Arctic Char: Salvelinus With Attitude

February 12, 2018

Plummers Fishing Lodge Arctic Char-9

Arctic char are a truly amazing species of sport fish that few anglers have had the pleasure of pursuing. This is unfortunate since they are every bit as worthy a target as Atlantic salmon and steelhead. With the most brilliant spawning coloring of any freshwater fish, char are a hard-fighting fish and excellent sport on a fly rod. They jump and make searing runs, which can test even heavy fly tackle, and they grow to impressive proportions, with some fisheries regularly producing fish over 20 pounds and sometimes over 30.

The range of this species covers some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain on the planet. The areas where char are found remote and offer solitude and the chance to see caribou, muskox, grizzly, and in some places, polar bears. In some places they are considered a secondary target to Atlantic or Pacific salmon.

Char are also interesting from a scientific perspective. They have recently been the subject of studies ranging from ecology to physiology. Char live in extreme environments and they must cope with conditions that are hard for most people to appreciate. While the harshness of their home waters has hindered them to some degree, it has also offered them a world of opportunity for which they have had to adapt and sheltered them from the effects of development and civilization.


Science and Char

Arctic char are a member of family Salmonidae and more specifically part of the genus Salvelinus. This genus of fishes includes other species anglers may be more familiar with: brook trout, lake trout, bull trout, and Dolly Varden. Their range extends through northern Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Scandinavia. Isolated relict populations also exist in New England, Switzerland, and Great Britain. They have been a staple food for natives of North America as well as northern Russia and Scandinavia. For anglers, they have been considered a fringe gamefish species due to the northerly extent at which they are found. They are the most northerly occurring freshwater fish species in the world and they have been found above the 80th parallel.

Arctic char can reach impressive proportions. The current International fish and Game (IGFA) all-tackle record is a 32-pound 9-ounce fish caught in the Tree River in 1981. Other huge fish, including an unofficial report of a fish over 34 pounds, have been caught from Tree River in recent years. Fish over 30 pounds have also been reported in Russia.

Several fisheries in North America regularly produce fish over 15 pounds while others rarely produce fish over 5 pounds. The Noatak River in Alaska produced the state record char of over 19 pounds but many of the fisheries on Kodiak Island and Bristol Bay rarely produce fish half this size. Overharvesting of trophy sized fish has been implicated in smaller and fewer numbers of fish. One trend that is universal to all fishes and particularly with char is that they are susceptible to overfishing. Several stocks throughout the species’ range have been severely depleted. In recent years, the effects of global warming have been cause for concern with respect to the status of certain fisheries.

Several life history strategies are employed by Arctic char. Some char are entirely freshwater inhabitants, residing in both lakes and rivers. Others are anadromous meaning they migrate to and from saltwater from their freshwater origin. These fish make annual forays into saltwater to feed and rarely stray far from freshwater inflows.

Arctic char diet varies depending on the location and life history characteristics of a specific populations. In freshwater, char feed on chironomids, caddis, copepods, snails, plankton, freshwater shrimp, sticklebacks, salmon eggs, and smaller char and other fish. In saltwater, char eat capelin, Arctic cod, sculpin, sand lance, and amphipods. One particular study found more than 30 species of invertebrates and vertebrates in the stomachs of less than 500 char. Saltwater char are truly opportunists and will exploit any food resource they can find.

Like many Arctic animals, char grow slowly. In the most northern reaches their range, char do not reach maturity until 15-20 years of age and individuals have been aged as old as 40 years. Char grow faster, and mature sooner, in the southern part of their range.

Spawning takes place from September to November over rocky shoals in lakes with heavy wave action in in slower gravel-bottom pools in rivers. As with most salmonids, there are vast differences in coloration and body shape between sexually mature males and females. Males develop hooked jaws known as kypes and take on a brilliant red color. Females remain fairly silver. Most males set up and guard territories and often spawn with several females. The female constructs the nest, or redd. A female anadromous char usually deposit between 3,000 to 5,000 eggs.

Char do not die after spawning like Pacific salmon and often spawn several times throughout their lives, typically every second or third year. Young char emerge from the gravel in spring and stay in the river from 5 to 7 years or until they are about 6 to 8 inches in length.

