The Trout’s Ugly Cousin: An Ode to the Whitefish
Fly fishermen are well known for our dedication to wild or native, beautiully spotted fish called trout. Rainbows, browns, cutthroats or brookies, it doesn’t matter, we love them all. There is another Colorado native that some anglers mistakenly look down upon. It grows large; fights well and often can be caught in numbers that most trout specialists would envy. The Rocky Mountain Whitefish is indeed a species that fly fishermen should celebrate.
While whitefish are sometimes considered a nuisance or distraction while targeting trout, they should be viewed as more than an incidental catch. Many anglers are now happy to pursue carp and other species that were once considered “trash fish” and while there are still those who show the Whitey no respect, this fish has qualities found in many of our favorite game fish.
Misinformed anglers sometimes associate whitefish with bottom feeders such as suckers. They may lack the bright colors and spotting common with trout and char but whitefish are related to trout and grayling. With a back that is greyish olive and silver sides with a white belly. They have a smaller, more delicate mouth than trout that is oriented for feeding downward on small aquatic insects.
They do most often feed near the bottom, but in many places they will rise to hatches of mayflies and caddis. I have caught many whitefish on smallish dry flies on rivers like the Madison and Yellowstone in Montana. Here in Colorado, our whitefish feed almost exclusively near the bottom but grow especially large on rivers like the Lower Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers.
In fact, the IGFA fly fishing world record of nearly six pounds was caught in the Roaring Fork River near Vail. Plenty of whities in this size range swim in the Fork and they are landed frequently but most anglers ignore the possibility of registering a record fish. Colorado Master Angler sized whitefish are a common catch.
Targeting Whitefish Fly Fishing in Colorado
Fall is perhaps the best time to target whitefish in Colorado. Near Vail, the Eagle River, the Colorado, the Roaring Fork and the White River feature the most numerous whitefish populations. In these rivers near the autumnal equinox and through mid-November whitefish tend to school up in numbers not seen with more solitary trout species. This is especially common near where small tributaries enter larger rivers. Sometimes there will be an overlap with spawning brown trout. Also, trout, both browns and rainbows tend to gather below spawning whitefish for an egg eating feast.
Whitefish gather into large schools because they do not dig individual spawning beds in shallow gravel like trout. Instead, when whitefish spawn in the fall they school up in deep water for a spawning mission where reproduction occurs en masse. Interestingly, whitefish scales become rougher and more pronounced during spawning season.
Because large groups of whities are common at this time of year, catching a lot of fish in one session is the norm. Whitefish respond best to deep nymphing rigs at this time of year. Small beadhead nymphs with a little flash are deadly medicine on the whitefish. Princes, pheasant tails and even small pale orange egg patterns work very well. Ultra-light tippets are usually unnecessary.
Using a Strike Indicator for Whitefish Fly Fishing
For an angler new to the sport or a youngster being introduced to fly fishing in a river, there is no better way to learn how nymph fly fish with a strike indicator. With whities, action is steady and practice with fighting and landing fish is guaranteed. Whitefish tend to run a few times and bulldog near the bottom. Horsing them will result in lost fish as flies tear free from their mouths easily.
For anyone interested in taking a few fish home for the smoker, whitefish are ideal. Populations are strong, limits are liberal and their flesh is much like that of a trout or salmon. The cold water of fall and winter keep whitefish in prime shape for making smoked fish dip.
While the fly fishing for trout can sometimes be difficult, whitefish will often be more cooperative. If a bent rod and fish in the net is a primary goal, try angling for whitefish. Try to see past their homely looks and undeserved reputation. They do not compete with trout but are, in fact, most importantly, a prime indicator species letting us know the rivers they swim in are healthy. They are only found in cold, clean water.
Brody Henderson, Senior Fly Fishing Guide and Web Content Writer