How to catch an Arctic char

The Arctic char is one of the UK's rarest fish species, but it's still possible to catch one if you know where to look.

How to catch an Arctic char
© Creative Commons
How to catch an Arctic char
Picture copyright © Creative Commons
How to catch an Arctic char
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 7 - 12 minutes

What is an Arctic char?

The Arctic char, Salvelinus alpinus, is a member of the family Salmonidae and is closely related to trout and salmon. It's the most northerly freshwater fish species, being found as far north as the Canadian Arctic.

Are Arctic char found in the UK?

Yes, Arctic char are found in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, although they're not common anywhere in UK waters. There are around 340 separate char populations in the British Isles and virtually all are found in glacial lakes, such as those of Scotland, the Lake District and North Wales.

Where can I catch Arctic char in the UK?

Scotland is your best bet, as there are 258 Scottish lochs known to hold populations of Arctic char. They're also found in 74 loughs in Ireland. They're much rarer elsewhere though, with just eight localities in the English Lake District and four populations in Wales.

In the Lake District, Arctic char are found in Ennerdale Water, Wastwater, Windermere, Thirlmere, Crummock Water, Coniston Water, Buttermere and Haweswater. They were once found in Goat's Water, Rydal, Ullswater and Loweswater but went extinct there.

They were also introduced into North Yorkshire's Grimwith Reservoir and are apparently still found there and in the surrounding rivers (although it's unfortunately not open to anglers).

A couple of stillwaters including Ellerdine Lakes in Shropshire and Rockbourne Trout Fishery in Hampshire also stock farmed Arctic char. Going to one of these fisheries will increase your odds significantly!

What sort of conditions do char need?

As you would expect from a fish with the word "Arctic" in its common name, they like cold, well oxygenated water.

Most of them are found in deep glacial lakes, but elsewhere in the world they enter rivers with cold clear water as well as estuaries and coastal areas.

Like trout, char usually breed in areas where there is gently flowing clear and well oxygenated water and a stony bottom, but elsewhere in the world (such as in Norway) they spawn mainly in faster riffles.

Are Arctic char migratory?

The ancestors of the Arctic char found in UK waters were all anadromous fish that migrated to sea, like sea trout. However, virtually all British populations remaining today are landlocked, with the exception of those in Ennerdale Water, which still migrate up rivers to spawn.

Most char populations found at latitudes above 65° remain migratory and will go out to sea, if they have access to rivers. At lower latitudes, Arctic char are non-migratory.

It's possible that some of the Scottish or Irish char might behave like those of Ennerdale Water by swimming up rivers to spawn, but as far as I know it's not been observed yet.

Elsewhere in the world it's the anadromous migratory char that get really big - our landlocked ones remain rather smaller unfortunately.

However, although Arctic char in the UK are rather smaller, they're just as stunning when in spawning condition. There are few better looking fish anywhere in the world and the colours are truly incredible on spawning males. 

They're not technically a threatened species over here, but they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species with the status of Least Concern. 

In what sort of habitats are Arctic char found?

In the UK the vast majority of char populations are found in still waters - usually very deep and cold glacial lakes. A few populations do live in rivers for part of their lifespan, but there aren't thought to be any that live solely in rivers.

Since the British Arctic char populations don't usually go out to sea, they've been landlocked for thousands of years and haven't mixed genetically with char from elsewhere, so they're quite pristine.

In some waters, when the population drops too low it's being topped up with fresh stock fish to help maintain the gene pool and keep the species going.

How big do char get?

Arctic char don't grow very large in UK waters - a few pounds would be big. However, in Canada they get to pretty hefty sizes - with double figure fish common in places.

To get an idea of how large and colourful they get elsewhere in the world, and to get some tips on how to fish for them outside of glacial lakes, check out the stunning char in this episode of Fishing Adventurer with the brilliant Cyril Chauquet.

Are there any conservation programmes to help preserve char in the UK?

Yes, several. In Wales, Environment Agency Wales and the Countryside Council for Wales have been working for several years to boost the size of the natural populations by topping up declining stocks.

They've bred thousands of baby char and introduced them into Llyn Crafnant in Conwy and into Llyn Padarn in Gywnedd to help keep the stocks genetically healthy.

In Ennerdale Water in the Lake District the population is particularly special, because it's the only char population here that is still migratory. The others are all landlocked.

The Ennerdale Arctic Char Project is helping to keep this special population of char safe and well and is doing very well in conserving this beautiful fish.

What makes char special?

Scientists have long considered Arctic char unusual because they appeared to display lots of variation within their own species. Some are anadromous (and go out to sea), some are semi-anadromous, some live in lakes, some live in lakes and rivers and some are much smaller than others.

In the past, scientists have split up the char species into 15 separate fish, as the various forms vary so much in shape and colour. Then they had a change of view and lumped them all back together as a single species.

More recent studies are providing data to suggest that the splitting of the past was justified and the Arctic char species has now been divided into 20 separate species.

These include: S. alpinus, S. colii, S. evasus, S. fimbriatus, S. gracillimus, S. grayi, S. inframundus, S. killinensis, S. lepechini, S. lonsdalii, S. mallochi, S. maxillaris, S. murta, S. obtusus, S. perisii, S. struanensis, S. thingvallensis, S. umbla, S. willoughbii, and S. youngeri.

Experts reckon there might be a dozen different species of char found in Scotland alone, so they're a very special salmonid. Not much has been written about the confirmed identify of those in the UK, but it's quite likely that they're not really S. alpinus as previously believed.

Do people fish for char in the UK?

A bit of fishing for char does still go on in the Scottish lochs and on Windermere. They're protected in some places (such as Ennerdale) so check that you're allowed to fish for them before trying. 

Given their rarity in UK waters, and the fact that they're typically found in more remote regions and in deeper glacial lakes, char aren't commonly fished for, which is probably a good thing for the char.

Obviously this isn't a fish ever likely to be caught in large numbers and it's obviously imperative that it's fished for on a catch and release basis, given the potentially small sizes of some populations and their uniqueness.

In the past some anglers have caught char in large numbers, but big catches are rarer these days. While you might get lucky and have the chance to see a British char close up, your best option is to head for Canada or Greenland instead.

What are the best methods to use when char fishing?

It depends on the water you're fishing, but lures such as spoons are the most common technique on lakes and rivers, since the fish lie in very deep water. On rivers, spinners and spoons will work, as well as larger fly patterns.

Overseas, fly fishers typically go after char by swinging large streamers (what we call lures over here) across river currents, but that's generally not allowed in rivers here and there are few river dwelling char present anyway. 

I would imagine your chances of catching one on a fly were relatively slim in the UK, though you might manage it on one of the Scottish lochs, or at a stillwater where they're stocked. 

Certain fly colours are said to be good for char, especially chartreuse, yellow and fluorescent pink, however, they've also been known to rise for dries, too! 

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