As with most sea-run salmonids, the occurrence of small, sexually mature males is common. Anglers refer to these fish as “jacks” while scientists call them “sneakers.” It is a brilliant male reproductive strategy. One would expect the biggest and the brightest male char to fair better than smaller individuals. The bigger they are the more successful they will be at defending their territory. The brighter they are the more likely they are to attract females. This of course comes at a cost. Larger males produce less sperm relative to their body weight.

The jacks or sneakers invest all of their reproductive energy into sperm. Due to their small size, they are not able to defend a territory and instead charge in and deposit their sperm quickly before the large dominant male chases them out of his territory. Because small males have an excess of sperm, they can afford to waste some during the commotion. It is quite a remarkable strategy and obviously a successful one since nearly all sea-run salmonids utilize it.

Another interesting aspect of the sea-run char’s biology is their life cycle. Unlike other anadromous fishes, char do not spend their entire adult life in saltwater, only returning to freshwater to spawn. Char return to their river of origin every year and spend the winter there whether they spawn or not. They cannot survive the winter living in saltwater. Seawater freezes below 32 degrees F. and yet all the water in the fish’s body is freshwater. Char would freeze in water colder than 32 degrees even though the water all around remained liquid.

Other fish that inhabit polar marine environments, which include species such as Arctic cod and winter flounder, have special chemicals in their bodies called “antifreeze” proteins that allow them to tolerate these conditions. Antifreeze proteins allow fish to slow the freezing process which avoids the catastrophic crystallization process. Other forms of these proteins act to keep the freshwater in a fish’s body in a supercooled state. Char do not have these proteins but this apparent “Achilles Heel” has done little to deter char from dominating most Arctic environments.

It’s hard not to respect Arctic char due to the extreme environmental conditions they cope with. In many areas, Arctic char are one of only a few species of fish, while in other locales they are the only species. This likely stems from their remarkable colonizing abilities in combination with their ability to quickly adapt to new environments. Following the last few ice ages (which was not that long ago in the Arctic), char were able to invade newly formed freshwater bodies. In these new environments of opportunity it is believed that they quickly take over and fill most niches in a given system. With a lack of competition for resources from other fish species, they quickly diversify. Some individuals feed off the bottom, predominantly on larval insects, snails, and copepods. Others feed on fish, or if no other fish persist, they eat plankton. With such diversity in feeding habits, body shape, and coloration vary tremendously in accordance with what niche they fill.

To illustrate this idea further consider Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. The lake is less than 10,000 years old, which is young for a lake. Char, brown trout, and threespine stickleback are the only fish that exist there. In this short period of time, char have diverged into four different forms. The largest of the four is a fish-eating specialist, a smaller type is a plankton eater, and there are two types of bottom dwelling, snail eating char (one large and one small). The smaller of the two latter forms becomes sexually mature at around 3-5 inches in length. It is believed that their small size allows them to hide in the rocks and escape predation from the fish-eating form of char and the enormous brown trout that are found there (which historically reached 20 pounds). The plankton and fish eaters are streamlined with large mouths and silver coloration. The bottom dwellers are short, stocky, drab-colored fish with huge pectoral and pelvic fins. The head and mouth shape is strange as well and appears to belong to a carp or sucker rather than a salmonid. These fish have blunt heads with a very obvious overbite which makes it easier to eat snails off the bottom. The body shape of each form is thought to make them more effective feeders for the specific prey that they eat. This lake is a well documented example of this phenomenon but not unique. Many lakes throughout the species range show similar patterns of variation.


Arctic Char or Dolly Varden?

Many scientists argue that Dolly Varden and Arctic char are forms of the same species. Others argue that they are two distinct species made up of two subspecies of Dolly Varden (not including Asiatic forms) and three subspecies of Arctic char. At one time, due to the local variation in form, there were more than 24 subspecies of Arctic char described in scientific literature. Much of this controversy stems from the overlap in traditional measurements used to distinguish species. The number of fin rays, scales along the lateral line, pyloric caeca, and gill rakers are some of such measurements that overlap. Coloration and body shape are two other measures that do little to distinguish the two species. The recent advances in genetic techniques have often confused the argument even further. Different genes and different regions of the fish’s genome give contradicting relationships between “species.”

At the root of this debate is how we define a species. There are a number of definitions for species in the scientific literature. One common prerequisite is that species should show some form of reproductive isolation from one another and do not successfully interbreed. In some instances where Dolly Varden and Arctic char coexist, particularly in Alaska, there are documented cases of separation. In the western Canadian Arctic, however, several Arctic char populations appear to be the result of some historic hybridization between Dolly Varden and Arctic char.

