By Patric Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
You read that title correctly, and I know I’m not alone in my admiration of whitefish. Since runoff is in full force in our local rivers—keeping many anglers in a holding pattern until streamflows drop—I thought it would be a good time to put the spotlight on one of our native, and much maligned, fish species.
Mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) is affectionately known as “mighty whitey,” “bugle lips,” “mountain bonefish,” “rock roller,” among many other nicknames. The whitefish is a widespread native species found in rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs in Montana. Some anglers disdain whitefish, others are impartial to their existence, and some share my feelings of admiration and respect.
Here are some reasons why mountain whitefish deserve a little love during this angling season.
They belong here. As a native salmonid, whitefish have toughed it out. They’ve seen arctic grayling come and go, and non-salmonid brook trout establish themselves; and they co-exist with introduced rainbow and brown trout.
What you don’t know can’t hurt you. It happens dozens of times a year in my boat: A large fish is hooked and a nice fight ensues. Anticipation builds as the camera and net are at the ready. The fish is brought to the surface and … doh! It’s a whitefish. Celebrate the size and the fight in the fish—if a rock roller fought well enough to keep its identity a secret, then it deserves accolades.
Trout with training wheels. For beginning anglers, whitefish are ideal for learning to hook-set, fight, land, and properly release fish. They tend to be less selective than trout, which plays well to the marginal skills of novice anglers. A whitefish on the line is a reward for a successful presentation of a fly.
Small whitefish make bigger trout. The Yellowstone River is home to some massive brown trout, as well as an abundance of whitefish. Predatory trout seek out other fish, such as small whitefish. Whitefish roe—eggs released during their fall spawn—provide an abundant food source for trout as they prepare for a long winter.
Morale booster. A fish in hand feels better than catching no fish at all, and it’s OK to admit you prefer to catch trout. However, don’t rain on someone else’s parade if a whitefish is brought to hand. If you don’t have anything nice to say—well, you know the rest.
Indicator species. Large populations of whitefish indicate a healthy river system—one that has a diverse insect population, consistent fish-friendly flows and runoff cycles, and plenty of trout. Whitefish are a food source for osprey, otters and eagles, among other animals. If a river’s whitefish population drops, those animals aren’t going to the grocery store, they’re going to eat trout.The state record is attainable. If you want to make it in the record books, a whitefish might be your best chance. The typical whitefish is going to be 10-12 inches, but larger fish are not uncommon. The Montana state record is 23 inches and 5.1 pounds, caught in Hauser Reservoir in 2007. Many hardcore anglers may have caught a whitefish that big, but those catches often go undocumented. Start keeping track because the record is swimming out there somewhere.
Equal opportunity feeders. Whitefish are opportunistic feeders. Sure, their willingness to eat removes the guessing game or challenge of catching a fish with a fly, but it’s OK to have times fishing when the catching is easy. Whitefish often eat dry flies with abandon and seeing a fish eat a fly that you presented is fun, regardless of the species.
Guilt-free fish. If you want to catch, keep and eat fish, the whitefish is for you. In a Montana State University study, participants found that whitefish, when cooked, were similar to trout in texture, aroma and juiciness. Fillet, remove any brown fat and skin, coat with your favorite breading, and fry in light oil. Or season the boned and skinned fillets and sauté, being very careful not to over cook. Usually three minutes a side is all it takes.
My favorite nickname for the mountain whitefish is “Rodney.” Why? Because Mr. Dangerfield got no respect and neither do these fish. Whitefish have been around since long before anyone fished our waters and like it or not, they are going to stick around long after we’re gone.
A version of this story was first published in the Feb. 5, 2016, edition of EBS.
Pat Straub is a 20-year veteran guide on Montana’s waters and has fished the world-over. The co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, he’s the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.