The Sheefish is a species of fish sometimes found on the end of your line while fishing in Alaska. Called “Iconnu” by the native Alaskans, this large fish is a member of the Whitefish family.
Sheefish are a mostly freshwater fish found in the rivers of central Alaska’s Northwest and Yukon Management areas although they may occasionally be found in the marshy salt-water bays where the rivers dump into the ocean. The largest concentration of sheefish is found in the Kobuk and Selawik River drainages. The sheefish from these drainages are also much, much bigger than those found in Alaska’s interior drainages with fish there commonly caught in the 30 to 40+lb. range while sheefish in the Yukon and other drainages being around one half that size.
By description, sheefish are a silvery color with occasional blueish, greenish or purplish hue to them. They have extremely large scales. The scales on a large sheefish will be the size of a nickel in diameter. One of their defining characteristics is their large mouth which opens to the same diameter as their body. Sheefish are fish eaters and are said to eat anything that will fit in their mouths. They have extremely small teeth giving the inside of their mouth the feel of coarse sandpaper. They eat their prey by sucking it in.
As with other members of the whitefish family, sheefish have a very white flesh that gets even whiter with cooking. It is even preferred over halibut by some anglers in its texture and flavor. The native Alaskan populations have depended on the Iconnu to provide needed nourishment for their villages for hundreds of years. The sheefish starts running in the spring as soon as or even before the river ice breaks up, long before the salmon begin to make their way to upstream thus providing an early and welcomed protein source to the Eskimo villages. The sheefish will travel up to 1000 miles upstream to their head-water spawning grounds.
Sheefish prefer the bottom of the rivers and can be caught either through jigging on the bottom from a boat, or from casting a weighted line from the shore. When river fishing for sheefish, usually the deeper the hole, the better your luck will be for a big fish although occasionally one is caught near the surface on a fly. Sheefish are attracted to bright colors and to shiny things so take that into account with your lures. Because of the way that they suck their food in, they will generally be hooked very deep. Due to their large size, the sheefish provide an excellent fight.
Sheefish are also caught through the ice in winter or early spring by drilling a hole in the ice and jigging on the bottom.
The current bag limits are 10 fish of any size per day but be sure to check the current regulations before you go.
The Alaska Dept of Fish and Game has a fact sheet on sheefish that can be downloaded HERE. Why not go out and try something new next time you go fishing in Alaska?