mountain whitefish

An Ode to the Mountain Whitefish

Whitefish are the most misunderstood fish in the west. They might not do aerial jumps out of the water or slurp dry flies off of seams, but they can submarine your bobber and put a bend in your fly rod like any big trout can. The world record whitey is just over 5 pounds and was caught last year (2021). Don’t tell me you wouldn’t want to catch a 5-pound fish on a 5-weight. So why do mountain whitefish get a bad wrap? 

Sure, if you are a snobby angler that only wants to fish dry flies, the whitefish may not be for you. But, if you are an angler that likes catching fish, a whitefish is an excellent fly rod quarry. Not to mention whitefish are native to our rivers, an integral part of the river’s ecosystem, and a great table fare if you prefer to keep your catch. Below you will find just how interesting whitefish are and why the “whitey” deserves more respect! All hail the mighty whitey!

What Are Whitefish? 

The mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) is a coldwater gamefish found in western North America. Whitefish has a greyish olive back, silver sides, and a bright white belly. They have a tiny little mouth that is downturned, designed for feeding on small insects on the bottom of the river. They range in size from small fry to up to 5 pounds. Whitefish primarily congregate in faster, cooler riffles, where the water is rich in oxygen. Mountain whitefish are fall spawners, typically spawning between October and December on our local rivers like the Roaring Fork River, Eagle River, and Colorado River. 

Whitefish Are Native to Our Rivers:

Did you know that whitefish are “One of only two salmonids native to Colorado, the mountain whitefish was historically found in just the Yampa and White River drainages in the northwestern part of the state (Colorado)?” (According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife). Whitefish are also ​​one of western North America’s most widely distributed salmonid fish. They have a large range from Western Canada to Colorado and even the Pacific Northwest. Moutain whitefish have been in all these rivers for centuries, you can’t say the same about the brown trout and rainbows in our local Colorado Rivers. 

Whitefish Like to Eat: 

The whitefish are notorious for eating deep in the water column and are not the pickiest of eaters like their trout neighbors can be. Typically if you want to target mountain whitefish, head to faster riffle water with a deep nymphing rig. Get your flies down on the bottom and if there are whiteys around you will probably find them. Larger bead headed nymph flies work well in sizes #10-16, typically a silver beaded fly is effective for enticing a bite. Recommended fly patterns for whitefish include Raider #12-16, Duracell #12-16, Purple Quill Jig #12-16, Copper John #10-16, and Rainbow Warriors #12-#16.

Whitefish typically feed in the evenings but will feed throughout the day. At times they will rise to a surface fly but this can be a rare occurrence. Their small mouths can make hooking a whitey sometimes challenging. Do you know what pulls harder than a 5 pound trout? A foul hooked white fish! 

Whitefish Promote a Healthy Trout Population: 

Contrary to the misconception whitefish do not compete with trout for food, while they do eat some of the same fare as trout they also have specialized mouths for vacuuming up zooplankton and other tiny, bottom-dwelling organisms. These food sources are overlooked by trout.

The smaller whitefish specifically the fry are a great forage for larger trout. Big browns love to eat baby whitefish. When the whitefish spawn in the fall, the eggs also provide the trout with an easy meal. Mountain whitefish are a good indicator species to let us know if the river is healthy and free of pollution. The whitefish prefer cold, clear water and their population numbers will decline before a trout’s population will. 

Whitefish Live for a Long Time:

Whitey’s can live for a long time, they don’t move around as much as trout do to feed and are less susceptible to getting eaten by other predators. Often times the average lifespan for a whitefish is around 7-8 years but they can live up to 18 years. That is a long time for fish to be living in our rivers. So give some respect to elders and say thank you to Old Mr. Whitey when you catch one. 

Whitefish Taste Good:

If you are going to keep your catch whitefish is a great table fare and in most of our rivers, whitefish populations can sustain large numbers so harvest is totally acceptable. Moutain whitefish has firm flesh, and a nice taste similar to cod. Whitefish are best cooked on the smoker, and make a delicious smoked whitefish dip. 

While many westerners regard the whitefish as “trash fish,” these fish demand more respect. They eat flies honestly with no regard, they pull hard, they may even eat a dry fly and they coexist with our beloved trout populations. They may have a face that only a mother can love, but their scales, and bright grey and olive backs glisten in the sunlight. Often they are larger than most of the trout you will catch. They also are a native species! You can’t say that about most of the trout in our rivers. So next time you are skunking out there and you catch a whitey, show that fish some respect! All hail the mighty whitey! 

Stop by the shop to check our selection of fly patterns and gear, we will get you up to speed on where and what to catch whitefish on and of course trout too!

Patrick Perry, Former Float Fishing Guide, and Content Contributor @patperry