Ice fishing is sure growing in popularity here in Alaska. And it should be, for we have ice fishing that mid-westerners would envy. Every year I hear about more people getting out to enjoy it and frequently about people catching the biggest char they've ever caught. Who wouldn't be excited about catching a 28" char or 36" or bigger? It's great sport. However, I'm concerned that most of us might be ignorant of what it takes to grow a 28" char or 36" laker. What it takes most is time. These fish grow slowly. They don't generally reach spawning age until they're between 6 and 9 years old.
A 20 lb lake trout is quite impressive. It is also an old fish. Twenty years is certainly within the realm of possibility, and a 20lb fish could be older than that. Hard to say how old without a scale sample, but if we kill one it will surely take a long time to replace. They can't replace themselves as fast as we can kill them. As the fishery continues to grow in popularity there will be fewer and fewer of those to catch if people keep bonking them.
I strongly suggest to everyone who wants to fish for trophy lakers to invest in a digital camera and a tape measure and use them to preserve/prove their trophies. A picture lasts a lifetime. So does a fiberglass reproduction. If we become willing to release these magnificent fish and learn how to do it, it stands to reason that our kids will be able to experience the excellent fishing we currently have. I'd like to share some tips on how to release these fish while preserving the memory.
The first essential is that you be prepared to photograph and release the fish. You'll need your camera close at hand and a soft measuring tape to record length and girth of the fish. Keep this on your person where you can access them easily.
Big lakers are fairly docile once you get their heads in the hole. You can leave them there until your partner is ready to shoot a photo, pull the fish out for a quick couple shots, take a length measurement, put the fish head down in the hole holding on to the fish's caudal peduncle (the 'wrist' of the tail), take a girth measurement, then revive the fish until it's ready to swim off. Simply lift and lower the fish in the hole to get water flowing over its gills until it shows some strength, then let go.
If you are alone, keep your camera and tape measure in pockets where you can get at them easily. Get the fish head up in the hole. Big fish will pretty much fill the hole and they do not thrash around as much as little ones. It's simple to keep a taut line on them in that position while you get your camera and tape out. Carefully lift/slide the fish from the hole. Big fish do not flop very much compared to little lakers and you should be able to take a few pics and a length measurement in 20 seconds or less. If you need more time for detailed pics of unique aspects of the fish, put it head down in the hole and give it a breather for 30 seconds or so, then slide it out and take a few more pics. Next, put the fish head down in the hole again. With your other hand, take the girth measurement. Revive the fish and let it go.
Record the length and girth measurements. You can write them down or shoot a video and say the length and girth. You will need these to get a fiberglass reproduction of the fish done, should you decide to do so.
Some other tips: Prepare the area around your hole for photos. Keep the area clean and flat. Think about the background of your photos before you start fishing. You'll want the sun at the photo shooter's back if you have a partner with you; off to one side or the other if you're alone to prevent casting a shadow on your subject. I can't stress enough to have your camera and tape on you and readily accessible. The whole idea is to ensure the fish is released and that it survives. The more prepared you are, the better the fish's chances. The colder it is, the less time you have. Fish corneas are very susceptible to freezing. Naturally, the longer they are out of the water, the longer it will take to effectively revive them and the more potential for damaging the corneas.
Here's a little more about getting the fish out of the hole. I prepare to get an arm wet. First, I carefully slip my fingers under a gill cover, being exceptionally careful to not grab gill arches. Then, if I can get an arm down the hole beside the fish to where it begins to get slim I reach down and gently grab the fish as far towards the caudal peduncle as I can. I lift with both hands and essentially slide the fish out of the hole. As it slides out of the hole, I let my wet arm drift to the caudal penduncle. I then have the fish out of the hole. It has not been laid on the ice, minimizing slime loss, cornea damage and internal injury. I get in position and my partner starts snapping pics. If things are taking too long, I'll put the fish head down in the hole for a breather and pull him out when my partner is ready. This is a foolproof, damage limiting method to get pictures of your tropy char.
I have taken some pictures of fish on the ice before. I don't like to do this very much as you increase the possiblity of slime loss. Fortunately, as I said before, BIG lake trout don't thrash around much at all. In this situation I slide them out just as I outlined above and work as quickly as I can to take pics and measurements. Then I get them head down in the hole and thoroghly revive them.
Lake trout are pretty durable, all things considered. However, they are very slow growing and your next trophy might be as old as you are. Again, if we want our kids to enjoy what we still have left, we need to release the monsters.