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Ice fishing guides offer winter experience

Posted: January 14, 2013 - 1:03am

ANCHORAGE — Frozen water doesn’t have to mean the end of fishing season in Alaska.

Once lakes freeze up, ice-fishing season begins.

Although many Alaskans go ice fishing on their own to lakes in nearly every region of the state, some guides also offer trips for those who don’t want to drill their own holes or bait their own hooks.

Fishtale River Guides’ Andy Couch runs guided ice fishing trips from November to April.

The end of the season, in March and April, actually offers some of the best conditions, Couch said, with longer days and sometimes warmer temperatures.

Joe Letarte, from Wilderness Enterprises in Two Rivers, near Fairbanks, said Outside clients are often surprised that the ice fishing season lasts so long in Alaska. Outside, lakes melt much earlier. But he gets clients who head north to watch the northern lights, and are pleased to find they can also still go ice fishing in March, he said.

While the winter pursuit has similarities with summer fishing, Couch said it is not identical.

“Ice fishing certainly is a lot different than summer fishing,” Couch said.

That’s partially because the winter sport is more sedentary, he said. Even with a few holes drilled through ice, Couch said clients wind up spending more time in one spot. He takes people to several lakes in the Matanuska-Susitna area, mostly stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Generally, they’re targeting landlocked salmon, Arctic char and rainbow trout.

The basics of ice fishing are simple. Drill a hole with an auger, put a baited hook on your line, drop it into the hole, and wait.

The fish that come back up are usually smaller than they are in the summer.

Couch said the stocked fish are often much smaller than ocean salmon. A typical catch is just 10 to 12 inches long. A 24-inch Arctic char caught in late December was one of the biggest he’s seen this year.

Despite chilly temps, visitors interested in fishing are pretty eager to get on the ice.

“There’s more demand than there is good weather to run it right now,” Couch said.

Those trips are weather-dependent, of course, and Couch said that if the weather is bad, he lets his clients decide whether or not to go out that day.

Couch operates the guided ice fishing under a simple business model. He provides the equipment and takes clients to easily accessible lakes. He doesn’t have an ice shelter, but he drills several holes and baits hooks for his clients, and the fishing is usually good. The cost of a four-hour guided experience plus a non-resident license comes in at $100, he said. That’s inexpensive enough that travelers will give it a shot, despite the cold.

Most of Couch’s clients are from out of state. They’ve almost always been fishing before, and are interested in trying the cold version of the activity. Some return for a summer fishing experience, but he gets few repeat ice fishing customers.

Letarte said some of his clients have experience fishing, but others are first-timers. Like Couch, he mostly gets people from out of state interested in the tours. Alaska residents can generally go out ice fishing on their own, Letarte said.

“It’s kind of a niche market,” Letarte said. But there’s good demand from those who are interested, he added.

Both Couch and Letarte offer summer fishing, and started ice fishing tours as an extension of that.

While Couch just offers the four-hour trip, Letarte said he has a few different options. Most customers opt for a daytrip, although he also offers an overnight ice fishing campout. Letarte also runs trips to lakes accessible only by snowmachine, in addition to the road-accessible lakes south of Fairbanks.

Couch said his business model works in part because he’s not dependent on it, and can just go out when the weather works and clients are interested. He’s seen other businesses, with higher costs from snowmachining or flying into lakes, come and go, and keeps his business simple so it’ll survive.

Although ice fishing is available nearly everywhere in the state, guided trips are a little harder to find. Captain Steve and LeAnne Smith, from Captain Steve’s Fishing Lodge in Ninilchik, said they couldn’t think of anyone in that area that offers guided ice fishing trips, in part because it’s something you can do without a guide relatively easily.

Other guides — like Trophy Drifters on the Kenai Peninsula — have tried offering ice fishing trips, but found that it doesn’t pencil out, particularly when there are other winter options, like commercial fishing.

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Information from: (Anchorage) Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com

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