Ice fishing in South Central Alaska:
Text only for now!
This tip sheet will concentrate on Rainbows and Dolly Varden.
General:
In many of the area lakes where both species are present, the same tactics can be employed. I’ll get into more detail on each
species later, but here is a general checklist to follow when planning a trip:
1) Gather as much info on the lake as you can. The fish and Game home page has a lot of maps of the stocked lakes in the area.
Talk to the Fish & Game folks, they have great info and they spend all summer test fishing the area lakes. Do NOT listen to the
people you talk to on the lakes. Many will be area private landowners who will try to discourage you from fishing in "their" lake.
2) Once on the lake, 80% of the time you will be fishing within 30 yards of the shore line. Look for points and edges where there
may be underwater structure or a drop off in water depth. If you can locate underwater springs which are often clearly visible by
different (and often thin!) ice conditions, try there. All are ice fishing hotspots.
3) Take the extra time to walk away from the public access. The fishing ALWAYS seems to be better away from the public
access. I will almost guarantee that if you have similar habit but one is closer to the public access, it will have less fish because it
gets fished harder.
4) When all else fails, look for holes where there are signs that other people have caught fish. Not necessarily the best way since
they may have been pulling up 8 inchers instead of 18 inchers but a good place to start.
5) Be prepared with the right gear to stay WARM! Nothing makes for a miserable day like being cold! Remember, COTTON
KILLS!!!! Layers of polypro underwear with layers of polar fleece and wool. Good wind protection is a must. Another trick I
learned is to wear neoprene chest waders over polar fleece sweat pants. You can sit on the ice and the neoprene keeps you dry
with good insulation from the cold wind.
6) Be prepared with the right gear for ice fishing.
LINE: Unless you are fishing Big Lake Char, Lake Trout, or Pike, 8 pound test is like cable. I prefer 4 pound test when I know
the fish have been hit hard and the biggest fish I will catch is in the 16 inch class. I’ll step up to 6 or 8 pound test when the fish
approach the20 inch plus class. While the degree of difference may be subtle, from experience, light line always outfished thick
line. Now can you land it? That’s the challenge! But you gotta get the bite first.
Rods: For bait fishing I prefer using the normal ultralight rods I use in open water. It allows me to use the rod with or without the
bobber. Also the extra length allows to me to fish bait within reach while still allowing me enough distance to jig using a shorter
jigging rod. For the shorter traditional ice fishing rods, I use stouter rods than most. I really like to have enough backbone to set
the hook, Especially if you fish in over 10 feet of water. Also buy rods that have oversized eyes. They are much less prone to
freezing up.
Reels: If you plan on catching anything over 18 inches you will need a reel with good drag. My favorite reel on my jigging stick
is my trout fly reels. Simple, nothing to really freeze up, good drag, and light. Baitcasters work great since it’s easy to dispense
line. Really anything will work, just make sure it’s winterized so it doesn’t freeze up.
Hooks and other: I use nothing but the sharpest hooks ice fishing. Sometimes the fish just mouth the lures and they have solid
mouths. There is good reason they call the saltwater version of rainbows "steelheads"! I use gamakatsu hooks for my baitfishing
and I swap out all my trebles to gamakatsu. If you don’t like gamakatu’s carry a hook sharpener or try the other premium brands
like Owner or VMC. This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give. It will DOUBLE your hook up rate.
Bait and Lures: We’ll discuss those later. But at MINIMUM take single eggs, shrimp (cooked or raw), and one or two different
sizes of small krockadiles or Swedish pimples. Add a small swivel, small split shot, and a float. This will cover 90% of the trout
fishing baits.  Lately I have been using a smaller herring dodger ( a big attractor spoon often used during trolling).  It not only
seems to attract the fish, but once in the area I feel the fish hit more aggressively due to the fact that they perceive there is a
competing fish for the bait.  So far it has worked out great!
AUGER: Invest in a good auger. Any serious ice fisherman will have a power auger. It makes you 100 times more mobile
because you are simply willing to drill more holes. Still we utilize hand augers, but the trick is SHARP BLADES! Sharp blades are
worth every penny it takes to sharpen professionally or buy new blades! For trout fishing the 6 to 8 inch hole works great. For
landing the trophy fish, a ten inch hole is a must! Be careful, some parks like the Swanson River areas restricts the use of any gas
engine including augers!
7) FINALLY…EXPERIMENT! In late 2001, I started using a small (siaze 000 or 00) herring dodger placed about 8 to 12 inches
on top of my lure of choice.  It worked out great!  I recalled fishing with a similar set up many years ago when the fish seemed
attracted by the spoon but only would hit bait.  I used a large pixie spoon and below it I had a small glob of roe.  This new
experiment definitely helped me catch more fish.
