While it might not get the same level of attention as its more famous Salmon and Trout cousins, Arctic Char are a prized species in their own right – and deserve a closer look. They’re prized for their delicious deep-red meat, impressive fight, and pristine fishing locations.
Due to their relatively remote habitats, many anglers are only familiar with them from their brightly colored fillets in the supermarket.
Char are the most northerly freshwater fish on the planet, and can be found as far north as Elsmere Island on the northern tip of the Canadian Arctic. They’re highly variable in appearance, and can vary from bright orange to pale grey, depending on their environment and time of year.
Let’s take a look at this extraordinary experience in greater detail, so you’ll know how to locate, catch, clean, and cook Arctic Char.
Arctic Char Overview
Arctic Char are a cold-water fish in the Salmonidae family, and are closely related to Salmon, Trout, and Grayling. They’re native to alpine lakes, as well as coastal arctic and subarctic waters. They’re highly variable – and can be landlocked or anadromous (living in both freshwater and saltwater).
Because much of their range is remote and unpopulated, Char are not threated by overfishing, and are plentiful along the northern coastal areas of Canada, Alaska, Russia, Iceland, and the Scandinavian countries.
Owing to their cold habitat, they’re relatively slow-growing, taking longer to mature than their southern cousins. It can take up to 20 years for a Char to reach full maturity, so being selective in which fish you keep is a good practice.
In North America, they’re a popular game fish along much of the Quebec and Labrador coast, as well as much of Alaska. They’re fairly aggressive, and will eagerly take baits in shallow water – making wading and fly-fishing popular methods of landing them.
Adult Char are typically between 1 lbs. and 7 lbs. – making them a great size for eating. In some areas, like the Brooks Range in Alaska, they can grow significantly larger (10 to 15 lbs), and 20+ pound fish have been caught in the past.
Char feature large mouths and jaws – with the lower jaw extending past the eye. While they range significantly in color, all Char feature light spots along their flanks over a darker background.
Their lower fins and tail feature white edges along them, and tend to become brightly colored in spawning adults. Brightly colored spawning Char are highly sought after by many anglers, and are easily one of the most stunningly beautiful freshwater fish on the planet.
They spawn in the early fall through early winter, depending on the latitude, with more northern Char spawning earlier. In much of their range, females will spawn once every 2 to 3 years, with the spawning process being less showy than Salmon.
Young Char hatch in the early spring, and typically leave the nest around early July.
Where to Catch Arctic Char?
Before you can start catching Arctic Char, you’ll need to locate them. Unlike many other freshwater species, you’ll probably need to get a little off the beaten path to find these fish.
Fly fishing for Arctic Char in the remote northern wilderness is a dream for many fishermen, and with plenty of outfitters willing to take you there, it’s totally doable if you’ve got the will.
As they tend to congregate in shallow water, be on the lookout for gravelly, shallow-bottomed, waters. They have a varied diet – so they’ll take a variety of different flies.
If you’re fishing for anadromous Arctic Char during the summer months, they tend to stick close to the coasts, and can be caught by trolling or casting.
How to Catch Arctic Char?
As mentioned previously, Char can be caught using several different methods, with the most popular being fly fishing. They’re also commonly caught with spoons on spinning gear, or by trolling in their saltwater habitats.
They make an ideal target for fly fishing as they’re aggressive, like shallower water, and owing to their relative isolation, are less wary that other freshwater species. An assortment of different flies can be used to entice Char, depending on the location and their local preferences. Some of the most effective are brightly colored streamer patterns, beads, smolt imitations, and drifted egg patterns.
Be mindful of your shadow when fishing in shallower water, as they can get spooked by your presence if you’re overly aggressive.
Let’s take a look at some of the best fishing gear to help you land more Arctic Char for both fly and spinning setups.
Medium action fly rods in the 6 to 8 weight range will work well for most Char, although if you’re going after larger Char, you may want to step up to a 7 to 10 weight. As mentioned previously, a variety of different flies can be used effectively, so bring a variety of different options along with you.
Arctic Char Fly Fishing Gear:
- Fly Rod: Moonshine Rod Co. The Drifter Series
- Fly Rod & Reel Combo: Redington Path Fly Rod Kit
- Egg Flies: Outdoor Planet 12 / 24 Pack
- Wooly Bugger Flies: Woolly Bugger Trout Fly Fishing Streamer Assortment
Spinning gear can also be highly effective for landing char. You can use similar setups as you would for salmon or steelhead.
Medium to medium heavy rods with fast or medium fast rods will work well. As you’ll be casting spoons, you’ll want a bit of length – so look for rods between 7 and 9 feet long. Pair your rod up with a decent size 3000 – 5000 spinning reel and 20 to 30 test mono, and you’ve got yourself an ideal char slaying rig.
Arctic Char Spinning Gear:
- Spinning Rod: Ugly Stik Elite Spinning Fishing Rod
- Spinning Reel: Pflueger Supreme XT
- Spoon: Blue Fox Pixie Spoon
How to cook Arctic Char?
While you may not yet have had the pleasure of catching Char, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten some. Char can be either farmed or wild caught, and are popular table fare due to their vibrant, bright orange flesh, and their similarity to Salmon and Trout.
Let’s take a look at everything you’ll need to know to clean, prepare, and cook these delicious fish.
How to Clean
Cleaning Char is similar to cleaning trout and salmon. To fillet a Char follow these steps:
- Place your knife right behind the gills and cut downwards toward the spine.
- Run your blade along the spine, cutting though the small bones as you reach the tail.
- Flip the fish over, and repeat the process on the other side until you have two clean fillets.
- The pin bones will remain in the flesh – you can remove these with a small pair of tweezers or leave them in while you cook the fillets.
Char is a fairly versatile fish, and can be cooked in a number of different ways – all with fantastic results. It takes well to baking, frying, searing, poaching, and is particularly good smoked.
Pan Fried Skin-On Arctic Char
Frying Char with the skin on keeps the flesh moist and tender while creating a crisp, crunchy exterior layer.
- 4 6-ounce Arctic Char fillets with the skin on
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Lemon, cut into wedges
- Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon capers
- Fresh parsley, chopped
- Heat a frying pan to medium heat and add olive oil.
- Season fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.
- Add fillets to pan, skin side down. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until cooked through to the top.
- If the top isn’t cooked through completely, flip the fillets and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add butter, capers, and lemon juice to the pan and sauté for about a minute.
- Pour pan sauce over fillets skin side up, sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley and serve.