Despite the increased focus on and effort devoted to native fish conservation these days, the mountain whitefish is often overlooked or maligned. Whitefish, like trout, are members of the salmon family. They are native to many of the same storied waters as our beloved trout — Rocky Mountain rivers like the Madison, Snake, and Green. And they’ve lived alongside cutthroat and bull trout for centuries. Whitefish are often the first species to struggle in the face of declining water quality. Anglers vehemently and rightfully bemoan water quality-related fish kills that turn trout belly-up in our rivers and streams, many of which are often nonnative browns and rainbows. Yet, news of whitefish dying doesn’t seem to stick in our collective angling consciousness. Think back to this winter’s massive fish kill on the Madison River. If all those dead trout were whitefish, would we have seen the angling community mobilize to save them? I’m not sure.
I hope we’d see the same level of concern over dead whitefish that dead trout command. After all, if a river supports whitefish, it’ll support trout. Whitefish swimming in a trout river means that water is cold and clean, able to support a variety of aquatic life. Once the whitefish disappear, the trout may not be far behind.
That’s not to say every trout river that doesn’t have whitefish won’t support trout. Back when I lived in Utah, I was a half-hour from a half-dozen trout streams. Only one of those streams supported whitefish, but it was the river that grew the area’s biggest trout. On that same river, I watched anglers — some folks I knew and some that I didn’t — throw whitefish they’d caught into the willows. “Food for the racoons,” they’d holler, tossing a native fish over their shoulder. Their fishing buddies laughed.
In Idaho, on a rather famous piece of water, I fished a blue-winged olive hatch in the early afternoon. A drift boat floated by, and I noticed the anglers were sitting down, arms crossed, frowning. The guide looked helpless.
“Y’all need a fly?” I asked. “They’re eating cripples.”
“We didn’t pay to catch suckers,” one of the anglers replied, gesturing to the rising fish surrounding us. I’d been fishing the hatch since it started, and I think I’d caught one trout. I’d caught at least a dozen whitefish. It sounded like the clients in that drift boat found the same luck.
I shrugged and turned back to the rising fish, not giving the interaction a second thought until I got back to my truck that evening. What sort of person complains about catching fish? Sure, I’ve been frustrated by not catching a certain fish before — all my treks to find golden trout in the Wind River Mountains come immediately to mind — but I’d never sat down and refused to fish. As the saying goes, catching fish is better than not catching fish.
Whitefish are just as much fun to catch on the fly as trout. They may not have the acrobatic inclinations of rainbows, but whitefish peel off rod-shuddering runs that feel awfully like those of a big rainbow. I’ve personally found whitefish to fight harder, pound for pound, than carp. Where carp just run, whitefish dart and dance and roll, putting forth a valiant effort to pop the hook free.
In mid-January, I had a rare half-day off work, and headed out with a buddy to one of the few rivers here in Wyoming that is open year-round. We found a few good runs, got to work, and in a few hours put 40 fish in the net between us. Most were whitefish, although my buddy caught two gorgeous cutthroats and I landed a pair of solid rainbow trout. The biggest whitefish that came to hand — 18 inches or larger — fought just as hard as the rainbows I caught, sans the aerial maneuvers.
If you’ve not caught whitefish before, make it a priority for 2022. They’re a wonderfully fun fish, and one of the few native species that we haven’t completely screwed up — yet.