The time to experiment is when the fishing is good. Then you can better judge which lures are getting more hits. Most of the time
we tend to experiment when the fish aren’t hitting. If the old faithful lures aren’t working, the chances are nothing else will work
either. Fishing is usually not black and white (i.e. one lure catches 100 fish and the other catches zero). Usually it’s the better lure
catches 100 fish and the other lure catches 75 fish. If one lure is catching zero, the chances are the other one will not catch fish
either.
Try new ideas…as long as they are legal. One example I might try this year is hooking up my portable air compressor for flat tires
onto a air stone(like for fish tanks) and with extended tubing drop it to the bottom. I’m sure the bubbles and extra oxygen will not
only attract fish, but will also energize them. It sounds too good of tactic to be legal..I better check. One idea along these lines
that seemed ridiculous, but has worked for me, is as follows. It seemed like a lot of the time we caught fish as soon as cleaned
out the hole. Maybe the noise actually attracts them or the burst of oxygen when the auger blades mix the open air into the water
around the hole. But when it gets slow, I will drop the auger in and thrash it around a bit or if I am using the gas auger, put it
down the hole and full throttle. Watch out because it’ll spit out water, but many times I have caught fish right after that.
Another form of experimenting comes in trying new areas. In the Mat-su and Kenai area, you can try 3 or 4 lakes in a day. I
couldn’t believe the quality and quantity of fish that we are pulling up on the area lakes. While I want to keep my friends so the
fishing logs remain anonymous for the small streams and lakes, all the lakes I fish on can be found in fish and game’s book on
the area stocked lakes. Can you believe the 20 plus inch rainbows you see in our logs are coming out of a stocked lake?!?! Yup,
and if you look at F&G’s list of stocked lakes, you’ll find hundreds!
You gotta love this place!
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RAINBOWS Through the ice:
Ice fishing for rainbows is an early season game almost exclusively. We hit them consistently till the first part of January then it
begins to die down as the oxygen content of the lake dwindles.
Baitfishing: I tend to lean more toward the baits. My favorite bait is a small piece of raw shrimp although I have friends that
swear by the boiled cocktail shrimp. Second on the list is a small chunk of roe or single eggs. I’ve also had good luck using
nightcrawlers through the ice.
My standard rig for baitfishing is 4 to 6 pound clear mono attached to a snelled gamakatsu octopus style hook in size 6 or 8. I
usually balance a small float with spilt shot. I NEVER use those clumsy round red and white bobbers. They have too much
resistance. I use the pencil style floats and balance them with split shot so they offer almost no resistance once the fish takes the
bait. Then with a foot or two of slack line, the fish can run with the bait for several feet before feeling the resistance of the rod.
By then the fish has the bait well enough that by using sharp hooks, the fish set the hook by itself even if you are not closely
attending the rod. If a fish swallows the hook and you want to release it, clip the leader and the fish will usually spit the hook out
in a day or so.
Here’s a good tip when fishing roe. Snell your hooks just like you would for salmon with the egg loop. Attach the roe using only
the egg loop and leave the hook completely exposed. The exposed hook doesn’t seem to bother them (maybe because they eat
sticklebacks) and as soon as the bobber goes down you can set the hook.
Lure fishing: Whenever we keep rainbows, we check the stomachs to see what they are eating. The larger rainbows seem to
prefer a diet of sticklebacks. Therefore we tend to use jigging spoons like the krockadile, Swedish pimple, kastmaters, and similar
spoons in the 1 to 2 inch range. My friends have good success when they tip the lures with shrimp or single eggs. I like the more
natural colors like chrome and silver. But my friends seem to have extraordinary good luck on some days using the fire tiger or
green/chartreuse colors.
Where and how to fish: Rainbows are much more sensitive to the oxygen content of the lake. So areas near open flowing water,
springs, and still green weed beds seem to be the best areas. Rainbows tend to be found in shallower water. I fish normally from
5 to 15 feet of water. When you fish in clear water under 10 feet take a piece of carpet with you. Lay it on the ice and you can
peer down your hole and see everything. You will learn a lot of things about their behavior. For example, you’ll notice small fish
swarming around your bait, then all of the sudden they will scatter and disappear. Get ready, a big one is in the area! So if you are
watching your bobber get tapped by a bunch of small fish, then all of the sudden it stops bobbing around, get ready for the big
takedown! That’s why I like raw shrimp for bait. The little ones have a much harder time pecking it off, unlike roe.
