Animals -> Fish -> Searun Fish -> Arctic Char

Arctic Char


Arctic char are usually caught in summer or fall and sometimes in winter [1-3, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 17, 27, 29, 31, 34-36, 41] using nets, jigs and spears [42, 43].

Arctic char were caught in winter in various areas, including the lakes and streams around Ungava Bay, Quebec, in nearby lakes in Iqaluit, near Opinivik, Iqaluagaqdjuin Fiord, Avatuktoo, and at the Firth River [2, 11, 31]. Naskapi (Innu) of Davis Inlet, Labrador, caught char by ice fishing [13].

Tagish fishermen drilled a hole through the ice using a moose antler chisel and placed brush around the hole so he could crouch and lie down beside it. He covered himself and the hole with a blanket or skin for a better view into the water and to prevent light from frightening the char and held a spear with a wood handle, a central barbed point and two prongs on either side of the barbed point. The side prongs had inward pointing barbs made of the second and fourth metatarsals of a moose. The barbed point and prong were made of caribou antlers. With the other hand he immersed a lure, usually a stone covered in hardened grease, which was attached to a sinew line. The Tagish also caught char in winter with nets, gutted them, and left them outside to freeze in caches until needed [43].

Inuit of Hopedale, Labrador used nets placed along bay shores. In autumn, they set the nets beneath the thin lake ice. In late autumn and spring, they used jigs to catch them through the ice [42]. The Gitksan (Gitxsan) and Wet’suwet’en are reported to consume landlocked arctic char [50].

Netsilik Inuit of the Arctic coast caught arctic char with spears [51]. In fall, a conical basin cut in the river ice was covered by a snow hut; the arctic char were drawn to the area and were caught with a leister [3].

A number of cultures have been reported to travel and set up Arctic char fishing camps. In September/November, the Naskapi (Innu) of Davis Inlet packed their sleds, dogs and other equipment into their trap boats and punts to journey into the bays where they stayed a month fishing for char [13]. Inuit also set up camp [29]; in spring, Copper Inuit families left town and set up camp to catch char through the lake ice and in summer, Baffin Island Inuit put up Arctic char fishing camps at inlet heads [7, 31]. Inuit of Netsilik set up summer fishing camps for Arctic char which consisted of many extended families [3]. Among the West Greenlanders living off the outside coast of the central region, families kayaked and sailed their “umiaks” into the fjords in July and August to fish for char [17]. Clyde Inuit set up summer camps and the men usually went on fishing trips to inland lakes in the winter “as soon as the river and lake ice was safe to travel” [41]. Among Inuit, the first men who arrived at camp repaired the weirs which were used to trap the Arctic char [3, 29].

Spears, weirs and nets were mainly used to catch char, but rod and reel, lures, other traps and jigs were also used [1-3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 17, 24, 26, 29, 31, 33-36, 41]. Inuit including those of Quebec, Labrador, Netsilik, West Greenland as well as Labrador Coast Inuit/Thule and Copper Inuit caught them in summer/fall with stone weirs [3, 8, 9, 17, 29, 34, 36]. Inuit of Quebec used stone weirs built in riverbeds, Caribou Inuit constructed theirs across shallow streams and the West Greenlanders dammed a bay or river with a stone weir [1, 8, 17]. Inuit including Netsilik Inuit, Copper Inuit, Labrador Coast Inuit/Thule and Caribou Inuit speared them once trapped in the weir, the latter group also using bag traps to collect them once trapped [1, 9, 29, 34]. Among Inuit and Netsilik, the eldest able man specified when the weir should be shut and spearing should begin [3, 29]. Netsilik used a three-pronged leister to spear the fish in the centre basin of the weir. The leister had iron barbs inserted at the ends of two outer prongs and the middle prong was attached to a bone spike. They then strung the fish on a line which they held in their mouth and lugged the fish to shore. The line was a sealskin thong to which was attached a sharp bear bone needle [3]. Among Inuit of Quebec, women and children participated in the catch. They would wait for the fish to come, then grab some by hand and kill them [8]. After the fish were caught in the weir, West Greenlander men, women and children used leisters, bird darts, hook spears, hooks on lines, scooping lines and bare hands to take them [17]. Inuit of Quebec on the south shore of the Hudson dammed the char in natural pools on shore and harpooned them during low tide [8]. Labrador Coast Inuit/Thule used a three-pronged spear in the summer at stone weirs [34]. In summer, Netsilik also used a harpoon with a barbed tip, antler fore shaft and wood shaft. In fall, the Netsilik caught them by boring holes in thin river ice and luring them with decoys, and once lured, used a three-pronged leister to spear them. Secondary techniques employed by Netsilik during both fall and summer were hurling a fishing harpoon with a removable tip, using a barbless hook set in a bone sinker, and placing a gorge encased in caribou meat in the water overnight [3]. In winter, Canadian Inuit caught them through the ice by jigging with hooks while Labrador Coast Inuit/Thule used a three-pronged spear through ice holes [34, 36]. Apart from using weirs, Caribou Inuit also used gill nets placed along the shore, and Labrador Coast Inuit/Thule also used hooks attached to a line as well as gill nets [34, 35]. Apart from using weirs in summer/fall, Netsilik Inuit used spears through holes in the ice, doing so in July [9]. Baffin Island Inuit captured them with spears and nets at stream and river mouths. [31].

