Common Denominators: Fishing for Char in Alaska

No matter where in Alaska an angler travels, chances are that a hard-fighting fish with pink-spotted flanks and bellies the color of Arctic sunsets lurk nearby.

By Ken Marsh

The wind swept around me cold and fast and galloped across the tundra like a ghost herd of caribou. Over the ridge it came, in howling blasts from the Beaufort Sea and across the Arctic coastal plain. Yet there on the continental divide of Alaska’s Brooks Range, somewhere between Anaktuvuk Pass and the end of the world, it was the sense of isolation, not the wind, that chilled my bones, left my soul feeling small.

A few hundred feet below, on the lee side of the divide, three of my friends puttered around the shore of a small lake where a floatplane had dropped us off a half hour earlier. Our plan was to hike 17 miles down a gorge to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. From there, our pilot would have a raft waiting in some willows near the river, allowing us to float the remaining 80 miles to our final destination, the Bush mining outpost of Bettles. Our wilderness trek would take a week.

I joined my friends by the lake, below the ridge line and out of the wind, and was adjusting my backpack when I saw a swirl in the shallows. Fish? Seemed unlikely way up there among the crags. The elevation was roughly 6,000 feet and we were more than a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

I hadn’t brought a fly rod; when you must carry all food, clothing and camping gear on your back, there’s little room for extras. But one of the guys had thrown in a four-piece ultralight spinning rod and a small box of lures. 

I had the rod rigged within minutes and tossed a glittering Mepps into the shallows. The spinner needed a moment to settle, then I flipped the bail and started reeling. I hadn’t gone more than three or four cranks when a half dozen V-shaped wakes bolted like sharks for my lure. 

The strike came in a heartbeat. Pow! The fish hit like a hammer and I held on as the little reel’s drag squealed. My friends gathered around, all of us wondering what sort of creature could live in such a desolate high-country cirque.

Within five minutes, the deep runs became weaker. The fish bulldogged, shaking its head and twisting its four-pound body in a way that was both stubborn and, I realized, vaguely familiar. Pumping and reeling, I started gaining line until, with one firm, final pull I dragged the flopping fish onto the tundra mosses and lichens of the lake shore. And there it was: blunt, dark-colored head; fire-red belly; olive flanks dappled with pink, orange and scarlet spots. Arctic char. Easily, along with the very closely related Dolly Varden char, the most ubiquitous game fish in Alaska.

***

An Alaska angler releases a small Dolly Varden on the Kenai Peninsula’s Anchor River.

Etched among my earliest angling memories is the image of a small boy lying belly-down on a wooden bridge at the outlet of a Kenai Mountains lake. Below the bridge, a stream slips out of the lake, clear and cold as gin on ice. Hovering over the pebbled bottom, undulating against the gentle current, are dozens of red-finned Dolly Varden. The boy holds a fiberglass rod and is dabbling a hook baited with a single salmon egg. None of the Dollys is much longer than 12 inches; they are little fish for a little boy. But this is where a lifetime of fishing begins. There among the mountains, on that bridge, a long, long time ago.

The place was Lower Summit Lake off the Seward Highway south of Anchorage; the time, mid-1960s. I’ve since caught char in their various forms throughout Alaska — in temperate Southeast, where the streams flow among hemlock-timbered hills and screaming Steller’s jays; in the tundra-flanked salmon rivers of Southwest; in that high-country tarn far north of the Arctic Circle. And just about every other place in between. Some have been small like those first Summit Lake Dollys, but many more have been much bigger.

Truth is, Alaska is char country. In one form or another, these distinctive, scrappy sportfish are found in thousands of lakes, streams and estuaries between Ketchikan and Barrow. Char resemble trout in general shape, size and behavior. However, the colorful spots on their sides set them apart from Alaska’s trout and salmon, whose flanks, backs and tails are dappled with black spots or speckles. 

Perhaps the greatest difference between Dolly Varden and arctic char are the names. Beyond that, the distinctions are negligible to most anglers and many biologists. Only in the last 20 years have taxonomists separated the two, and even that division remains in question by some. 

Both char generally have pink-spotted, olive flanks that match the pattern of a dress worn by Dolly Varden, a flirtatious woman characterized in Charles Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. One species or the other can be found in streams and lakes from the Arctic coastal plain to the windswept Aleutian Chain to the temperate rain forests of Southeast. Both come in freshwater resident and sea-run forms and no matter where you encounter them, each has a tendency to aggressively strike spinners, spoons, baits and flies. 

For an angler’s purposes, the similarities between the two far outweigh the subtle differences.

***

An Alaska angler shows off a Dolly Varden char.

Kodiak Island’s Karluk River is a lovely stream in early July. The river flows out of the mountains surrounding 12-mile-long Karluk Lake before continuing on through a broad, verdant valley to the sea. Several summers ago, some friends and I took a few days to float and fish the Karluk. Our main quarry were salmon — sockeyes and kings — and when we found them concentrated in great numbers in certain pools and bends, the fly-fishing was outstanding.

Around noon on our first day, we pulled the raft ashore to work a likely bend. The water was deep and a glaring sun made spotting fish impossible. Still, it seemed like excellent water, so the four of us took our rods and began fishing the eddies. For a fruitless half hour I used the best streamers in my box, tried nearly every fish-enticing trick I knew. Nothing. And then something strange happened. 

