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Sheefish

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More on Alaska fish species

Inconnu is sometimes called "arctic tarpon" for size, sportiness

The sheefish -- called inconnu (unknown fish) by early explorers and now sometimes called the "arctic tarpon" -- is found only in arctic and subarctic North America and Asia. In Alaska, it is most abundant in the Kuskokwim and Yukon river drainages and in the Selawik and Kobuk drainages of Kotzebue Sound.

Description

The sheefish (Stendous leucichthys nelma (Pallas)) is a member of the whitefish family but is distinguishable from the more common whitefish by the strong extended lower jaw.

The body profile is streamlined and the color is silvery with a darker coloration on the dorsal surface. It often displays a phosphorescent purple sheen when taken from the water.

Males and females are similar, but females live longer and attain greater size. Sheefish in the Selawik-Kobuk area may weigh up to 60 pounds, while in Interior Alaska they seldom exceed 25 pounds.

Sheefish in Alaska have been separated into five major stocks. In addition, smaller rivers such as the Nowitna, Black and Porcupine have small local populations.

The Minto Flats and Upper Yukon River populations are year-round residents in the eastern part of Interior Alaska. The Lower Yukon and Kuskokwim groups overwinter in the delta areas of these large rivers while the Kobuk-Selawik groups spend the winter in the brackish waters of Hotham Inlet and Selawik Lake.

Upstream migrations of sheefish from the wintering grounds begin during the period of ice breakup. Some fish move to feeding grounds while mature fish migrate to spawning areas. The movements last from a few weeks in the Upper Yukon to over four months in the Lower Yukon River. Sheefish travel up to 1,000 miles upstream to spawn in the Alatna River. Sheefish do not feed in the later stages of the spawning migration but subsist on reserves of body fat. A 12-pound female may contain 100,000 eggs while a 50-pound female contains nearly 400,000 eggs.

Alaska record

53 pounds, caught in 1986 in the Pah River by Lawrence E. Hudnall.

Tips for fishing

Sheefish taken on summer feeding grounds such as Minto Flats, the Holitna River or the Selawik-Kobuk areas put up the best fight. During September, the Koyukuk River at Hughes and Allakaket provides the best fishing on the Yukon system.

When the word "shee" is mentioned to veteran sheefish fishers, the Selawik-Kobuk country comes to mind. There, north of the Arctic Circle, the largest sheefish are found. Sheefish can be taken on medium action spinning or bait casting gear using 10- or 20-pound line. During their feeding periods, sheefish can be caught close to the surface using a fly.

Sheefish can also be taken through the ice in Selawik Lake and Hotham Inlet during April and May using a lure attached to a short jigging stick with heavy line.

Sheefish fry eat plankton, then insect larvae and small fish. Adults eat any fish available.

Best time to fish


Western, Interior and Northern Alaska

  • Fairbanks and Tanana River drainage -- June, July, August, September
  • Arctic Alaska and Yukon-Kuskokwim drainage-- June, July, August, September

Sources of this information include the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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