Dorset and East Greenlanders used leisters/spears or nets to catch char, the latter group using a two pronged harpoon which was a special kind of spear with two tiny toggle harpoons at the prongs [24, 26]. The Vunta Kutchin (Gwich’in), Naskapi of Davis Inlet in Labrador, and the James Bay Cree caught them using nets [2, 5, 13]. The Naskapi of Davis Inlet in Labrador placed nets under the ice on lakes while the Vunta Kutchin, who caught them in early winter at the Firth River did not place theirs under ice because the Firth River did not freeze during this season [2, 13]. The Kutchin caught them in open-water using weirs in which basket fish traps had been placed [33].

Clyde Inuit caught arctic char using gill nets, leisters, weirs, lures, and rod and reel. The leister became used less often since the early 60s, but was still used for winter lake fishing then. Gill nets and rods replaced weirs and leister after the early 60s. They placed the gill nets at the mouths of rivers or at estuaries or deltas. Usually two men canoed to these locations placing the nets down with beach stones to weight them and plastic oil containers as floats. Nets were inspected two to three times a day. The use of gill nets, specifically with small mesh, resulted in the decline of the char population in some rivers. Also, the increased use of Arctic char by a concentrated populace resulted in the harvesting of fish of all ages, leading to the scarcity of Arctic char. In winter, Inuit used lures through holes they had chopped in the ice; lures were often made of caribou antler or ivory, and were usually weighted with a rifle shell. A few men occasionally added feathers or wool fluff to their lures or used a store-bought lure. The fish were attracted by the jigging movement of the lure as they do not eat during the winter, so no bait was needed. Once lured, they were speared with a leister or three pronged spear [41].

Some groups cached their char catch for later use. Inuit of Quebec and the Labrador Coast cleaned and saved char for winter consumption in large stone caches cold enough to preserve the fish for long periods [8, 34]. The Carrier preserved char by roasting it. They did so by rolling it in spruce bark, and roasting it beneath hot coals. After cooling, they buried the fish underground for later use [45].


Arctic char was consumed raw, boiled, dried and ”fermented or age-ripened” [8, 15, 17-19, 38, 41]. Inuit of Arctic Bay and Belcher Island ate the flesh raw, the latter also eating it boiled [15, 38]. Inuit of Qikiqtarjuaq ate the flesh raw, boiled and dried, also eating the skin raw and boiled [18, 19]. The West Greenlanders ate the flesh ripened [17, 19]. Inuit of Quebec filleted char and dried them in the summer for later use, while Caribou Inuit only ate them immediately as they did not obtain enough to dry and stockpile for winter [8, 35]. Clyde River Inuit consumed the flesh frozen, raw or in soup; it is believed in earlier times they also ate it dried, splitting it and hanging it on a rack in a tent to air dry [41].

Beliefs and taboos

Clyde River Inuit shared char with their kin but they were not required to share it with those outside their extended family. When there were huge harvests of char, they held a communal meal so that those not included in the kinship sharing of char were able to partake of the surplus. Everyone in the camp was expected to partake and the announcement of the communal meal was made by the children, using a unique invitational cry that indicated that char was available to be eaten [41].

