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Sheefish Fly Fishing; An Ultimate Rundown

Have you ever heard of fly fishing for the arctic grayling‘s giant cousin, the Inconnu? Maybe not, the Inconnu is better known as the Sheefish in the state of Alaska and is a majorly overlooked migratory gamefish. Sheefish are not the prettiest fish the arctic has to offer, but for the angler interested in getting off the beaten path, these fish are worth your attention – they can weigh up to 60 pounds and jump once hooked!

Courtesy of Katrina Liebich

Sheefish Alaska

The State of Alaska’s biologists don’t know a ton about the sheefish. As a fairly uncommon species to target for fisherman, the state puts the majority of its budgeting towards species that have interest from commercial and sport fishing entities.

It is presumed that the sheefish life cycle begins in early spring when they hatch around ice-out time in the arctic and subarctic drainages they call home. The spring flows push the fry downriver for rearing. 

Some interior Alaska sheefish populations stay within their natal river and never leave it; these resident populations tend to stay smaller in size. Other populations are known to spend large amounts of time in brackish estuaries and bays taking full advantage of the 

nutrient rich environments for quick growth. 

The latter population is a favorite cuisine for many Alaska Native villagers who ice fish for them in the bays during winter because sheefish are so good to eat. There are even stories of subsistence fisherman harvesting them with pitchforks through the ice!

Courtesy of Jason Irish

Fishing Factors for Sheefish Success

For the fly angler, the relevant part of sheefish’s complicated life cycle is understanding that these fish move a lot and seem to congregate in pools and riffles. Knowing the migration timing is key to success, although it is extremely difficult to figure out.  

With this in mind, most DIY fly anglers returning from sheefish trips share similar advice for success – bring a gear rod! While this advice might seem out of place here, it’s basis is sound; if you are not catching sheefish you have not found where they are in the migration yet! DIY trips for sheefish cover long river miles, often the majority of a watershed. That’s why sheefish anglers highly recommended throwing spinners to save your casting arm while you raft down river until you catch your first fish. Then bust out the fly rod!

It is also important for the fly angler to understand that sheefish are piscivores, meaning the majority of their diet comes from eating smaller fish. While spending time in the brackish bays and estuaries, inconnu rely on a diet of herring. In the river systems, they are frequently found at tributary mouths during summer months ambushing the outmigration of salmon smelt. In late summer they begin migrating upriver to likely spawn in coming months.

Fly Fishing for Sheefish

Most of the rivers in Alaska that sheefish inhabit are somewhat low-gradient, meaning the current is not always fast moving. With this in mind, single hand fly fishing rods are going to be a more productive method to catch sheefish. Given the right type of water, however, spey casting for sheefish can be amazing!

As mentioned above, large sheefish have evolved to chase their prey, which is exactly what makes them a great species for fly fishing. So, retrieving your streamer fly at medium to fast speeds creates the best results.

In most of Alaska’s sheefish drainages, the average fish will weigh between 12 – 25 pounds. However, we believe it is always wise to rig for the fish you want to catch, and your chances of hooking into a next-caliber fish are always good in Inconnu country! Remember, if you hook one sheefish you’ve probably just found an area that a few of them are in, so work the water well.

There is no special fly pattern solely dedicated to sheefish. Fortunately, these fish are opportunistic and will chase most large flies that they can see. Your typical dark colored and weighted streamer flies will do good, but do not be afraid to throw some colorful streamers like chartreuse or pink.

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