Adventure's Where You Find It

Adventure's Where You Find It

Careful what you say—the maligned mountain whitefish just might make your day.

  • By: John Holt

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Adventure’s Where
Find It

Careful what you say—the maligned mountain whitefish just might make your day.

by John Holt




photograph by Eric Engbretson

In a fly-fishing world where nymphing for carp is considered high sport, as it should be, actively seeking mountain whitefish, except in the winter months, is considered at best déclassé. Mention of trips to favorite whitefish holes generates expressions of incredulity and disgust. As the Doors so aptly said, “Faces look ugly when you’re alone.”

Many fly fishers dislike the species to the point of barbarism, some going so far as to pop their leaders, leaving the fly embedded in the whitefish’s mouth, then flinging the helpless fish far onto the bank, only to later admire a non-native rainbow or brown that fought admirably—but no more so than the other creature now dead on dry ground upstream.

This loathsome behavior so angered me one afternoon on the Yellowstone River that I charged in full red-faced regalia toward a carpetbagger guide who I’d watched fling a series of whitefish onto the bank, sometimes bouncing them off stately cottonwoods before they flopped crazily in the dry leaves of the previous autumn. My friend, Jake, and I had rushed to shore in his raft. We returned the whitefish to the river. Sadly, at least half of them turned belly up. As I went for the guide Jake grabbed me by the shirt collar and yanked me away. He told me to go smoke a cigar and calm down, that he’d deal with the clown. Shortly, I heard him say that if he ever saw this “s**t” again, he’d turn me loose and that I was crazy more often than not. The guy’s clients looked on silently. We ran into those clients on Park Street the next day. They told us that the guide didn’t get a tip, and that they would never use him or the fly shop he worked out of again. Good news, but I still wanted to deck the Georgia transient. Never saw him again, though. Deer Lodge Prison narrowly avoided one more time.

It should be remembered that mountain whitefish are native to the rivers, streams and creeks of Montana and much of the West. Why the disdain and dislike? Maybe it’s because they are not as beautifully marked as the various trout species, with their attention-getting crimson, vermilion, blaze orange, royal blue, gold, emerald and on and on through the prismatic spectrum. Whitefish are silver, running to brown and nearly black along their backs, with some showing shades of bronze. Shadings of royal blue and purple are common. Their mouths—and the rest of them, for that matter—bear some resemblance to that of suckers, a big-time shortcoming in the fly-fishing world. And they rarely jump when hooked (though the same is true of bull trout, and many browns and brook trout).


Once, on a hot July morning, I was taking good-size browns on a #14 Yellow Humpy that was approximating the modest hatch of Golden Stones. The browns were cooperative. The fishing was easy. Enjoyable. Then a mountain whitefish sucked in the Humpy. In the shallow, clear water its coloration and shape were recognizable. Not wanting to upset the casually working browns, I stripped the fish to me, but then it began to circle around and I followed its motions, spinning like a one-man merry-go-round. One rotation. Two. Three. Then the fish stopped and let me release it. The 14-inch whitefish wandered off downstream. If ever there was a fly-fishing metaphor for the absurdity of life, this was it—a one-man traveling carnival spinning clumsily in the middle of a small high-plains stream. I walked to the bank laughing at myself. Lit a cigar and watched the browns and whitefish feed on the bugs. No hubris here. Just another minor variation on Firesign Theatre’s “How can you be two places at once when you’re really nowhere at all?” theme . . . .

Perhaps one of the main reasons for an unpopularity among anglers that can border on xenophobia is the fact that mountain whitefish outnumber trout in most rivers by ratios of six-to-one, eight-to-one and higher. In rivers such as the Kootenai, Yellowstone and Flathead the figure is 10-to-one. In the Madison River, mountain whitefish densities reach 15,000 fish per mile. Compare this to 6,000 trout per mile in the Bighorn, a river renowned for its astonishing numbers of large fish. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist John Fraley said in an article for Montana Outdoors, “While conducting underwater fish surveys in the South and Middle forks of the Flathead, I’ve seen portions of the stream bottom completely covered with mountain whitefish,” a nice vindication that what I’m seeing on this river is really happening.

Whitefish don’t directly compete with trout for food, habitat or spawning areas on a regular basis; if they did, trout would be in big trouble. The following paragraph is from the Montana FWP Web site, where the agency classifies Mountain whitefish as a gamefish:

“Whitefish feed on aquatic insects on the stream bottom and usually occupy the lower stretches of a pool. Trout often feed in different locations of the water column of a river . . . . They are considered a nuisance by some anglers, but are sought after by others. Whitefish provide forage for larger trout. They have evolved with our native trout and have been shown to provide little competition with trout. Their pointed snout and small round mouth makes them efficient at vacuuming invertebrates from the substrate while trout tend to feed more on drifting insects. Mountain whitefish often congregate in large schools on their fall-spawning runs to broadcast their adhesive eggs over gravel bars in tributary streams. Mountain whitefish are one of our most important native gamefish because of their abundance and willingness to take a bait or artificial fly.”

