The four anglers stood hovered over the edge of their boat, eyeing the dark green water of Flathead Lake. Like some strange ballet, the anglers’ rods moved almost in unison – up and down, up and down. Then almost on cue, one rod stiffened, and bending, it formed an arc. “Fish on,” said the angler, while another man, silent but knowing his part in the play, grabbed a fishing net. Moments later, a large Lake Superior whitefish was flopping and twisting in the net before it found its final resting place in a Coleman cooler. The fishermen would eat well on this night.
They came for fish and they found them. The Lake Superior whitefish, a non-native fish planted in Flathead Lake in the early 1900s, represents the largest “biomass” in the lake. That means the Lake Superior whitefish occupy the single, largest mass of fish in Flathead Lake, outpacing even the mackinaw, another non-native fish with a rapidly growing population.
Around late July and early August, anglers who know Flathead Lake know that the Lake Superior fishing is getting good. The fish begin to concentrate as they prepare to spawn in the Flathead River this fall. What’s been a good fishery in Flathead Lake just seems to get better.
“Every year is just as good as the last, and the fish are more widespread,” says Pablo tackle manufacturer Dick Zimmer, a man who knows fish and knows how to catch them. “There are just more fish to catch.”
Unlike their native cousin, the mountain whitefish, Lake Superior whitefish grow large, up to 10 pounds, and provide a sporting fight. They’re also quite a delicacy to eat. In late July and August, the Lake Superior whitefish are keying on the perch fry. Successful anglers try to imitate these small perch, using yellow chartreuse or dark green lures.
To get the attention of the lake whitefish, you want to imitate an escaping or injured perch: Get your lure right on the bottom, jiggle it, then let it settle. Lures of choice are Zimmer’s Rattle Disaster, or the old standbys: Krocodiles, Kastmasters, and Rattlesnakies. Zimmer also produces a whitefish fly that you can tie on about 16 inches above the weighted lure. (His products and others are available at local sporting goods stores.)
Adding a fly just above the lure gives the fish added incentive to strike while the weighted lure is settling down. You want to be on the bottom, or just a few inches off of it. Fishing in 50 to 60 feet of water is best, Zimmer said, though you can be a bit shallower if you’re near the river delta.
After August, the fishing slows down, giving anglers a chance to regroup. They’ll hit the whities again in the Flathead River, where they can be caught in deep pools beginning in late October. Commercial anglers catch and sell the fish to Ron Mohn’s local whitefish processing plant. He processes the fish roe into tasty caviar, and sells the fillets to high-end restaurants.
For now, though, the tasty, hard-fighting Lake Superior whitefish can be caught all around Flathead Lake, from Woods Bay, Blue Bay and Yellow Bay on the east side, to the Narrows, Walstad, Big Arm, Elmo and Painted Rocks on the west side. Some of the largest fish are being caught near the Narrows, where an angler hauled in a 10-pounder recently, according to Zimmer. One group of anglers on the west shore, Zimmer said, were “catching fish as fast as they could get their lines in the water.”
The new Lake Superior whitefish record was caught last year near Bird Island. The 27-inch, 10.46-pound Lake Superior was caught Aug. 26, 2006, by Swan T. McDonald.
So when you see those boats lined up in the bays around Flathead Lake, you know the fishermen are not there just to watch the sunsets through the orange glow of smoke-reddened skies. The boats are there for a reason: Lake Superior whitefish, the bounty of Flathead Lake.
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