Fish Facts: Mountain Whitefish, a.k.a. “Mister White”


Don’t let anyone tell you that Mister White is not a great fish to battle on a fly rod.
Photo via Wikipedia

Viewed by many trout anglers as a “trash fish,” the mountain whitefish has been unfairly maligned and is actually an excellent fly-rod quarry.

Many a fly fisher has been disappointed to discover that the fish fighting on the end of his line is not a trout, but a native mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni). As many guides will tell, however, “Whitey” has saved many a troutless day on some of the West’s most famous rivers. One reason for this is that whitefish outnumber trout by 10 to 1 in many waters, and they are eager to take fly.

What’s in a Name?
The belief that whitefish compete with trout for food is widespread, but they generally feed farther down in the water column¬¬—often right on the bottom—and inhabit lower stretches of pools. Young whitefish also provide forage for larger trout, especially browns. It’s important to note that it is the browns that are the nonnative invaders in this situation. In fact, Meriwether Lewis described the mountain whitefish as a “bottle-nosed fish” when he saw it in the upper Missouri drainage in 1805—some 80 years before the first browns came to these shores.

Range and Life History
The original range of the mountain whitefish extends from the headwaters of the McKenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories to Green River basin Utah. They also inhabit the drainages of some Pacific coastal rivers of British Columbia, such as the Stikine and Skeena, as well as western Washington State. The confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone is the easternmost limit of the range.


Photo via fieldguide.mt.gov

Whitefish spawn in fall, gathering into huge groups that can cover the streambed in places. They do not dig redds, like trout or salmon; instead the eggs disperse into the gravel substrate. These eggs provide meals for hungry trout. In larger rivers, whitefish sometimes migrate with the seasons to different parts of a river system. The small, downward-turned mouths of whitefish are specialized for vacuuming up zooplankton and other tiny, bottom-dwelling organisms. They do occasionally rise to insects on the surface, especially in slow-water sections of a river.

Mountain whitefish can live up to 18 years, and one specimen caught in Alberta was determined to be 29 years old. In recent years, anglers on Montana’s Madison River have noted a steep decline in whitefish populations, and biologists are at a loss to explain it. One theory identifies whirling disease as the culprit. Because whitefish evolved alongside trout, they are a vital part of the ecosystem of rivers such as the Madison, a recent study was launched to assess the problem.


Here’s a fine Gallatin River specimen that evoked a big smile.
Photo by John McKinnie

Tactics and Flies
Mountain whitefish average 12 to 14 inches and rarely grow larger than 20 inches. The all-tackle world record, caught from the Columbia River in 1983, weighed 5 pounds, 2 ounces. Because whitefish are bottom feeders, nymphing is the best way to take them on a fly, and anglers fishing a dry-and-dropper rig for trout usually hook whitefish on the nymph underneath the surface pattern. On larger rivers, such as the Yellowstone, it’s hard to beat a size 12 Prince Nymph, while on smaller water’s you’ll want to go smaller (sizes 14 to 16) with Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, and Copper Johns.

 

8 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Mountain Whitefish, a.k.a. “Mister White””

  1. I used to catch whitefish quite a bit when I fished the Deschutes River in Oregon. if you want to find them, look for the water that is fast enough to have little peaks on it but not fast enough to be broken water. If they are in the river, that is where you will find them. If you don’t want to catch them, avoid that water. The only problem with whitefish is “Whitefish Can’t Jump!” They run and fight hard, but I’ve never had one go into the air.

    Avoiding that peaked water won’t guarantee you won’t catch whitefish entirely. I caught one, again on the Deschutes, while fishing a size 4 Stonefly Nymph in the fastest rockiest water around. They have fairly small mouths for their size and when I landed him, the eye of the hook and front of the fly was sticking outside his mouth and the rest inside. I was amazed he managed to get it in his mouth and had a heck of a time getting it out. Still, you are far more likely to find trout in this type of water than whitefish when they share the same river.

    Dan

  2. The most annoying thing about whiteys in my mind is that hard little nub on the top of their mouth. It can be rather difficult to remove hooks from. Otherwise they’re a fun fish, and I’m always surprised when I land whitefish casting to rises.

    The Jackson Hole TU Whitefish Derby should be happening soon!

  3. If Whitey is around its a very good sign of a healthy water system, they do not tolerate pollution.
    Please take care of ol’ whitey.

  4. Trash fish pushed on city folks but poor guide companies and guide to poor to catch trout. I know that is harsh but it’s true. Or is bought up lots of land in my home town and did some “habitat restorations”. On perfect untouched water that was killer fishing. They tore out natural cutbacks, bushes and dumped lots of gravel and random boulders around to create “riffles “. I admit I went down there many times and it sucks now. Great for cut throats and Browns before or is land and great after we’re it was left alone. They total destroyed the best fishing in 100 miles. City idiots ! But they can guide people and catch the Rocky Mountain bone fish. What a joke. Brian Schwab

  5. I fish for whitefish in western Oregon, and I think it is hilarious that people call it a “trash” fish. When I’m on a nice higher altitude river like the upper McKenzie, I’m only there for the whitefish. Trout are fun to fish for, and they’re easier to catch here, but they don’t really taste all that great. Better than a catfish or tilapia, but most other fish taste better.

    Whitefish has firm flesh, and a nice taste similar to cod.

    Also the ways people fish for them are funny to me; in the McKenzie I find them where the water is smooth and about twice the speed of steelhead water; if I wanted a trout I’d just cast at the slower water nearby. Generally I throw a small spinner, with a moderate retrieve and it stays within a couple inches of the surface. Yes, they’re holding near the bottom. Yes, their mouths point down. No, it doesn’t stop them from feeding in the whole water column! When food passes over them, they turn upside down, and slurp it like a top-feeder! The reason people have trouble catching them on spinners, or end up with a bunch of mushy trout, is because they’re fishing the spinners too deep. Whitefish don’t like to take baitfish laterally, they take them from below. If you want to fish for them on the bottom you need bait, and a lot of weight to hold it down. Ruins the fight to use that heavy of tackle, IMO.

    You can generally spot them them when the sun is high, because they give a really bright flash when they turn in the water, and they turn a lot. Come back in the evening and they’ll be feeding well.

  6. We love white fish here in Alaska where there is a couple species of them. We gill net a lot of them in the murky waters of the Kuskokwim and Jonson Rivers. They are oily when dried and taste amazing (not brittle like pike). I’ve never caught one on a fly and i’m interested in knocking it off the list this summer. Please post some pattern suggestions if any of you have a “go to”. I enjoy streamers and dry’s, haven’t learned much nymphing but open to suggestions in technique. No species is a “trash fish”, and Thank those of you that appreciate fishing.

  7. On the Madison river Mt. The guides love catching big whitefish the fight is sought after out do the trout, I would take them anyday. For really big ones spinning rod are with flies

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