The Tagish did not consume Arctic char liver because they believed it caused headaches; they always cleaned the char by facing the land if  “it was less than a day old” [43].


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The Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is an important, widespread fish found in lakes, rivers and coastal saltwater across northern North America. Char occur in landlocked and searun populations. Arctic char have the most northerly distribution of any fish found in freshwater, including a population in Lake Hazen, on Ellesmere Island, at 82 °N. In Canada, Arctic char occur from Newfoundland and extreme eastern Quebec, north along the Atlantic coast to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Archipelago, and west through the territories and into Alaska. Landlocked freshwater populations occur in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and southeastern Quebec.

The Arctic char is in the salmonid family, including salmon, grayling, and whitefish species, and is closely related to species of trout that are in the same genus, like the Dolly Varden (S. malma), the brook trout (S. fontinalis), the lake trout (S. namaycush), and the bull trout (S. confluentus). Different arctic char populations can vary incredibly in body size, life history, and diet, even within a single lake. Even though these many, diversified populations are frequently reproductively isolated, arctic char are usually classified as a single species, perhaps more out of convenience than biological reality. It is hard to believe that dull grayish landlocked Arctic char that spawn when less than 15 cm long are the same species as the bright red spawning searun Arctic char that can grow to 1 m length, or that in the same lake, different populations of the same species can be each other’s predators and prey. In the high Arctic region, searun Arctic char are the largest form, sometimes reaching almost 15 kg, while “dwarf” lake forms are rarely longer than 25 cm. In North America, arctic char are frequently subdivided into three major groups: one is native to almost all of Canada's northern coast and is nearly always searun (S. a. erythrinus), one is native to eastern Quebec and northern New England and is almost never searun (S. a. oquassa; also known as the Sunapee trout or the blueback trout), and one is native to northwestern Alaska, is most often lake-resident, and is often referred to as taranets char and dwarf Arctic char. The common name ‘char’ is also frequently spelled as ‘charr’ and the French common name is omble chevalier. In northern Canada, arctic char are known as iqaluk or tariungmiutaq in Inuktitut.

It is almost impossible to provide a general description of Arctic char that encompasses the huge range in size, shape, colour, and life history found in this species, other than saying it is trout and salmon-like species of widely varying size, appearance, and life history. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that differentiate most arctic char from other trout and salmon. Arctic char, lake trout, Dolly Varden, together with other members of Salvelinus, all have red, pinkish, orange, or light yellow spots on the body, but no black spots on the body, whereas all Pacific and Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and brown trout have black spots. Spots on Arctic char range from bright red to pale white and are generally larger (the largest being bigger than the pupil of the eye) and fewer compared to the spots on Dolly Varden. Lake trout have a more deeply forked caudal tail than arctic char, and their cream- or yellow-colored spots cover the dorsal and caudal fins, whereas the same fins on arctic char are unspotted or lightly spotted. Sexually mature searun and landlocked Arctic char are often red, yellow or orange in colour.

Some populations of Arctic char are searun, while some are confined entirely to freshwater lakes (landlocked), but both forms spawn multiple times in their lifetime. In the high Arctic, searun Arctic char first migrate from freshwater to the ocean at four to eight years of age, then will return to freshwater multiple times before attaining sexual maturity at age 10-12, and then spawn every two to five years thereafter. The Arctic char, like other members of the same genus, is well-adapted for cold water and prefers water 4°C colder than other salmon and trout. The diet of the Arctic char is composed mainly of aquatic invertebrates, fish eggs, and small fish. A typical lifespan for arctic char is six to eight years, but some individuals in slow-growing northern populations live to 20-30 years of age.

The Arctic char is a popular food fish, highly valued for its flavourful and colourful flesh. Many southern Arctic char populations have gone extinct or are now threatened by habitat degradation and introduction of non-native species. Northern populations of arctic char, with long life spans, long inter-spawning intervals, and low annual replacement rate, are vulnerable to overexploitation.


Behnke RJ: Trout and salmon of North America. New York, NY, USA: Free Press; 2002.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Arctic char
Supplier: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
Publisher: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network