Written By: Bruce Sandstrom, Aniak River Lodge
If you’ve never heard of a sheefish–also known locally here in Alaska as inconnu–you’re not alone. Most anglers come up here to chase salmonids of one variety or another, so this relatively obscure species has continued to fly under the radar. But sheefish are remarkable game fish that deserve more attention: they can blow up like striper blitzing on the surface, or they can be as picky as permit, and then disappear faster than a paycheck at a fly-shop sale. This unpredictable behavior, combined with their significant size (the Alaska state record is over 50 pounds), makes the sheefish an ideal target for recreational anglers.
I find that high-water conditions are best for chasing sheefish, as they key into the waves of salmon fry that get pushed downstream during heavier flows. Look for depressions in the river bottom just below a shallower “flat” area–they hold down in the bucket and wait for the fry to be washed over the top. Sheefish have very similar feeding patterns to stripers, usually ambushing their prey from below, and making distinct slurping sounds you’ll often hear before you actually see them. Try to find their feeding lane and swing some casts over the hole, making sure to stay focused until the very end of each swing or retrieve, since these fish are rather infamous for waiting until the last possible second to strike.
Typically, I start off by swinging a Clouser Minnow on a 10-foot leader. The classic chartreuse-and-white color scheme is always good, and I’m also fond of yellow-and-white. Try giving the fly occasional twitches to create the impression of an injured baitfish. When the sheefish aren’t actively feeding near the surface, you can find them hanging close to the bottom, at which point I like to switch to a weighted Game Changer. Sheefish have great hearing, and are able to pick up the faint vibrations this fly makes as it flutters toward the bottom, even in the darkest water. Finally, should you ever encounter a full-on surface blitz with water boiling all around, know that it’s not always the bonanza it might seem, since the fish can get so dialed into one spot that they won’t even move an inch to take a fly. On these rare occasions, I go for the fun option and tie on a Gurgler or popper, retrieved with intermittent pauses that will often incite a fully airborne assault.
Bruce Sandstrom guides for Aniak River Lodge in Southwest Alaska.