When I told some fly fishing buddies I was heading out to target whitefish recently, you’d have thought I was making an alibi for bushwhacking to a still in the decade after Prohibition.
“You don’t HAVE to go whitefishing anymore,” said Hugh Evans, a Spokane attorney with enough legal experience to understand most of Idaho’s fishing regulations.
He winked and said, “They changed the law and now it’s legal to catch and release cutthroats on purpose during winter.”
“But I want to catch whitefish for the challenge, and the meat,” I said.
“Why? Steelhead are still in the rivers,” Evans said, as though I were shunning Scotch from a fabled distillery for backwoods moonshine likely to cause blindness.
Remarkably, Jim Fredericks, Idaho Fish and Game Department Panhandle Region fisheries manager in Coeur d’Alene, somewhat echoed the response.
“How’s the fishing been for whitefish?” he said, repeating the question. “I honestly don’t know. Very few people talk about going whitefishing anymore.
“It’s not like years ago, when you had to be fishing for whitefish or you couldn’t be on the river during winter. People don’t have to fib anyone. It’s legal to catch cutthroats as long as you release them.”
Since April 1, 2008, Idaho has adopted year-round catch-and-release fishing for cutthroat trout in rivers such as the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe.
“Most of our clients come right out and say they’re targeting cutties, not whitefish,” said Pat Way of Northwest Outfitters.
Why fly fishers snub their noses at whitefish may relate to the fish’s cylindrical body and large scales, not to mention the unnerving overbite that somewhat resembles a sucker’s snout.
In 1805, Meriwether Lewis described the mountain whitefish he discovered in the Upper Missouri drainage as a “bottle-nosed fish.”
Traditional fly fishers tend to wince at any suggestion of diversity in what tugs at the end of their lines in this region – if it isn’t a trout it’s a trash fish.
But the whitefish deserves more respect.
The three varieties found in the Inland Northwest include:
• Pygmy whitefish, a small native that ranges primarily from northwestern Montana across the northern end of the Idaho Panhandle through the upper Columbia system in a narrow swath into Alaska.
• Lake whitefish, a large version averaging 3 pounds, not native to this region but widely introduced in the 19th century as a food fish. It continues to thrive in many lake systems, including Flathead, Pend Oreille and Banks Lake.
• Mountain whitefish, native to a vast range covering portions of at least nine Western States, including Washington, Idaho and Montana, and ranging widely north through British Columbia and Alberta.
Like the cutthroat trout, the mountain whitefish is an indicator of relatively clean, clear waters. It has an adipose fin, just like a trout, with the bonus of a silvery body and figure resembling saltwater species for which globetrotting anglers spend fortunes to pursue.
Consider it a poor man’s bonefish.
Whitefish also are incredibly accommodating. They outnumber trout in most streams – 10 to 1 according to surveys in Montana’s Kootenai and Flathead systems, and up to 15,000 fish per mile in the Madison River. Yet biologists say whitefish offer very little competition with trout for space or food.
While mountain whitefish tend to forage in the lowest reaches of a stream – they’re most commonly hooked while nymphing – it’s not uncommon to see a pod of whitefish rising to a hatch.
The abundance of whitefish and the light pressure anglers put on them allow fish managers to offer generous limits of 15 fish a day in most waters of North Idaho and Washington and 20 a day in most of Montana.
Although they are bonier than trout, whitefish flesh cooks up flaky and delicious, and few fish are tastier out of the smoker.
It’s this quest for healthy protein that lured me and a couple of friends out in pursuit of whitefish last week.
We considered the Yakima River, where I’ve caught large whitefish on nearly every trout-fishing trip. But we opted for the Coeur d’Alene.
It’s close, whitefish are abundant, and winter is the time to go because they’re concentrated in the lower river with lots of whitefish between Cataldo and Prichard, said Way, who guides the river year-round. “You don’t have to drive far.”
Way said he looks for walking-speed water at least 6-8 feet deep. “Winter water is winter water,” he said. “Trout and whitefish will be congregated.”
Whitefish tend to take flashier flies, he said. “Fish the same water with more imitative natural color flies and you’ll probably catch more trout.”
We went determined to do what had to be done to catch fish. I stocked up on proven whitefish patterns, including the Snowcone Nymphs and tungsten-beaded nymphs to be fished under an indicator. Jim presented small white flies on a sinking line. Dan used spinning gear to chuck pencil lead and hooks baited with maggots.
Incidentally, we had a robust debate on whether it would be ethical to bait a fly pattern with a maggot in the pursuit of whitefish.
I had posed this question to several members of the Spokane Fly Fishers Club, but they all fainted at the suggestion. So I didn’t get an answer.
I blushed at the thought of a size-14 Prince Nymph coupled, shall we say, with a wiggling maggot.
Jim had no hangups about it, though.
The day started on a moment about as upbeat as Russell Wilson fumbling away the ball on the first play of the game.
We met a bait-fishing old-timer at a well-known deep whitefish hole who said the fishing was very slow. “I’ve got only one whitefish,” he said, pointing into his bucket as he reeled a trout up to his perch on a bridge.
“You don’t want to be keeping any cutthroats,” he warned, as he took the cuttie off his hook and tossed it back into the river 30 feet below. It slowly sank belly up and out of sight into the deep blue pool.
As I said, it was discouraging start.
We could see the silvery sides of whitefish flashing as they fed in water perhaps 20 feet deep below the bridge. We got down to the river’s edge just as parade of whitefish for some reason was moving upstream. Dozens and dozens of them, with the occasional trout mixed in, moved up in the clear, slow-moving water 10 feet offshore from one deep hole to another. They weren’t biting, but we were energized, knowing they eventually would.
Jim cast to blue water off a gravel bar. Dan stood on rock cliffs and worked different portions of two pools. I waded upstream to fish the break below a riffle into the deeper water.
I took the advice of Sean Visintainer of Silver Bow Fly Shop and tied on a pink San Juan Worm. Then I made the mistake of hooking a whitefish on my third cast, which only set me up for the disappointment of realizing after a few dozen more fruitless casts that it was just luck.
I pondered the situation as I waded in the 35-degree water and concluded at least one point: Steelhead fishermen have no right to look down on whitefish anglers. Winter whitefish can, at times, be just as difficult to catch and you can be just as cold and miserable if you try.