One point of view, albeit oversimplified, is that it is more or less irrelevant to have the argument. The term species is simply one of man’s subdivisions for organizing the diversity of living things. Scientists are still deciding the definition of a species so there’s no point in having the argument in the first place. When you also consider the amount of diversity that can occur within one population it seems problematic to attempt to distinguish different species. For fly fishers, Arctic char and Dolly Varden are both beautiful, hard-fighting sportfish that eagerly take flies.


Fishing for Sea-run Char

On most rivers through the char’s range, the season starts in late June or early July. This normally coincides with the rivers returning to normal levels following spring runoff. Like all sea-run salmonids, fresh fish are the active fish that are eager and willing to take flies. The first few catches of the season are often also the largest of the season. On larger rivers, fish hold in the lower stretches for a couple of weeks. When the water warms a few degrees, the fish run farther upriver to faster runs and pocket water.

Many Arctic Ocean tributaries are small with steep gradients and swift currents. On these rivers, char stage off the river mouth for during the early season and often run only a short distance upstream. As the season progresses, these fish develop their spawning colors and push upriver where they prepare to spawn. At the end of the season, another run of silver-colored char appears. These are non-spawning char making their winter return to the safety of freshwater.

While fishing for silver char in rivers or the ocean, use sinking-tip shooting head fly lines with densities between 100 and 300 grains. This range gives versatility to cover most fishing conditions. While fishing in saltwater from a boat, shooting heads make life a lot easier. Silver char are fond of white, pink, or orange Woolly Buggers or Zonkers. Many patterns developed specifically for char are gaudy and resemble Christmas tree ornaments more than specific fly patterns. Flies in sizes #6 through 2/0 tied with lots of Flashabou, Krystal Flash, and Ice Chenille are particularly effective.

For silver, non-spawning char in the river or ocean, use a stripping retrieve that draws the fly perpendicular across the current in short erratic pulses. Vary the speed and length of the stripping motion until you start hooking fish.

Brilliantly colored spawning Arctic char are more focused on spawning activities and require a slower-moving fly that invades their territory rather than fleeing from it. One effective method is to swing brightly colored flies down into the holding areas of these fish. Use 300- to 400- grain shooting-head lines, cast across-current, and swing the fly on a tight line down-and-across into the suspected lie of the char. Use upstream mends to slow the cross-current progress of the fly and keep it near the bottom. After each cast, take one step downstream, so you cover the entire pool with this presentation. Strikes can be ferocious and there are many hang-ups on the bottom, so use 15-pound test tippet at least.

If you can’t appeal to the char’s aggressive nature, try dead-drifting a small nymph, with or without a strike indicator, and use lighter tippet such as 6- or 8-pound test line for a more natural presentation. This is most effective when you can see the fish and present the fly in an exacting manner. Char take both bright and natural-colored nymphs.

For sea-run char, use 9-foot, 7- to 10-weight rods and large-arbor reels with capacity for 250 yards of 30-pound backing. The two-handed Spey rod trend in salmon and steelhead fishing is becoming popular on some Arctic char fisheries. Since char like to hold near swift current, line control is critical. Spey rods of 12 to 14 feet allow much greater line control and can be an effective tool in the Arctic.


Resident Char Fishing

Tactics for resident char depends on where you target them. In lakes and rivers with abundant insect life, you can catch char with chironomid pupae, caddis larvae, and scud imitations. During the summer, char actively feed on the adult forms of these insects and provide excellent sport on dry flies. They often rise in a quiet, dimple-like riseform and can be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Where different forms of char exist, it is worth considering their feeding specializations. Where Pacific salmon occur in rivers with char, salmon eggs are a primary food source, making Glo Bugs and other egg imitations a good choice.

On fisheries with healthy baitfish populations, streamers such as Muddler Minnows, Zonkers, and Woolly Buggers often catch the largest char. White, black, and olive are productive colors. In Quebec and Labrador, anglers often use smelt imitations originally designed for landlocked salmon.


Where to Find Char

There are too many Arctic char fisheries to list all of them, but several spots deserve special mention because of the quality of the fisheries and available services. In Russia, the Kola and Kamchatka peninsulas offer spectacular opportunities, though most anglers fishing here primarily target Atlantic or Pacific salmon. Both areas have both landlocked and sea-run forms of char. On the Kola Peninsula, Enozero Lake and the Pana, Varzina, Kharlovka, Litza, Rynda rivers are all worthwhile destinations. Char on the Kola Peninsula tend to be small but plentiful. The Zhupanova, Icha, Pymta, Opala, and and Bystraya rivers on the Kamchatka Peninsula are also productive. The char in the western Russian rivers are some of the most bizarre yet beautiful char in the world and several forms of Dolly Varden are found here as well.