As mentioned above, trout often feed in different locations of the water column of a river when whitefish are eating, though they can make taking trout on dries difficult to nearly impossible at times. Due to the abundance of the species, anglers in Montana may keep 100 whitefish. In my favorite small streams a whitefish of three pounds is a rarity. They seem to average about half this weight. Their flesh is superb when lightly brined with brown sugar, bay leaves, kosher salt and cracked pepper, then smoked over cherry wood (so are trout, but I’m not in the mood to wander down that land-mined two-track).

Another reason for their low standing among fly fishers is that they are easy to catch. During a particular evening’s rise on the Jefferson River I had difficulty not catching whitefish and was taking about eight or nine of them to each brown. The action was beyond steady, but as time passed I grew tired of hauling in (gratuitous Latin usage alert) Prosopium williamsoni and releasing them. Always a champion of this native piscatorial son I was sliding into the noisome country of the hypocrite.

After moving along the bank downstream of the whitefish herd and then wading out to a shallow gravel bar in mid-stream, I cast a Marabou Muddler Minnow into the center of the mass of fish for the hell of it. I was using a Heddon 8’6” #14 Thoroughbred, a venerable and utilitarian bamboo rod that is one of my favorites. I realize that I’m courting angling shunning with this type of behavior, but it was a throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of day. Would they hit this streamer or flee for their very lives with this alien terror in their midst? I watched as the Muddler sank slowly in the clear water. The fish seemed oblivious until the pattern dropped on top of them, an event that in whitefish circles apparently announced the apocalypse, as they fled from the fly leaving a large circle of the streambed free of their kind.

Eventually they drifted back to the moribund Muddler and gave it a thorough inspection. Finally one of them, a stout one with part of its dorsal fin missing, attacked the pattern with a motion that resembled a fish’s version of a pounce. The ensuing struggle scattered the others. When I set the whitefish free it dashed off to join its mates. In minutes they returned. The one with the damaged fin was with them. Before any others in the herd could grab the Muddler, this guy took the fly again and dashed off downstream.

I admire that level of enthusiasm, and the species in general. It’s just one of many reasons I venerate the lowly mountain whitefish. A willingness to keep trying counts for a lot in my life.


John Holt resides in Livingston, Montana and fishes the outskirts for overlooked fish. He’s working on a new book about whitefish and other unique species entitled Montana Fly Fishing Heresies.


Small, shiny flies that match midges and Baetis mayflies are the ticket for mountain whitefish. Copper Johns in copper and red are real killers.

photograph by brian o’keefe


photograph by Dave McCoy

Put that in your pipe and smoke it


photograph by brian o’keefe

The delicate texture and mild flavor of whitefish make it a perfect candidate for adding smoky tones from cherry, apple or alder wood. Anyone familiar with smoking fish should enjoy the results; whitefish meat is great on a simple cracker, it is good on a cucumber slice with dill, it can be mashed into a paste and used as a spread, and whitefish chunks can be mixed into salads. There are many ways to brine, marinate and smoke fish, and many examples and recipes are on the Internet. Here is what I do:

On the river or at home I clean the whitefish, just like I would clean trout or salmon. Then I wash the whitefish and dry them. I do a traditional fillet from head to tail. I cut out the rib bones. Then I run my fingers over the meat and identify the location of the pinbones. Pinbones are those small, annoying bones that stick out of the side of a fillet on salmon and steelhead and, yes, whitefish. I run my fillet knife on one side of the pinbones and cut down to the skin. I then run my knife down the other side of the pinbones to the skin. At that point I can remove the pinbones.

I use standard brines, made of water, salt and brown sugar, but I also soak the fillets overnight in a soy/teriyaki mix. Currently I am using Soyaki that I purchase from Trader Joe’s. Every smoker is different, but the principle is the same: The fillets need heat and smoke. In my larger smoker, I add charcoal to the wood pan to increase the heat. My fish are ready in three hours, but your smoker could vary; experimentation and observation helps until you have a system worked out.

by Brian O’Keefe


Whitefish are aggressive, which makes them a great species for introducing young anglers to the fly rod. And they are tasty—when you find a school of whitefish, it doesn’t take long to catch enough for the smoker.

photograph by brian o’keefe

photograph by greg thomas