PAXSON -- I felt a gentle tug on my white mini-jig. Concentrating, I waited for a three count then flicked the tip of my rod quickly to set the hook. There was pressure for a heartbeat, and my hook came free. There was just enough time for a disappointed, "Awh," before the fish chased my lure to the top of the ice hole and grabbed the jig once more. This time he flipped out on top of the ice and swam in the water pooling around the hole. I was able to scoot him onto solid ice with my foot, and he was mine.
This was a sizeable whitefish of nearly 3 pounds. Humpback whitefish are an often over-looked species in Alaska even though they are one of the most numerous fish in Interior Alaska. Nearly every lake and creek contains whitefish.
Round whitefish are most common. They are most visible in fall when they make spawning runs into shallow riffles.
In many locations, round whitefish, also called least ciscos, are taken by spear during their late October spawning. Ciscos can be taken with jigs and wet flies during the summer months, but patience is required. These stream residents share habitat with grayling, and grayling are generally more aggressive feeders and therefore strike first.
Pygmy whitefish also are common in Interior streams and lakes. Though frequently seen, these small fish are rarely caught on hook and line. But they're valuable prey for such larger fish as lake trout, burbot and pike.
Humpbacks are the largest and the easiest to catch of the common whitefish species. They readily take jigs though the ice in spring when white, lead-head mini-jigs are effective. So are small silver spoons in the ¼-ounce range and silver spinners. Fish for humpbacks (commonly called lake whitefish) in water less than 10 feet deep from late April to mid-May.
When the ice goes, humpbacks will readily hit copper or gold spinners fished on the surface. If you can see them rolling, they will bite. The average weight is less than 2 pounds, but fish more than 4 pounds are relatively common. I have taken larger whitefish in Lake Louise and Paxson Lake, as well as the Maclaren and Susitna rivers.
Some snow remains in the Paxson area. The spring runoff has made many lakes a bit murky for deep-water trout fishing, but visibility is good near the surface. The ice is pulling away from shore on the smaller lakes. There is casting room on some of these lakes and a few grayling are beginning to move along with whitefish.
Whitefish are more active than grayling early in the spring, thus more likely to be caught. In my view, whitefish are better eating too. Their meat is firmer. Grayling are spring spawners and tend to be mushy well into June. Folks think they taste fine, but that's because they have been without fresh fish much of the winter.
There is no need to be deprived of fish this time of the year, though. Fish from shore in open water and use particular caution on any remaining ice. Either way, bring your hip boots. On the ice, the water can surge up through the hole this time of the year. In many cases, the whitefish I was catching on Paxson Lake came up through the hole and swam onto the surface of the ice.
There is generally decent ice on the larger, higher-elevation lakes for another week, but wise anglers will bring a canoe or small boat with them so as to effectively work the ice edges of smaller lakes.
Don't be stuck among the crowds on the Kenai Peninsula or in the Mat-Su; break free and travel north. All of the stocked lakes are producing char and rainbows -- but whitefish are the fish of May.
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 International Sled Dog Race.