Whitefishing Flathead Lake

By Beacon Staff

Old time fly casters like me have sort of an attitude about whitefish. They compete with trout, right? And we only want trout, of course. When you catch one, it’s almost embarrassing. In fact, one of my fishing buddies makes me count every whitefish as a minus. So, if I accidentally catch two whitefish before a trout, I have to catch two trout to get back to even for the day. I also know guys who throw whitefish up on the riverbank to feed the mink and eagles and save space in the stream for more trout.

But wait, that’s the other whitefish, the mountain whitefish. Now, there’s a new whitefish in town, the lake whitefish, or more technically, the Lake Superior whitefish, and the new species is rapidly polishing up the reputation of both species. Now people travel hundreds of miles and pay fishing guides hundreds of dollars to catch whitefish, and if they catch a trout, it’s a minus.

And, of course, that’s exactly what happened to me last week the first time I went out purposely to catch lake whitefish.

Since I knew nothing about whitefishing, I thought I should have some professional help. (Actually, lots of people agree that’s a good idea for me.) So, I signed up for a half-day charter with Captain Jerry Landskron of Woods Bay Charters up in Bigfork, Montana. And you guessed it. On my first cast, I hooked into a nice lake trout, but quickly threw it back in disgust, hoping nobody would notice.

But then, whew, I was into the whitefish and having a great day.

I heard that the whitefish bite was better early in the morning, so I drove up to Bigfork and stayed the night at a great motel called the Timbers and had a wonderful German meal (hard to find in Montana) at the Wild Mile Deli, followed by a stroll around Bigfork’s charming little downtown, which is anchored by the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. (I loved the program hawkers out front saying, “Buy a program for five dollars and I’ll sign it for free, and then it will be worth three dollars.”)

In the morning, we’re up bright and early for a five-mile drive down to Woods Bay, a beautiful, protected marina on the east shore of Flathead Lake (but regrettably not open to public use) to meet Captain Jerry at oh-seven-hundred sharp. He had a 23.5-foot boat rigged bow to stern for fishing and named Fishaholic Too, so I knew right off, Jerry and I were going to get along just fine. (I didn’t even know about his boat when I wrote my Twelve-Step Program for Fishaholics piece a few weeks ago, but he was definitely in my target audience for that article.)

“This is my second boat,” he said. “That’s why I named it Fishaholic Too.”

On the way to his favorite whitefish hole, Jerry and I chatted about the new big thing on Flathead Lake, the lake whitefish. “I’ve been doing this for ten years,” he said, and until about three or four years ago, all people waned was lake trout, but about three or four years ago, they started asking for whitefish charters, and now, about half of my charters are for whitefish. They come all the way from Seattle just to catch whitefish.”

I asked why, and he said it was a new fishery people hadn’t tried before “and they can take home a lot of fish.”

The limit on lake whitefish is…get this…100 fish per day. Lake whitefish run about two or three pounds each, so that could mean a hundred pounds of fillets every day, if you wanted it.

We caught about 40 fish in four hours, so if you fished hard all day you probably could do your limit. And then, you’d spend the next three hours filleting, cleaning and bagging. This could get to be full-time work instead of fishing.

Captain Jerry uses ultra-light spinning set-ups with six-pound mono and a small weighted spoon called a Rattle Snakie. Green seems to be the favorite color. Sure worked for us, anyway.

You have to keep your lure right on the bottom. You can even feel the fish picking it up right off the bottom when your line is slack. And they’re tricky to hook, so you end up missing a lot of fish. When you get one, they give you a great fight on light tackle, but you lose a few because hooks pull out of their soft mouths. Even the dean of the fishing guides on north Flathead Lake, Captain Jerry, admits he only gets one out of four fish in the boat.

It’s clear enough what’s happening out on top of the lake–greatly escalating interest among anglers in this “new” fishery and a nice boost for the local tourism biz because of it, but what’s happening down at the bottom of the lake.

For this information, I an former colleague Jim Vashro, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) fisheries manager for the Flathead area, and he had a slightly different perspective. First of all, he wants to clear up one point. It isn’t a “new” fishery, since the lake whitefish has been in Flathead Lake for more than a hundred years. “The lake whitefish has been one of the most abundant fish in the lake since the 1930s,” Vashro explains, “but anglers just weren’t interested in them until recently.”

Vashro figures there are at least 5 million lake whitefish in Flathead Lake, perhaps as many as 15 million. That’s 40 to 120 fish per square mile. Compare that to the lake trout population, which is three fish per square mile. Incredibly, according to Vashro, 70 percent of the entire biomass of Flathead Lake is lake whitefish.

I wondered if people taking all these coolers of fish, maybe 100 per day, day after day, might be hurting the population, and he almost laughed at the idea.

He said anglers took 42,000 whitefish out of the lake and another 22,000 out of the river last year, “and we’ll beat that this year,” and even though the whitefish is “the most heavily harvested fish,” the current level of harvest isn’t making a dent in the population.

Vashro says the management goal is to promote the whitefish as a fishery and to reduce the population. The whitefish doesn’t directly affect native species like cutthroat and bull trout, because usually the trout are too big for the whitefish to eat, but whitefish do compete with native species for food and space.

That’s why you may have seen Vashro’s name in a few articles and on television lately. He’s anxious to promote whitefishing and does a great job of it.

He says the main bite starts in mid-July and lasts through August in the lake, and then fish start to move up into the main Flathead River, going all the way up to West Glacier, but concentrating in the Kalispell and Columbia Falls areas. He says people really miss a lot of great fishing while the whitefish are in the river. They concentrate in holes, out of the main current, often below riffles, just like trout do, but “there are lots of holes in the river full of whitefish that nobody touches.”

The river bite starts in mid-September and goes into early December with October being the best time. Fishing techniques change, though. Instead of vertical jigging, anglers cast out with lead-head jigs and small plastic grubs and bounce them along the bottom in deep holes and eddies.

Vashro reminds anglers that the whitefish really provides good fishing all year around on Flathead Lake. Almost any day of the year, anglers can go out and catch a half-dozen whitefish, but they rarely do, concentrating instead on the July/August bite when a new crop of baby perch jump starts a ferioous bite that allows anglers to easily fill a cooler or two.

Since the MDFWP has a goal of promoting lake whitefishing, they have a special Flathead Lake Fishing Guide on the department’s website just for it. And even more, Vashro told me his favorite lure, the Whitefish Almondine, but he says the preferred lures have changed to the Rattle Snakie and Rattle D’Zastor in chartreuse or green.

(Incidentally, unknown most of us, Echo Lake, Nelson Reservoir, Fresno Reservoir, Whitefish Lake, Lake Blaine and Echo Lake also have lake whitefish fisheries.)

And now, I need to post this and get down to the kitchen and cook up a few of those fillets. I have a lot of them to eat.

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