You can also see HUGE fish come in, clamp down on your bait, and just sit there. If you were not looking down the hole, you
would never know you had a fish on. It happens much more often than you might think. Also I would say that only half of the
large fish that you can see will take your bait. they will come and check it out but for whatever reason they don’t take the bait. I
guess that’s probably why they get big. That’s why it’s so important to use good pencil floats. When properly weighted so the
bobber is half immersed, you can see what we call "lift" bites. The bobber actually moves up because the fish gently are hitting
the bait from below and floating up a bit. While big Dollies tend to smash a bait, you never really know with Rainbows.
Sometimes they will hit and never stop running. Other times you jiggle your bait to get rid of the pesky sticklebacks and the next
thing you know you have a four pounder on! It’s not the best way but when its cold out and I am not looking through the hole.
At the slightest movement of my float, I will often slowly lift up on the bobber. A small fish will spit the bait out when it feels
resistance, if you feel heavy weight then quickly set the hook. If it was a big fish and its not on the bait anymore, slowly moving
the bait often triggers a savage strike
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Dolly Varden & Arctic Char through
the ice:
Well for the purpose of this tip page I’m going to call both species dollies. They are pretty similar and I guess even biologists
can’t really tell them apart. Something more to research when I get the chance. Dolly Varden are definitely different from
rainbow trout. While I tend to think about Rainbow trout the way I look at Cheetahs, I see Dolly Varden somewhere between a
Hyena and Lion. Dollies tend to be much more aggressive and while they feed on similar items as rainbows, you just getting the
feeling that Dollies are much more predatory killing machines than the trout’s. While I’ve known rainbows to hit lightly, sipping
flies off the water surface, the Dollies tend to just smash everything and usually there is no doubt when a Dolly hits your lure or
bait. The Dollies tend to prefer deeper water. I usually find Dollies in the 15 to 30 foot range where rainbow are more likely found
in the 5 to 15 foot range.
Perhaps the best feature about the Dolly Varden is that they seem less affected by the lower oxygen levels.  While fishing always
seems better early in the winter, the Dollies tend to stay pretty cooperative through out the winer months.
Baitfishing: I’m not sure if its just the image of rainbows versus Dollies but when I am rainbow fishing, I lean toward light lines
and small hooks with small pieces of shrimp. With Dollies, I think they are more forgiving of heavier lines and the bait of choice
for me is a large glob of cured salmon roe. If I could fish live bait, that would definitely be my choice but since you can’t roe is
the way to go. Why do I say live bait? Every fish we clean seems to be targeting either minnows or snails. Since I don’t know
where to get snails, I think minnows would be the way to go. I’m going to experiment with strips of herring on jigs this year.
Lures: The aggressiveness of Dollies definitely favors hardware for the larger fish. In almost all the lakes I have fished, when the
Dollies are larger than 15 inches or so, Hardware is definitely the way to catch the Dollies.  I use a quarter ounce to a one-ounce
Luhr-Jensen Krockadile in Chrome colors.  The krockadile has been my favorite lure for many many years.  But these days, I am
using more nad more of the rubber minnow worms.  The plastic baits are good in the fact that they are "fishing" even when the
lure is absolutely still.  Also the fish seem to hang on to them for longer periods of time.  More and more, I am using the rubber
minnows.
For the smaller fish, I do like the Swedish pimples. My only complaint about them is that in the larger sizes, when you are
aggressively jigging, the lure tangles on the line. This is also true of one of my secret (like anything is a secret in fishing) lures.
For the large fish, I really like the rattlin raps and the Rat-L-trap lures. Especially with the Rat-L-trap stock to the standard size
lures. I’ve heard the larger lures tangle up a bit when vertically jigged through the ice. Untangling lines at 10 below is no fun!
Frankly any lure that imitates a small stickleback or salmon fry will generate strikes. If things are way slow, try tipping your jig
with belly meat, shrimp or roe. I usually start without because I am afraid the bait stifles the action of the lure. Still on a slow day,
a small jigging spoon tipped with roe or shrimp has saved the day.
The best tip I can give is keep the hooks extra sharp. The Dollies and trout have hard mouths and can be sluggish in the winter. I
know I doubled my hook up ratio when I switched over all my standard trebles to gamakatsu treble hooks. I started to even snag
a lot more fish vertically jigging with the ultra sharp hooks. I’m sure that the fish takes a look and with standard hooks, when
they take a swipe and miss, the hooks brush off the skin. With the super sharp hooks, the barbs bury into anything they touch so
the result is more snagged fish. Of course we turn back all those fish, but it’s a dramatic reminder of the importance of ultra
sharp hooks.
