The most northerly of all freshwater fish, the Arctic char is circumpolar in distribution, occurring around the globe from Maine and New Hampshire in the United States northward across northern Canada, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and from northern Russia south to Lake Baikal and Kamchatka as well as in Iceland, Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Alps, and Spitsbergen, among other places. An anadromous species (except where it has become landlocked), the Arctic char always returns from the sea to spawn in fresh water, usually in lakes or quiet pools of rivers over gravel bottom. It spawns in autumn or winter when water temperatures reach 4?C or less.
Like all chars (members of the genus Salvelinus), the Arctic char has light colored spots on the body and the leading edges of all the fins on the lower part of the body are milk white. These features set the chars apart from the salmons and trouts, which are the chars' closest relatives and similar in body shape. There is an adipose fin between the dorsal fin and the tail, and an axillary process at the base of each pelvic fin. It has a squarish or slightly forked tail.
The species most often confused with the Arctic char is an extremely close relative (also a char), the Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma). Often it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the two species except by laboratory analysis, and even today there are few scientists who know how to make a positive identification. Much erroneous material has been published concerning the distribution of each species, and consequently anglers and scientists alike have made many false identifications based on the mistaken belief that only Arctic char or only Dolly Varden occurred in a given area, lake, or river in Alaska. An individual who is familiar with both species may be able to make an identification based on the size of the spots, which are larger in the Arctic char. However, fish returning from the sea are often silvery with no spots at all, making external identification all but impossible. Gill raker counts are helpful. In Canada, Victoria Island (Northwest Territory) char have about 25 30 gill rakers on the first left gill arch. Dolly Varden have 21 22. Arctic char have 40 45 pyloric caeca (worm like appendages on the pylorus, the section of intestine directly after the stomach), while Dolly Varden have about 30.
As in all salmon, trout and char, both the color of the body and the shape of the head vary considerably in different forms of the fish; landlocked, seagoing, and most of all, spawning males which develop “kype.” Even if an individual is thoroughly familiar with all the color variations of all salmonids occurring in the area, color is not a factor that will distinguish the Arctic char from the Dolly Varden
The Arctic char is a food and game fish par excellence
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