Feisty fish are
plentiful indicators of river health
Chris Hunt - Idaho Statesman
From the car, we could see the river boiling with rising fish
— a fabled autumn blue-winged olive hatch was under way on the
South Fork of the Snake River, and rise rings dotted the stream
surface from the bank to its deep center channel 50 yards out.
The late October day had been unseasonably warm — we fished a
series of side channels and runs earlier in the day in shirt
sleeves, landing and releasing a handful of smallish rainbows and
cutthroats that attacked streamers meant for the river’s
The sight of fish rising to the surface appeared to be just the
remedy to a slow morning on the South Fork. With a quick slam on
the brakes and a serviceable parking job just off the Snake River
Road, my fishing partner Kurt Friedemann dashed from the car, fly
rod in hand. I wasn’t far behind him, stopping only to change my
3x tippet to a light 6x and attach a size 20 blue-winged olive
imitation I had no hope of seeing once it actually hit the water.
It didn’t take us long to figure out that the rising fish
were mostly, if not all, whitefish — a native to the South Fork
and a generally underappreciated game fish throughout the Rocky
Mountain West. The small-mouthed fish, distant relatives to trout,
generally nose the river’s bottom with their downturned snouts,
feeding on aquatic insects. But the hatch of the tiny mayflies had
the silvery salmonids eying the surface on this calm fall day.
Whitefish are common catches on the South Fork, but they’re
rarely targeted by anglers. Generally, they’re hooked as
fishermen seek the river’s more renowned cutthroats and browns.
For the diehards, whitefish provide a pretty good reason to visit
the icy banks of the South Fork in the middle of winter. They’re
much more active than trout when the water chills during the short
days of the cold months.
Fall spawners, whitefish hens don’t build redds, but instead
spray their eggs over the river bottom, where they’re often
fertilized by a host of males. The eggs, BB-sized orange globes,
provide an important food source for the river’s trout as they
fatten up for winter. Depending on the quality of the habitat,
female whitefish can produce anywhere between 2,000 and 8,000
eggs. The fertilized eggs lie dormant over the winter and hatch in
Whitefish are most closely related to grayling, a more heralded
and respected game fish. In Idaho, though, the native whitefish
far outnumber the introduced grayling, and they most certainly
outweigh them. On the South Fork, it’s not uncommon to catch a
20-inch whitefish that bumps the scale to two or more pounds —
grayling rarely approach those proportions. Whitefish also provide
a spirited fight, especially on light tackle.
Around the West, whitefish are found in some notable trout
streams. They inhabit rivers like the White and Roaring Fork in
Colorado, the Truckee in Nevada and California, and in Idaho,
they’re present in the Big Wood and Little Wood rivers and the
Henry’s Fork. Whitefish live in the Madison River in Montana and
the Bow River of British Columbia and the rivers and streams of
Alberta are lousy with them. They’re found as far north as the
Yukon River and as far south as Reno, Nev.
Unlike their trout cousins, whitefish living in the Northwest
don’t run to the sea — there are no known anadromous
populations. They can live to be 20 years old or older and can top
four pounds and 25 inches, although this is rare.
Whitefish tend to school up in the South Fork, so it’s
possible to really get into a mess of them. It’s easy to see why
current regulations allow anglers to take home 50 whitefish (that
number drops to 25 beginning in 2002) — the frenzied feed
orchestrated against the mayfly hatch that day on the South Fork
was hardly interrupted by a pair of clumsy fly fishermen.
Thanks to their downturned mouths, the fish can be tough to
hook on dry flies. Their mouths are tiny and toothless, so it’s
even more challenging to keep a hooked fish on. The only saving
grace for the angler is that whitefish tend to suck the flies in
rather than munching down on them like trout. The trick is finding
a fly small enough.
While whitefish are more commonly caught using nymphs fished
near the river bottom, they can be coaxed to the surface by dry
flies. A winter midge hatch can stir the fish up, and they’ll
take dry flies all summer — pale morning duns meant for South
Fork cutthroats often attract schooling whites.
But perhaps the most endearing quality whitefish possess is
their ability to salvage a day of slow trout fishing on waters
like the South Fork. Before we came across the mayfly hatch that
afternoon, we could count the trout we hooked on one hand. But
after a couple of hours of casting over the school of rising
whites, we lost count of the fish we landed, which was small in
proportion to the strikes our tiny flies attracted.
While we weren’t able to hook into some of the South Fork’s
monster browns, we left the river that evening in good spirits,
thanks to the action provided by the whitefish. Some of the beasts
were so long and thin they actually looked more like eels than the
brethren of trout and salmon.
Some anglers might look at the whitefish as the consolation
prize of trout fishing, but the hardy fish have a value all their
own. They’re spunky on the end of a fly rod and their size alone
can make them worthy of a fishing excursion to one of their many
homewaters throughout the West. More importantly, their presence
serves as an indicator of a river’s overall health.
The next time a whitefish turns up on the end of your tippet,
consider that last bit of information before you shake your head
in disgust. They may not be much to look at, but they’re an
important item on the western fishing menu.
Mountain whitefish inhabit trout streams all over the West.
They range as far north as the Yukon and as far south as Nevada.
They can be identified by their rough, silvery scales, deeply
forked tails and downturned snouts. Some other facts about
- Fall spawners, whitefish are more active in the cold months
of the year than their trout cousins.
- Whitefish are native to much of Idaho, and related whitefish
subspecies are found all over Canada and the northern United
- They are related to grayling, which are similar in appearance
save for the latter’s large, sail-like dorsal fin.
- Whitefish generally feed near the bottom, where they target
aquatic insects, but they do rise to the surface in search of food