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TROPHY CHAR of BIG
LAKE:
Several years back, Big Lake got some new regs.   The rule changes include reduction of Char to only one fish per day and it
must be over 20 inches.  Also from Nov. 1 to April 30 artificial single hook only.
I wanted to include a section on fishing the Big Char out of Big Lake. As you can tell, I’m a fishing fanatic as are all of my
friends. It is a major race to see who can land the first double digit Dolly out of Big Lake. It’ll probably have to go past 30 inches
to break the ten pound mark. My largest last year was a mere 26 inches and 6 pounds….WOW, I need to nearly double the weight!
Still after fishing Big Lake seriously for only one year, I am constantly amazed at the surprised look I get when people come up to
us and hear that we are catching fish. I have also watched as many people see our fish, stop, drill holes right next to us and they
fish for hours and not catch anything while we continue to pull up fish. WHY? It doesn’t appear that we have the monopoly on
technique, but something is very different. I’m not sure what but I’ll give you my two cents worth.
Well here’s how we do it and some of the extra effort we are going to make experimenting with new rigs:
The other rod is a very stiff 3 foot Ice fishing rod that initially picked up for Big Pike. But when you are vertically jigging in 30
feet of water with an one-ounce spoon, you need a stiff rod for the action and the hook set. Don’t worry, when a 25 inch Dolly
hits, the rod will still bend! In 30 feet of water, typical mono can stretch as much as 6 feet before coming tight. Another really
good option is to use one of your lighter salmon rods. It may seem like overkill but the 7 foot heavy rod will allow longer sweeps
of the jigging motion and a longer hook set. Late in the year when the ice is thick it helps to have a full size rod when the monster
hits. 10 to 12 pound line will definitely start cutting through ice when the fish takes off to the side. By having longer rods, you can
stick the rod tip down the hole to eliminate the line from rubbing against the ice.
Line:  The line is always a subject of debate. Big Lake is a tough call. I know I can land 90% of the fish I hook on Big Lake using
4 to 6 pound line, but on the other hand there are monster fish in the lake that I have seen break 10pound line on the edge of the
ice like it was thread. Last year I settled for 12 pond line since I am after the trophy fish. This year I am going to use 8 or 10
pound line for my jigging applications. I’ve tried all the different super lines and mono but every year I keep coming back to the
Berkley XL (red Box) line. This fall I have been using 10 pound spectra line but I hate tying knots on the line and I hate even
worse the tangles. I do love their sensitivity. Still, I broke off one good fish due to MY lack of confidence and ability in the
superbraid knots. I’ll stick with mono for my trophy fish..
Lure selection for Big Lake:  The lure selection for Big Lake is a bit different than many other lakes. We often use very large
spoons like the one-ounce and larger Krockadiles and Swedish Pimples. I am going to experiment with much larger spoons in the
5 to 6 inch range. Still for the average day, I prefer the slightly smaller half ounce krockadile since I seem to catch the most fish
and even a few rainbows early in the year. The rattlin raps and the Rat-L-trap lures are good producers here but now with reg
changes, I don't think they are as effective with only a single hook. Once again I favor the natural silver minnow colors but my
friends, especially in the late season seem to do really well on the fire tiger and the florescent green/chartreuse color patterns.
The latest trick we have been utilizing with good success on Big Lake is hanging a lure off a small herring dodger.  This has
worked out great.  Now even when i am using more "finesse" type baits like a weighted egg sucking leech or a rubber minnow, I
know the dodger is attracting fish in from a long ways out.  Just a small fly or small rubber minnow I don't think has enough
flash or vibration to call fish from long distances.  Another plus in using the dodger trick is that once the fish come in, they seem
to strike at the lures more aggressively.  We think this is because the fish feels there is some competition for the food and fisgure
it better grab it quickly before it loses out to the other fish in the area (the dodger).  It's a great trick.  Give it a try.
Tactics:  This year I am going to employ more of a mobile system fishing in one spot for an hour or so and moving on using
electronics and previous know how to find steep drop offs ledges and underwater humps. But traditionally ice fishing has been
more leisurely for us. We set up ice houses and large wall tents so often we need to attract the fish to us. In ice fishing unlike
summer fishing, I like the fact that there are 4 to 6 lines fishing in a close area. I think it give the appearance of a school of
baitfish.
