The lineup forms daily this time of year below the Old Steel Bridge on the Flathead River just north of Kalispell.
It’s a casual gathering. No hoots or hollers when someone hauls in another large fish, as the anglers do with regularity, though some with more regularity than others.
The fish are Lake Superior whitefish, making their annual fall run up the river from Flathead Lake.
“Obviously, it’s kind of a social event,” said Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries manager Jim Vashro.
The whitefish, which are a different species and larger than the native mountain whitefish abundant in most western Montana rivers, average about 2 to 2 1/4 pounds and frequently run to 3 or 4 pounds, according to Vashro.
“It’s a neat fishery,” Vashro said. “These guys are really good eating.”
It’s almost the end of a threemonth fishery. The fish generally are up the river in September, October and November, with October and November the peak months.
The whitefish run has become popular with local sportsmen in recent years, Vashro said, with an annual harvest estimated at about 40,000 fish.
“We don’t know how many are running up the river,” he said. “But the overall population in the lake is in the millions.”
A few fish run all the way to West Glacier.
“We don’t know how successful they are (at river spawning),” Vashro said. “We don’t know any other places in the state where they spawn in a river. So this is kind of a unique fishing opportunity.”
Lake Superior whitefish were first detected in the Flathead river by FWP fisheries biologists in 1989, said fisheries biologist Brian Marotz. The phenomenon could be associated with several dramatic changes that occurred in the Flathead Lake fishery following the introduction of mysis shrimp about 15 years ago. Other changes included the demise of the kokanee salmon population and an explosion of the lake trout population.
The fall whitefish river run had caught on with anglers by 1990 and has increased in popularity every year since, Marotz said.
Through the 1970s, before the kokanee were wiped out by the mysis shrimp in Flathead Lake, anglers lined up under the Old Steel Bridge and other places all along the river to intercept the fall run of spawning salmon.
“Of course this (whitefish fishing) has replaced the old kokanee snagging that used to be here,” said Vashro.
The methods and tackle employed for whitefish are basic.
A lead-head jig weighing 1/8 or 1/4 ounce, fitted with a small rubber or plastic tail, is the lure of choice. The plastic tail is almost always green or chartreuse.
“I’m not sure what is is about that color,” said Vashro.”
“You want to fish right off the bottom all the time,” he added. “The technique is to skip the jig very slowly across the bottom. The fish pick it up as it’s falling or when it’s resting right on the bottom. If you’re fishing a foot off the bottom, you won’t catch many fish.
“It takes awhile to get the feel for it - the jig-reel, jig-reel, jig-reel. But once you get that down, it’s pretty straightforward.”
The limit of Lake Superior whitefish is 50. Depending on how much time you want to put in, Vashro said, “you can probably catch as many as you want to clean.”
The key is to look for the type of water the fish prefer.
“They’re real predictable,” said Marotz. “They tend to be at the head end of a deep run and in any deep hole.”
Vashro added that the whitefish typically hold over a fine gravel or sandy bottom in water four to 10 feet deep.
When you find a hole where whitefish are stacking up, Marotz said, you’ll usually find lots of them.
“I’ve snorkeled through some of those holes in the river and looked at them,” he said. “Sometimes there’s more than 100 in one pod and more than 1,000 in a small area of the river. There’s some giant whitefish in there.”