Alaskans hear more than their fair share of fish tales, where the truth is slightly stretched to make the story more exciting. But perhaps one of the biggest fish tales out there is the myth that the good fishing stops when the ice comes in.
With winter lasting over half the year, the sport of ice fishing keeps passionate anglers out through the cold months. Ice fishing fans may spend months planning trips to search for trophy-sized fish. But for people interested in trying out the sport, there are plenty of opportunities in the Anchorage Bowl, and a day on the ice in town is both fun and affordable.
Starting in October, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocks dozens of lakes with species including rainbow trout, grayling, landlocked salmon and arctic char from a local hatchery. With phenomenal fishing minutes away, the only thing anglers need for a successful day is the right setup. Die-hard anglers may invest in gas-powered augers to blast through the ice, shanties to keep out the harsh winter wind and vexlar fish finders that show if a monster is headed over, but anglers can get by with a much simpler setup.
Mark Bean, an Anchorage resident, has thrown his hook in the water almost every day since last summer. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in December he was drilling holes at Sand Lake for the first time this winter. Bean prefers the peace and quiet of a hand auger, but easily cuts through the 20-plus inches of ice within a couple of minutes. Bean fits all of his gear in a bucket. In addition to his auger, Bean brings two rods, an assortment of lures and a skimmer to scoop the ice. His bucket has a pad on the lid to sit on.
"I just enjoy fishing in general, any type," Bean said as he gently lifted his ice fishing rod up and down, a technique known as jigging.
Sand Lake is one of the most popular fishing spots in Anchorage, along with Delong Lake, Jewel Lake and Mirror Lake. Bean prefers to catch and release, though lakes in Anchorage and Mat-Su have liberal bag limits during the winter. While Bean patiently waits for his first bite, Synaine Chan, another angler from Anchorage, has several salmon and a rainbow trout lying in the snow next to his hole at Sand Lake. In under an hour he hooked nearly his entire bag limit for salmon using a small piece of bait. Chan said he planned on bringing the fish home to cook for dinner, to "filet, smoke, soup -- there are many different ways."
Both Chan and Bean enjoy the laid-back nature of ice fishing. "You don't need to move; you can stay in one spot," said Chan. But ice fishing can offer as much action as throwing your line in open water. Martha Humphries moved to Anchorage from Louisiana six months ago and is out on her second ice fishing trip with Bean. A die-hard bass fisherwoman, she was thrilled by her experience out on the ice.
"I caught a fish as soon as I put that worm in there -- wham," said Humphries of her first ice fishing trip to Delong Lake. "I'm ready to catch one now; it's so big I can't pull it out of the hole."
Landing a whopper isn't a stretch in some lakes off the road system and places in Interior Alaska, but there are also plenty of healthy-size fish around Southcentral.
"You are in the city, but you can catch fish upwards of eight pounds," said Ryan Ragan, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sport fishing division.
If it's a fight you're looking for, Ragan suggests targeting northern pike. While native to parts of Alaska, pike is an invasive species taking over many lakes in Southcentral. They're aggressive predators, eating everything in sight, and ADF&G needs help removing them. According to Ragan, their aggression makes them prone to attacking big, flashy lures. Using chunks of herring, hooligan or blackfish as bait is also effective. Regulations vary, but in many areas of the Valley, tip-ups are allowed.
"Ice fishing for pike has really taken off in the Valley. That is partly because there are some very large pike up there to be caught," Ryan said.
It's illegal to throw a pike back into the water after catching it in Southcentral, but regulations vary when it comes to what must be done after it's caught. Ragan suggests keeping a copy of the latest regulations nearby (the 2014 regulation booklet is expected to be released soon). Also, if anglers find a pike where they haven't seen one before, they should keep it and report it to ADF&G. According to Ragan, the Palmer office is a great resource for anglers looking to catch a pike.
"That is what we are here for. We want people to call us," Ragan said.
That's true for most lakes in Southcentral; ADF&G can provide anglers with depth charts, information about what bait and lures work best and, in many cases, knowledge from personal experience. Local sporting goods stores are also a great resource for information and tips. Sporting goods stores can help pick out the right setup for the target the species and, with some luck, a friendly angler might be willing to share a tip or two, even though they understand the consequences of beginners' luck.
"Yesterday she caught more fish than I did," Bean said about his new ice fishing partner Humphries. The two met fishing at Sand Lake over the summer, and now Bean is showing her the ropes of ice fishing.
"I came up here with the idea I wanted to do three things, and this is one of them," Humphries said. "I never think fishing is boring."
Ice fishing is an excellent way to introduce kids to the sport of fishing, Ryan said, especially in Anchorage's stocked lakes. "Speaking (from) personal experience, they think it's so cool to pull a fish out from the ice," Ryan said.
For any angler, that's a feeling that never gets old: the rush when there's a tug on your line and the excitement of fighting it until you finally get it up through the hole. When it comes to ice fishing, an angler of any age and experience can head home happy.
The basics to bring
- Ice fishing rod -- 20 to 38 inches long
- Extra gloves
- Warm beverage
- Hand warmers
- Waterproof boots
- Layers of clothing
- Bucket (or something to sit on)
- Your fishing license (licenses are issued yearly)
- Copy of the latest regulations