An interesting note for you trophy Dolly seekers at Big Lake. For whatever its worth, I have made one observation when cleaning
the fish at Big Lake. Dollies under 14 inches and the rainbows seem to be eating sticklebacks up to 2 inches long. The larger
Dollies seem to never have sticklebacks but they always have a landlocked salmon. I rarely see a stickleback, and I have never
seen a trout or Dolly inside of a Dolly. In other words for the big Dollies on Big Lake, go with at least a 3-inch to 5-inch spoon
that resembles the landlocked salmon. If you have never seen one, they are basically a very silver fish with no distinguishing
patterns. That’s why I like the plain chrome spoons. It may seem oversized, but it does appear (like duh! But it helps to know!)
that different size fish target different size prey.
Last year I experimented with an automatic jigging machine. Okay okay I ‘m lazy, but you try sitting out and fishing in 30 below
weather for 6 hours straight. The jigger didn’t work as well as I thought because the machine couldn’t set the hook. So I have to
fix that. Probably better to keep bait working and dispensing scent. This year I think I will use the "jigging machine" which jigs
two rods at once will be used to jig attractors. I probably will use a huge dodger and lake trolls on two rods with no hooks. That
way it can sit there and attract fish but I don’t have to worry about it catching fish. As silly as it sounds I bet it improves our
odds immensely.
There are a couple of things that I think helps us catch a few more fish than the average Joe on Big Lake. First of all, I think the
other folks are typically using 25 to 30 pound line. Big Lake is way to clear to be using such heavy line. I feel like 12pound line is
too much. Secondly, when I see the other folks jigging, they are working the spoon much too aggressively. While we like to make
long sweeping and aggressive strokes every now and then to attract the fish, Most of our hits comes when the lure is barely
moving. One of my buddies favorite tactics is to lay a spoon on the bottom, pounding the bottom hard a time or two, then just
flutter the spoon an inch maybe two inches of the bottom and let it settle. The big char will scoop it right off the bottom. I bet
about a third of my hits are when I am not moving the line at all. If you look into your hole, even when you stop jigging, the
spoon is active as the line untwists or the current flutters it a bit. Almost all the rest of the hits come when the lure is falling. Very
rare is that a Dolly hits on the upstroke.
You want to imitate a dying or wounded baitfish, not one that just got a refill of Viagra and is crazy active. When the water is cold
and the fish are lethargic, it is my belief that fish will try to gain as much calories while expending as little possible. That’s why
later in the year, I tend to increase lure size since the smaller rainbows aren’t hitting anyway.
Location: Well I can’t give away all my secrets! Still it’s pretty simple. For the Big Lake Char, the best depth seems to be in the
20 to 40 foot range. The shallower water tends to better for quantity and the deeper water seems to be better for size of fish. We
fish off of all the Islands and just about every point available on Big Lake. Fish right on the bottom though often time you will see
fish right under the ice. But a majority of the fish will be on the bottom of the lake. A good indicator is when you set up in the
proper depth, if you consistently see the smaller fish, you set up in the right place. If baitfish are present (anything less than 6
inches long), you have a good chance.
Timing: Despite the ice cover and short length of observations, I think I can safely say that the best fishing even with ice cover
comes on cloudy days when it is snowing. The low pressure over the area seems to trigger a bite. The sunny, high pressure days
always seem colder and slower! Also, for whatever reason, we never seem to do that well on Big Lake early or late in the day.
Our hot time of day seems to be from 10am to about 2pm. Of course we catch fish outside of that period, but I bet we catch
90% of our fish during that period . But there always seems to be a fish or two as the sun goes down but the bite is usually short
lived. I have yet to catch a Dolly or trout in Big Lake while dark. More experimenting to follow on this one.
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Rods:  In ice fishing, you get two rods. Make the best of it. My typical set up on Big Lake is as follows. I fish one rod with a
large glob of salmon roe fished right off the bottom. Sometimes, I will use a massive glob and jig it aggressively right under the
ice. I like to think it disperses the scent more and farther away. I have never caught a large Dolly on roe. But there is still a good
reason to fish bait. The bait is there to catch fish, but the greater good I think is that it constantly gets pecked at by smaller fish.
Where smaller fish congregate, the bigger fish will come.
In the areas easily accessible in Southcentral Alaska there are two main quarries I pursue for ice fishing : Rainbow trout and Dolly
Varden (or Arctic Char). Other species are available, most notably Pike, Lake Trout, and Burbot. However for Lakes in the easily
accessible area ranging from the Kenai Peninsula to the Mat-su Valley, the main target will often be Rainbow and Dollies. For
eating, there is the ever cooperative landlocked silvers.  They are just a wee bit small to interest me but they sure are some good
eatin!