Arctic Char... the Silver Swimmers

Most anglers know Arctic char as packaged fillets from the grocery store. Geography is the reason. Arctic char are true to their name, occurring mostly north of latitude 52°N. In eastern Canada, that puts much of their range in Newfoundland and Labrador. This lack of exposure means the species is often underappreciated as a game fish. In freshwater the fighting abilities of char are equal to any trout species and even surpass several. Saltwater performance is even better.

Large wild Arctic char occur as both sea-run and landlocked populations in insular Newfoundland and Labrador. Sea-run char are caught in the pristine wilderness rivers of Labrador during the fall spawning run and spring return, and are in great form in saltwater during the summer months. While bulking up in the salt, most remain tight to the coast and in the area of their natal river, and thus reasonably accessible. Despite my fascination with saltwater char, others favour the visual exuberance of the species in rivers. Scott and Crossman in Freshwater Fishes of Canada put it succinctly, “The startlingly brilliant colour assumed by spawning or near-spawning adults defies adequate verbal description.”

When fishing the interior or coastal wilderness areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, one does not expect competition from other anglers. And so it was during a six-day trip to the spectacular coast of Labrador – a sole brief encounter with another group – even though the area is regularly serviced by two scheduled airlines. However, it is also true that saltwater char angling is still a developing fishery and opportunities are few compared to the more traditional approaches. For example, at least a dozen interior outfitters offer opportunities for landlocked or migrating Arctic char. Mid-August in some lakes is marked by the sudden appearance of char around river mouths or over shallow reefs. Taken by casting or trolling, most are males in full spawning regalia.

Char generally take spoons readily (some more readily than others), but can prove tougher to seduce with flies – particularly in saltwater. There, at least for us, close imitation of the prevalent baitfish like sand lance and capelin was the “secret.” In rivers my top producers have been flashy flies, incorporating plenty of tinsel in the wing. Others favour Woolly Bugger or Zonker variations. Medium-weight spinning tackle and/or 6- to 8-weight fly rods are suitable. It is best to have at least two “weights” of equipment on hand so that you can cope with a variety of water conditions.

Sea-run char stocks were severely impacted by commercial overharvesting a few decades ago, however, following a considerable reduction in the take, stocks are rebuilding satisfactorily. Our success was outstanding, catching char in all but two of the areas we fished. Of course, this reflected the expertise of our guide, for while estuaries are obvious hot spots, other productive areas were not. The average size approached 4 pounds and our largest pulled the pointer to slightly over 8 pounds. Considering that char take 20 years to reach maximum size (the reason overharvesting is so destructive) and sometimes live to be 40, it is likely that the average and maximum size will increase gradually with time. And, going full circle, where populations are strong, try a wild fillet or two to learn what the gustatory excitement is all about. Look to Newfoundland and Labrador for the best Arctic char fishing in the east.