I was sitting on the raft, watching the other men cast, when a hatch of mayflies that had started earlier began to intensify. At the same time, someone hollered that he’d seen a fish roll. Soon, storms of mayflies fluttered over the river like living snowflakes; others rode the current wings-up like tiny sail boats. The water began to boil with rolling fish.

Pacific salmon fresh from the sea don’t feed on mayflies or anything else. So what could it be? I had a hunch. 

I picked up my light, 4-weight fly rod and tied on a Humpy — a dry fly roughly the same size and color as the mayflies on the river. My friends followed suit and, within minutes, we were all catching three- and four-pound Dolly Varden.

Alaska’s char are studies in diversity; their ability to adapt to various waters in a multitude of climates is what makes them the common denominator for anglers seeking sport throughout the state. Along these lines, char are opportunistic feeders and, while they’ll take insects on occasion, they’re particularly fond of salmon eggs and small fish — including the fry of trout and salmon. 

In Alaska’s territorial days, the latter inclination earned Dolly Varden a bounty on their tails. In a misguided effort to preserve commercial salmon fisheries, the territorial government paid bounty hunters two-and-a-half cents per caudal fin. Tails were sun-dried or smoked, strung forty at a time on bailing-wire hoops, and used in lieu of cash in some parts of Alaska. Fortunately for the Dollys, the program backfired.

Frank Dufresne, writer and former territorial game commissioner, reported in a 1963 issue of Field & Stream, “A sample hoop of forty tails contained fourteen rainbows, five whitefish, six lake trout, two pike, two grayling, one sucker, seven fingerling salmon, and three Dollys. Another hoop was almost all immature sockeye salmon, the very species the bounty was being paid to save!”

The bounty was eventually repealed and, in most waters, the char — and the salmon — seem to be as abundant today as ever.

***

Today, a new breed of anglers has come to see Alaska’s char for what they are, aggressive, hard-fighting sportfish as lovely to look at as they are to catch. They’ve also discovered that char can grow big. The current state angling record contender: A Dolly Varden of 27-pounds, 4-ounces hauled in October from the Wulik River near the village of Kivalina in Northwest. Prior to that, the state record was a 20-pound, 12 1/4-ounce bruiser, also from the Wulik. Big char have also been caught from the nearby Noatak River, making this remote region attractive to anglers seeking trophy fish. 

Generally, weights of 2 to 10 pounds are the norm for Dolly Varden and arctic char throughout Alaska. Some of the more accessible places to catch them include the Kenai River, roughly a two-hour drive south of Anchorage; the Anchor River outside of Homer; off the beaches of Resurrection Bay near Seward; and nearly any river or rill crossing road systems in Southeast or on Kodiak Island.

Although they can sometimes be caught on dry flies, as I discovered that summer on the Karluk River, Dolly Varden are more frequently taken with lures, baits and streamers worked along stream bottoms. Early in the summer, before returning salmon begin to spawn, small spinners, spoons and flies resembling outgoing salmon fry and small bait fish work well. Later, salmon eggs or fly patterns that imitate salmon eggs and roe can be very effective.

Fun as they are to take on light gear, some friends and I were reminded one April that there is more to char than a good tussle in the riffles. The place was Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s own “Deep South” and we were hoping to catch steelhead. As it turned out, unseasonably warm weather and low stream levels conspired to make fishing slow for the big, sea-run rainbow trout. We did, however, manage to pluck from an island stream several ocean-bright Dolly Varden.

Tired of eating canned food, we kept a couple of Dollys we’d caught one morning and, on the way back to camp, picked some fiddlehead ferns we found popping up in the shady stream bottom. One of the guys steamed the tender greens in a camp pot and sautéed the bright, spotted char in butter. Alongside the steaming fiddleheads, those pink, firm Dolly fillets made a tasty meal that I’ll never forget.

That wasn’t the first time Dolly Varden have saved a trip that might otherwise have gone fishless. They tend to be as obliging as they are widespread and bend a rod as well as any fish their size.    

Back at that high-country lake, north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range, I caught several fat char before putting away the rod and shouldering my pack for the long journey to Bettles. Along the way, a question nagged: How did those fish ever come to be in such an isolated, unlikely corner of the world? Years later, a friend who encountered a population of dwarf Dolly Varden, often called goldenfins, in an alpine lake in the Kenai Mountains offered a suggestion: “Maybe God just put them there a long, long time ago.” Maybe so. Or maybe, in these char with bellies the color of arctic sunsets, he simply created a fish meant to reflect the diverse, far-flung beauty of Alaska itself.

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2 thoughts on “Common Denominators: Fishing for Char in Alaska

  1. Love these stories! The upper headwaters of the Koyukuk! Wow, that’d be great! Bettles is cool, I flew in there once when I guided for Rich Guthrie, a long time ago, north of Anaktuvuk Pass. It was Dall’s sheep we pursued. Rose and I found large sea run char in the Ivashak in similar water, about 3 to 4 feet deep. People mostly associate them there in deep, gin clear pools, but we found them shallower and hungry for the white flies Rose tied. I enjoy your descriptions so much. Glen Holt

    Liked by 1 person

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