Everything You Want to Know About Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus)

The male arctic char develops brilliant spawning colors in fall.
Photo by Nils Rinaldi from Lausanne, Switzerland, via Wikimedia Commons

The spectacular spawning colors of the male make the Arctic char one of the most photogenic game fish, but you must head to the far north or the high country of Europe to find them.

The northernmost freshwater fish in the world, the Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is found across the arctic, which may explain why not much is known about its life history and habits. Most fish are lake-dwelling, but there are also sea-run populations that offer spectacular fishing when they return to their native rivers in places such as Canada’s Ungava Peninsula. There are few trophy pictures as colorful as those of a double-digit male Arctic char in full spawning regalia.

Range and Life History
The range of the Arctic char is wide and varied. They are found across the polar region, with the largest populations from northern Canada to Scandinavia, where they were an important food source for native peoples. They are also present in isolated populations throughout the United Kingdom, where they live in deep, cold lakes, and in the high Alps as far south as Italy. Because of their value as table fare, they have been widely introduced and successfully farmed, as well.

Swinging streamers can be productive for aggressively feeding char.
Photo courtesy Greg Senyo, Steelhead Alley Outfitters

North America is home to three subspecies of Arctic char. Salvelinus alpinus erythrinus are anadromous and range across Canada’s northern coast. The legendary Sunapee trout or the “blueback” trout, Salvelinus alpinus oquassa, inhabited lakes in eastern Quebec and northern New England, although it is now extinct in most of its eastern United States range. Dwarf Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus taranetzi), also called Taranets char, often inhabit the same lakes as the larger species, but they feed on different forage and live in different habitats.

Not much is known about the habits of the Arctic char, though they are thought to spawn every other year after reaching maturity at the age of six to nine years. The fish are slow-growing in the frigid arctic; specimens often live longer than 20 years, and the oldest fish ever recorded was believed to be 40 years old. Like all chars, they spawn in the fall, entering rivers from the ocean or large lakes or depositing their eggs along rocky shoals deep enough to survive winter ice. The spawning run is not long, and most fish remain in the lower reaches of rivers.

In Alaska’s Kanektok River, big char follow the salmon to feast on eggs.
Photo by Chris Morgan, www.twosherpas.com

Char or Dolly?
The Arctic char is closely related to the Dolly Varden, and their ranges overlap more than most people think, which means you may find both in the same region. However, distinguishing between the two species by sight is very difficult. In general, Arctic char have a shorter head, a more deeply forked tail, and larger spots. In males, the Arctic char will develop a less pronounced kype than a Dolly. To verify identification, it is necessary to count gill rakers, fin rays and pyloric caeca (parts of the intestines). Ultimately, however, anglers have no way of being certain which species they’ve landed.

Arctic char are opportunistic feeders, consuming more than 30 different species of vertebrates and invertebrates, which include insects, crustaceans, mollusks, smaller fish, and even other arctic char. Although lake-dwelling fish will strike dry flies and nymphs dry flies, the majority of large char are caught on large streamers or drifted egg patterns. Streamers for char tend to be garish and colorful—hot pink, yellow, and chartreuse are popular colors—and steelhead fishermen will find that they already have the flies they need. When fish are rising, a Black Gnat or Mosquito pattern is usually the ticket. Those patterns ought to be a hint for anglers: these fish live when biting bugs reach epic proportions. The world-record fish is a 32-pound, 9-ounce monster caught from Canada’s Tree River in 1981.

6 thoughts on “Everything You Want to Know About Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus)”

  1. In rivers throughout most of Alaska (such as the Kanektok mentioned in this article)- and including Alaska’s sea-run char – the species is mostly S. malma (Dolly Varden), not S. alpinus (Arctic Char). In Alaska, S. Alpinus is mainly a lacustrine species.
    With it being so difficult to distinguish these species in the field, does it matter? I think it does – just as the difference between, say, the strain of Steelhead native to the Elwha versus the strain native to the Babine matters. More so with Dollies v. Arctic Char as they are, in fact, different species. So… this article could be cleaned up? See more at: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm%3Fadfg=dollyvarden.main

  2. Every fish in this article is a Dolly Varden ( Salvelinus malma). This is from the article, “ In general, Arctic char have a shorter head, a more deeply forked tail, and larger spots. In males, the Arctic char will develop a less pronounced kype than a Dolly.” yet each photo shows fish that do not match the description of an Arctic Char. ID can be difficult at times but these photo are of dollies.

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