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Tarpon of the north

When we posted the photo above from Dave Holsman on Instagram last spring with the caption "Tarpon of the north," we set off a firestorm of questions from anglers hoping to learn more about the monstrous fish, where in the world it can be found, and how to catch such a beast on fly or light tackle. 

"What the heck is that thing?"

This was probably the question we got the most, and for good reason. Stenodus nelma, also known as sheefish or inconnu, are a species of freshwater whitefish that can only be found by traveling to some of the most arctic regions of the world. Most common in northern Russia and Alaska, their range stretches from the Kola Peninsula in western Russia, across parts of Siberia and the Yukon and Kobuk river systems in Alaska and Canada. 

The largest member of the salmonidae family, nelma are bottom dwellers that reside in cool lakes and large rivers. They're known for their vacuum-like mouths and their enormous iridescent scales - sometimes up to a nickel in diameter, covering their flanks. A popular fish for eating, their meat is characterized as white, flakey and oily, resembling a halibut.

As the photo on Instagram showed, these fish can get big too. The largest ones have been measured at 60" long, and can tip the scales at well over 50lbs. Anglers who have caught them remark at their strength and hard fighting nature. Their silvery, blue/green scales, size and fight have resulted in the nickname "tarpon of the north."

How do I catch one?

A long-time quarry for commercial boats in the arctic and a by-catch of anglers targeting salmon, sport fishing for nelma is a recent but growing trend. In fact, several outfitters in Alaska now even offer guided trips specifically for the enormous whitefish.

Catching a giant nelma is all about getting your bait/fly to the right spot in the water column. As bottom dwellers, they feed primarily on small fish and scraps that fall to the bottom. Whether you're fishing with conventional tackle or fly gear, use a baitfish imitation and make sure it gets deep. When you hook one, hold on tight - they're aggressive strikes have been known to yank rods from the hands of the distracted salmon angler!


  • Mike Inks

    Yes they are strong. In the Pelly River part of the upper Yukon River hooked a monster and was pulled around for a while in my Waterstrider raft. Dad could not get it in the net. It was to big and strong.

  • Randy Clark

    Too cool!

    I’ve heard about them, but never have seen an actual picture of an angler with one. Good stuff! Do those things chase down your streamers on the strip or is it strictly a swinging type of fishery?

  • Cheeky Fishing

    @Rich wow that’s awesome they were feeding on the surface! Dry fly??

  • Paul Rankine

    Fantastic fish ! I never knew whitefish got sooo Big .

  • RIch Rubin

    I fished and caught Sheefish on the Aniak river a tributary of the Kuskokwim river. The guide would take us to areas of the lower river where the Sheefish were breaking the surface feeding. They often hold in deeper spots in the middle of the river. A 2 to 3 inch gray and white buck tail streamer worked great. Also caught one on a Charisse rabbit fly with clouser eyes.

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