John Schandelmeier: With ice on the lake, it's time to go fishing

John Schandelmeier
.A fish swims in overflow above an ice hole after being caught and released at Jewel Lake on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013.
Bill Roth

The Iditarod is still going. There are dog races every weekend of the month, yet my thoughts are turning to ice fishing. Dog mushing might be the state sport, but fishermen likely outnumber mushers by 100 to 1. Most of the fish caught this coming weekend will be stocked fish from Matanuska Valley and Fairbanks area lakes. However, the great spring weather is sure to turn anglers' thoughts to bigger lakes and larger fish.

Lake trout are the largest freshwater fish in Alaska, and the Copper Basin is the place to catch them. Lake Louise, Crosswind and Copper Lake are all great spots. However, for me, Paxson Lake is the best of them.

I have lived on or near the shoreline of Paxson Lake for nearly 40 years. I have heard of 40-pound fish and seen a grainy picture of one that could have gone a bit larger than that. I personally landed a trout just over 30 pounds and helped weigh several in the upper 20s. Big trout are mainly caught while ice fishing.

Many of the big lake trout (actually not trout but freshwater char) are caught in March. I don't think they are more active then; it is just that there are more fishermen out in the spring. It's a lot more fun to sit on the ice in warm sunshine than on a camp chair at 30 below. Lake trout fishing is generally not action-packed. Big fish are few and far between. I read several articles written by experienced fisherman that stated it took more than a thousand angling hours to hook and land a trout of over 20 pounds. I assume they don't count all of the monsters that get away before they can get them on the scale.

Really big trout are tough to come by. Lake trout are extremely slow growing. Most don't reach spawning age until they are 8 years old. In some of the colder lakes it may take 15 years for a trout to attain two pounds. In many of the small mountain lakes, fish never exceed 20 inches, even though they may live almost 50 years.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game website catalogs a 62-year-old fish. The Alaska state record is just over 47 pounds, caught many years ago. Interestingly, there seems to be some disagreement on the largest trout caught in North America by hook and line. Records vary into the 70-pound-plus class, depending on where you read it. Net records consistently mention fish over 100 pounds.

Years ago, while in Yellowknife, I spoke with local folks who talked of a trout weighing in at 126 pounds. Maybe. Certainly there isn't anything near that size where I live.

Paxson Lake could be called a eutrophic lake. This term is used to describe a lake that has been enriched with nutrients, resulting in good plant growth. While this is not an ideal lake for trout, the population seems to be holding its own. According to ADF&G, the Paxson population is relatively stable. My personal observation is that there are fewer big trout than there used to be.

If this is indeed the case, then there could be several reasons. The sockeye hatchery on the Gulkana River has been producing more fish than before. That means more fish carcasses, resulting in increased nutrients and plant growth. Warm weather may bring an occasional algae bloom. More plants mean less dissolved oxygen available for the trout.

The best lake trout habitat is in oligotrophic lakes, those that are nutrient poor with a low concentration of plant life. These are your crystal-clear lakes with few weeds on the bottom and little algae.

Summit Lake, just above Paxson, would qualify as an oligotrophic lake. It probably holds a few extremely large fish and a bunch of little guys. To complicate matters, even though Paxson Lake may not qualify as a great lake when oxygen content is considered, it does have a lot of feed for trout. Snails abound in the shallows. There are several types of whitefish and untold numbers of red salmon fry.

Fish-eating trout get bigger than snail-eating fish. So, just possibly, the new state record is lurking amongt weeds in Grassy Flats.

The trouble comes when trying to catch that 40-pounder. Ice fishing restricts the fisherman to a specific locale. Spring trolling allows one to work the shoreline but big fish move slowly. It is difficult to keep the lure out of the rocks at the very slow trolling speeds necessary to catch them. Summer months find the big fish near the bottom, searching out 40-degree water.

Paxson Lake has major weed beds in the summer that are tough to fish. The only effective way I have found is with a single hook jig, drifting along with the wind. This works pretty well as long as one brings patience and a good book.

Today I am skipping the book and the patience and taking my little girl to one of those stocked lakes. There should be good action and we will catch dinner for sure. My wife has the dog team out on a 50-mile run so she will be hungry. Today we get the best of both worlds: fish and dogs.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier