Whitefish have a bad rap. They are scorned by some as mere trash fish, but like most things in life, the story isn’t quite so black and white.
For starters, mountain whitefish evolved alongside native trout in the Northern Rockies. Both fish did just fine living together before we arrived on the scene. So if you’ve got some silly notion that you’re doing your local fishery a favor by chucking whitefish up on the bank, think again. Yes, they eat some of the same foods as trout, but the underslung mouths of whitefish usually keep them hugging the bottom. Trout move up through the water column to feed, all the way to the surface on blessed summer days.
I’m not sure I’ve ever caught a whitefish on a dry fly, though it may have happened and I’ve just repressed the memory. I’ve seen them feeding on or near the surface however, rising in schools. The rise form is different that a trout, being a slighter without the substantial bulge of the surface. Whitefish, with that underslung mouth, just aren’t as efficient as trout at sipping bugs out of the surface film. It’s doable, but it’s not their forte.
So there may be some competition for food, but in a healthy watershed I suspect its effect on trout populations is slight. I also suspect the same in regards to whitefish foraging on the bottom to eat trout eggs. They can and do eat them, but like most animals in the wild, most baby trout are created not to grow old, but to be food for other fish.
I’ve fished in waters that were out of balance. Lees Ferry, on the Colorado River, was once a great trophy trout fishery. But the consensus these days is that the introduced rainbows are so prolific that there’s just not enough food to grow trophy fish the way the river once did. There are too many 8-inch trout fighting over the groceries.
There’s also the simple fact that baby whitefish make up a fair percentage of the diet of larger, predatory trout. In bull trout country the value of baby whitefish is self evident.
And from an angling stand point, whitefish on light tackle are a hoot.
There have been plenty of days, especially in the cooler shoulder seasons, when whitefish gobbling up our weighted nymphs was the difference between a fun day and a frustrating one. The fish fight like bulldogs, often matching trout. It’s not as though they just roll over once hooked. I’ve watched dudes with big whitefish on the line whoop it up, just until the moment they got the fish close enough to identify. Then it’s as though someone peed in their beer.
I used to go through that same crash and burn every time I landed a whitefish, but not any more. We all grow up someday, and in my own incomplete journey an important moment was the one when I realized that any day you catch a fish, regardless of species, it’s a good day.
I’m always happy to catch a whitefish now, though I still prefer trout.
The other great gift of whitefish is that much of our great offseason trout fishing has its roots in winter angling traditions. Winter fishing was a whitefish game, and the old timers swear that in the colder months the flesh firmed up and they were pretty good, as long as you smoked them.
For me, it’s pretty good as long as you smoke it is code for not good at all, but that’s beside the point. This was an era when anglers wore union suits and scratchy wool to fend off the cold and wrapped raw onion sandwiches in wax paper for shore lunch. These anglers drifted maggots through runs of whitefish, and to keep the larvae lively, they stored the bait in their lips like a pinch of tobacco.
Back in the day fishing the March skwala hatch on the Bitterroot we used to joke “Darn, another trout. Can’t seem to catch any whitefish today,” as we released fish back into the river.
I can’t hold a grudge against even a “trash” fish when it opens a door like that.
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