Alaska has numerous fisheries with the waters on Kodiak Island, Bristol Bay, and the Kenai Peninsula being the most popular with many lodges and facilities, although they mostly specialize in rainbow trout or Pacific salmon, and some operations even look at char as undesirable. Many of Alaska’s largest char are caught in the bigger lakes around Bristol Bay although the state record comes from further north on the Noatak River. As with Kamchatka, many of the lakes and rivers in Alaska have both Dolly Varden and Arctic char even though the common belief is that the char are found in lakes while the Dollies tend to be sea-run.

The western Canadian Arctic has hundreds of opportunities but fewer facilities and lodge operations. Many locations will require chartering a helicopter or float plane. The Coppermine and Tree rivers deserve a serious consideration. Coppermine char are plentiful but smaller on average than those from the Tree. Tree River char are the largest in the world. Numerous world records have come from the Tree and many fish over 20 pounds are caught each year. Further north, outfitters operate char trips out of Cambridge Bay, Iqualuit, and Resolute.

Eastern Canadian fisheries are concentrated in northern Quebec in the Hudson and Ungava Bay regions. Char in this region are often smaller but the chances are great to intercept these fish in saltwater. Northern Labrador and also offers several lakes and rivers that have char. In southern Quebec and New England char fishing is available but marginal compared to northern fisheries.

Scandinavia has several excellent fisheries for both resident and sea-run char. Greenland offers some spectacular scenery and good numbers of char, but a large fish is just over 10 pounds. The rivers around Maniitsoq and Kangerlussuaq are worth investigating. In Iceland, practically every lake and river have char. Both life history forms are present although even the sea-run fish tend to be small. The nice thing is that the char fishing will be much cheaper than the salmon fishing! Thingvallavatn and Myvatn are two lakes worth fishing and most rivers are worth investigating. Any river that has the word “Laxa” associated with it has salmon and therefore is expensive to fish. You don’t need to fish these rivers to catch char. Norway and Sweden are also excellent areas although many of the systems receive more angling pressure. If you find yourself in these countries try the Lakselva, Børselva, Stabburselva, Risfjord, Miekak, or Kultsjon rivers.

Fishing for char in Great Britain is not what it once was. This is largely due to the enormous human population and the stocking of brown and rainbow trout. As a result it is very difficult to target them. As well many of the char lochs are very deep and the char spend most of the time out of range of a fly rod. There are a few exceptions where fish will come to the surface during a hatch but these instances are rare and unpredictable.


A Salty Experience

My first introduction to saltwater char came when I was working in northern Iceland. Everyday after work a couple of us would head down to the mouth of a local river which is located in an area known as Skagafjörður. We would wade out from the river mouth in an attempt to catch silver char as they entered the river. Even with the endless evening that comes in Iceland in late June, the first few trips were fruitless and proved to be an exercise in futility. It was obvious the fish had not come in yet. One evening we hit high tide, which proved to be a critical element, and met our first feeding bonanza. When we arrived we had no expectation of catching a thing, but part way through my first cast, this changed.

Stripping in my trusty white Zonker I felt a quick bump, then another. The third hit was more like my fly had been suddenly fastened to the bumper of a sports car heading at top speed down the freeway. This fish simply was here one second, gone the next. The water near the estuary was shallow and the fish had no option but to run. Once I was well into my backing, the fish decided to go berserk on the surface. It jumped and thrashed and jumped some more. It’s amazing how your size perception changes when you are 200 yards away from something. At this distance, I was still convinced I was into a monster char. I gradually began to regain line and work the fly line onto the reel. I still couldn’t see the fish up close.

When the fish was about 15 yards out it decided to go for a repeat of the first run. No surface acrobatics ensued this time. The fish instead engaged in a subsurface tug of war battle that lasted another few minutes. Finally, I was able to get the fish up close where one of my companions was able to net the fish. By the time the fish was in the net, I was surprised that the size had shrunk down to 6 pounds. Most people agree that physical exercise helps humans lose weight. Maybe the same principle applies to fish as well!