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Jay Buchner has fished, guided and generally been involved in the Jackson angling community for 40 years. He touts the whitefish - nicknamed "whistler" for its pursed mouth - as both quarry and entree. The brightly, sometimes nearly iridescently scaled fish is a dogged fighter, especially when the water's colder in fall and winter. Some Montana research revealed whitefish having five times the winter appetite of trout. Nymphs - beadhead, hare's ear and pheasant tail - are readily hit by whitefish. Although primarily bottom feeders, they will rise to mid-depths for plankton, and despite their bottom positioned mouth, will sometimes feed on the surface. When they do, Buchner says the species becomes more selective as to size and color of the pattern than trout. No doubt he's learned that lesson on the same Snake River lair where the state record - at 4 pounds 4 ounces - made history in 1977.
Some anglers (maybe a few more every year) appreciate the often-plentiful whitefish's willingness to strike trout offerings. The less-publicized native has salvaged many trout fishing trips. And, unlike trout, the school generally doesn't seem to spook when one member gets yanked from the ranks. That naivety meshes well with beginning adults and young anglers.
Seems to be a little more consensus about eating whitefish. Buchner encourages anglers to enjoy the whitefish's light, mild flesh as soon as possible after the catch and suggests filleting and deep fat frying in a tempura batter. In 12- to 14-inch fish, the frying will dissolve the extra bones near the ribs. In larger fish, those bones will likely survive the cooking. During his many years of guiding, he never fielded one complaint (but dozens of compliments) about whitefish for shore lunch. One afternoon on the Green River, seven anglers were served whitefish and trout. All seven preferred the whitefish.
"Some anglers give whitefish an undeserved bad rap," said Rob Gipson, Game and Fish fisheries supervisor in Jackson. "I'm not sure how to correct that completely, but I do see more respect and appreciation for the native than just a few years ago."
Gipson's region of the Snake River watershed is the main whistler range in Wyoming. Prior to whitefish earning game fish status in 1936, residents of Star Valley seined them from the Salt River by the gunnysack and bucketful. In the '50s and '60s some folks from Etna, Afton, Freedom and other towns helped the Game and Fish seine and electrofish the Salt to remove whitefish. Although whitefish and trout share pretty much the same diet, removing thousands of whistlers from the Salt River never really bolstered the trout population.
In the Bighorn Basin watershed, the whitefish is most abundant is the lower Clark's Fork River. There the species attract only cursory fishing interest except in the fall, when a loyal following from Belfry, Mont. descend on the stretch to take advantage of the spawning fish and their liberal limit. Last year, those anglers could take 50 home - but with a little uneasiness about possible whitefish declines and increasing respect for native fish, the daily limit was reduced to 25 for 2008-09.
On the east side of the Bighorns, the Tongue and Little Bighorn rivers are the whitefish's strongholds.
The species seems to be maintaining a stable abundance in the upper Green and New Fork rivers and is fairly common in lower sections of Wyoming Range tributaries, such as Horse, Piney and Cottonwood creeks, says Hilda Sexauer, Pinedale fisheries supervisor.
Likewise for the Upper Wind River and Popo Agie drainages. Lander biologist Kevin Johnson says, "If there has been any whitefish declines they haven't been very obvious." The species appears to be holding its own in the Wind River and its larger tributaries above the diversion dam near the intersection of U.S. Highways 287 and 26 on the Wind River Indian Reservation and in the North Fork and Little Popo Agie. He adds that the whitefish is primarily a "non-target" species for trout anglers in his region.
Whitefish are not found in the North Platte River or its tributaries.
Surveys in 1996-97 found that whirling disease was inflicting some whitefish in the Salt River. So that, along with ongoing habitat concerns about western rivers, has made our fish biologists a little nervous about the whistler's future. But so far, they are still out willing to excite you while fishing and satisfy your hunger for fine tasting fish.
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