In Praise of Whitefish

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“Rocky Mountain Bone Fish”, “Ghost Trout”, “Smokies”. They shit in your boat, slime up your hands, smell funky and destroy good flies. Yet I must admit I love whitefish. Judge me all you want but honestly… down deep… you like ‘em pretty well too. They bend the rod and can save the day. Quit pretending you don’t like the humble whitefish; at some level you really do.

I wasn’t always this way. As a young fly fisherman some of the older guys I hung around taught me “the squeeze”, a despicable practice that turned a perfectly good sportfish into floating bird food. The rationale was that whities compete with trout for food, thereby limiting trout population and growth; thus, they deserved to die.

whitefish in boat

Never mind the law and never mind the two critters evolved right next to one another and occupy separate feeding zones in the river.

When I started guiding my tune quickly changed, and not just because whitefish can provide action on a slow day. I have come to see whitefish as a legitimate sportfish, worthy of pursuit in and of themselves. The state of Wyoming agrees with me. In 2012 they changed the limit on whitefish from 25 to 6. I guess they decided they are a resource worth protecting. I am glad they did.

So here are few thoughts on why we need to change the paradigm and narrative around whitefish.

1. Whitefish are an abundant native species.

At least on clean cold waters, whitefish are one of the most widely distributed salmonids of western North America. Here in Wyoming the rainbows and browns were introduced, something we tend to forget. Whities are supposed to be here, right next to the cutthroats. Additionally, they are less tolerant of pollution and warm temperatures than most trout. Basically, if there are whitefish in the system it’s a good indicator of healthy water conditions.

2. They are beautiful.

They may not be brook trout beautiful, but damn few things are. This is not me putting lip stick on a pig here. Really look at the next one you catch. They have all sorts of subtle purple and blue hues radiating out from under that bright silver coat of scales. I suspect the small subterminal mouth is the turn off to some. However, that mouth on closer inspection is not sucker like at all, as no rubbery lips exist. Whites have a distinct maxillary bone on the side of the mouth, similar to many gamefish. Do we look down on the celebrated bonefish of the tropical flats because it has a similar mouth?

whitefish mouth

3. They are tasty.

I have had them baked, fried, and smoked. They are flat out good to eat. They are no bonier than trout, possessing basically the same line of Y bones, and have a white flesh that many people find more palatable than the heavier “fishy” flavors of trout and salmon. Fillet some up, cut out the Y bones (YouTube as some excellent clips on how), and shave off the reddish meat you see on the skin side of the fillet. Deep fry and enjoy.

4. They are challenging to catch.

If you don’t believe this statement, try targeting a pod of them sometime. Sure, at times they are easy, but so are trout (thank God!). Trust me, whitefish can be selective. Additionally, when I’m hooking whitefish on a regular basis I know I have patterns on the trout will likely eat too.

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5. They are important forage.

Whitefish are an important part of the diet for larger trout as well as eagles, otters, bears, and other critters. As such they serve an important role in the health of a river. We ought to respect that.

6. They’re not trash.

Given the state of the world, can we really afford to think of any fish as trash? Carp have become an obsession for many of us, and rightly so. I have a buddy back in Minnesota who loves to chase dogfish on the fly. I don’t know what the future holds, but as Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan eloquently said “the times they are a changin’.” As human populations continues to increase and rivers become more crowded, perhaps we ought to celebrate the whitefish as the legit game fish they have always been. I am aware of a few whitefish fly fishing tournaments out there, and that’s a good start. But I would advocate whities be factored in the score at events like the World Fly Fishing Championship and the Jackson One Fly. Think of the street cred that would generate for this species.

Dan Parson is a fly fishing guide, school teacher, and adviser to the phenomenally talented Green River High School Speech and Debate Team. Contact him through Solitary Angler or look for his boat on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.