Whitefish are more than trout angler’s consolation
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 spawning browns.

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 early spring.

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

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 whitefish:

- 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 States.

- 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 occasionally.







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