upper Kobuk, and that they hold very still in deep sections of the river while staging. When ready, they spawn in the evenings at the water’s surface in the main current. Subsistence fishermen said the splashing of the spawning sheefish is audible from the river bank, and that they consider it a signal to seine. According to legends, the sheefish ask a shorebird, the semipalmated plover, to make the weather stormy when they start moving around to spawn so that no one will catch them. In return, the sheefish promise to give the bird a bead necklace. Thus, the stormy weather that often accompanies spawning and the beautiful band around the bird’s neck.
Young sheefish hatch sometime in early spring before break-up. Spring run-off distributes them downstream to backwater eddies, off-channel lakes, and estuaries. They are known to grow rapidly feeding mainly on insects and other prey, but as they mature they feed almost exclusively on other fish, even other sheefish.
Our last day on the river started with Lorry and Jared on the phone making plans for our pickup that afternoon. Lorry wanted to take us quite a long way up-river to one of his special sheefish places, but that would mean that we would need to get picked up for our trip back to Kotzebue on the river. Jared knew the area where we would be, and they agreed that there was ample beach for the plane to land. We quickly packed our suitcases and loaded everything on the boat and took off.
On the run to the fishing site we dozed off, cleaned fly boxes, and snacked as we sped along. Eventually the boat slowed down and it was time to cast.
Tanya had yet to land a large fish, and she was determined to do that before we left. The fish were definitely in the area, and we hooked into several of them with different flies. Lorry did stand-by to take the camera from her so we could record her achievement. Finally her rod bent nearly double, and she was in business. This was some fish! Definitely larger than any of the others we’d caught, we knew that this was going to be a long battle. Her 8-wt rod and her reel were put to the test, and they were performing perfectly. Each time the fish leaped into the air we all worried that it would shake the fly loose, but the fly stayed put. Time after time it took line out, and we began to think that it was never going to tire. I lost track of how many times she brought the fish to the boat, but each time another spurt of energy helped it avoid the net. At last, it was over and the prize of the day quickly got photographed and released.
It wasn’t long until it was time to go. Just as arranged, Jared and his trusty 206 buzzed us a couple of times as he scoped-out the gravel bar. Then he made an absolutely perfect landing and taxied toward the wind-gauge we had made for him out of a white plastic bag tied to one of the oars. We loaded up our luggage and our fishing gear, said goodbye, and jumped aboard. Lorry waved as the plane skimmed over the top of the boat, and we (reluctantly) headed back to Kotzebue. Hopefully, I’ll get back to visit Kobuk sheefish again another day.
(Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Fish Alaska magazine)
Lorry & Nelli Schuerch, Owners
P.O. Box 89 Kiana, Alaska 99749
Where Sheefish can be found:
Life history: Sheefish in Alaska have been separated into five major stocks. In addition, smaller rivers such as the Nowitna, Black, and Porcupine have small local populations. The Minto Flats and Upper Yukon River populations are year-round residents in the eastern part of Interior Alaska. The Lower Yukon and Kuskokwim groups overwinter in the delta areas of these large rivers while the Kobuk-Selawik groups spend the winter in the brackish waters of Hotham Inlet and Selawik Lake. These latter groups can best be termed estuarine anadromous. Alaska Department of Fish & Game
Kobuk River: http://www.nps.gov/gaar/kobukriver.htm
Selawick River: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Selawik/about/wild_river.html
Nowitna River: http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/recEdMore.cfm?ID=75621
Minto Flats: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=mintoflats.main
Kuskokwim River: www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=ByAreaInteriorKuskokwim.fishingInfo
FLIES FOR SHEEFISH: Sizes #4-#2/0 white, yellow, chartreuse green, light brown with lots of Flashabou or Krystal Flash to get the fish’s attention.
-Bead-Head or Cone-Head Rabbit Leeches
-Clouser Minnows-white and green or white and tan
-Bunny-winged Salmon Leeches
-White with Red, Yellow, or Black Double Bunnies
-Heavily Weighted Intruder patterns
Bead-Head Bunny Leech © 2012 Michael DeYoung