Searching for Sii in the Kobuk

When I moved from Montana to Alaska in 2008 to study fisheries science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the things I fell in love with was how remote the “last frontier” really was. There were rivers only accessible via float planes. There were postage-stamp towns and villages where the residents subsisted on caribou, moose and dried fish. And there were new (to me) species of fish to discover. One that fired my imagination was the inconnu, or sheefish. With a name derived from the Iñupiaq word for them, sii, they’re sometimes referred to as the “tarpon of the tundra” in a nod to their toothless, bucket-like mouths, deep bodies, silvery sides and  fighting prowess shared with their tropical look-alike. Growing up feeling the taps and slow, tentative tugs of small-but-sturdy Rocky Mountain whitefish, I couldn’t get over visions of their giant cousins—40-pound, gape-mouthed, predatory torpedoes that live for decades in parts of Canada, Russia and Alaska.

I pored over every website, outdoors forum and fishing book that mentioned them. I found that the sheefish mecca was the remote Kobuk River, which is virtually inaccessible except by bush flights. The Kobuk cuts through a piece of wilderness in Alaska’s Brooks Range, flowing 380 miles from the Endicott Mountains to Kotzebue Sound. In 1980, 110 miles of it—including where it passes through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve—was designated Wild and Scenic by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The designation recognizes the river’s free-flowing wilderness character and values—including the sheefish spawning grounds that captured my imagination…

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