May 18, 2012

The much maligned Mountain Whitefish

As I drove up Blacksmith Fork Canyon today it was raining. The tops of the mountains had a dusting of new fresh snow and the river was trying to rise to its usual spring levels. The water was modestly high and somewhat off colored, but by no means the usual spring torrent. This winter didn't pack much snow into the highlands so run-off has been lackluster so far.

My conveyance

I stopped along side the road pretty low in the canyon and decided to plunge in. The river is about 18-25 feet wide at this reach and strewn with rocks and boulders making pockets of excellent holding water. I waded with a wooden staff this trip as my Simms folding wading staff didn't handle the current last time. The wooden staff worked much better and offered a more solid support against the buffetings of the current.

I decided to use the Tenkara USA Ebisu. I'm sure that some would have selected a longer rod but I am still trying to control my casts and keep them out of the riparian foliage. My line was 4.5 Tenkara USA HiVis fluoro with 2.5 feet of 15lb red Amnesia on the end. The length was 10 feet, to which I added 2 feet of 4x fluorocarbon tippet.

Where I started on the river
Since the water was somewhat off colored I decided to go with a large Utah Killer Bug {UKB} (#8 TMC 2302) with a New Zealand-style dropper of a #14 beadhead Prince Nymph.

A much chewed UKB and BH Prince Nymph
I was into my first fish within minutes but I lost it because it caught me off guard. The is a common occurrence with me. It usually takes me a few minutes to get warmed up before I am on my game. Anyway, within five more minutes I had taken another. It was a little 10 inch Brown. He wanted the UKB.

Love that UKB. It's like trout candy.
Next was the Prince Nymph's turn. Two fish in a row. Another Brown and then a Cutthroat. The Cutthroat had beautiful slits and was getting into its spawning colors.

As I approached a nice hydraulic I thought I could see some large fish holding against the bottom. Maybe what I saw were just logs ready to snag me, but then again -- did they move?! First drift over them produced nothing. Send, third, forth, the same. Then on the fifth a sharp pull on the line and fish on! At first I thought I was into a really nice Brown, but then I noticed that the fish was more grey than yellow and although it did fight quite well it did not fight like a trout. As I pulled it to the surface I noticed it was a Mountain Whitefish! Ah bugger!

16 inch Mountain Whitefish. He didn't fit in the net.
What is it about Mountain Whitefish, called commonly just "whitefish"? I know many fisherman hate them. They curse them. They feel less of a sportsman for catching one and act like it does not "count".  I have seen other fisherman laugh and jeer at their buddy when he catches one. But why?

Mountain Whitefish are native to the northern Rocky Mountains. They are a member of the Salmonidea family, as are trout and salmon. They tend to feed lower in the water column than trout but will rise to dry flies on occasion. They have small mouths with overhanging snouts and they tend to be much more scaly than other salmonids. Most importantly however, they have been shown to be a indicator species and thrive only in healthy mountain river systems.  When the river losses its whitefish then the trout are soon to follow; it is a sure sign that the ecosystem is disturbed. Whitefish are the mountain streams version of the canary in the coal mine. Maybe I had better be more grateful for them when they take my fly.

I caught two whitefish today. Both were about 16 inches or so. And though they didn't fight like a trout of equal size, they did their best to entertain me. The Ebisu handled them easily. BTW, both took the Prince Nymph. I don't think my big UKB would have fit in their mouths anyway!

Another Brown

Another Cutthroat

Pretty water
All in all, it was a successful day, that ended up sunny; 13 trout to hand and 5 or 6 long line released. Also, two whitefish (do they really count?).  I lost the Prince Nymph twice but I ended up with my original UKB. I will definitely use it another day!


  1. We've really got to get together sometime, Tom. Maybe we can do a fishing trip and then blog it. I'm heading out tomorrow, but I'm shying away from the Blacksmith Fork. The little flyshop in Logan seems to be leveraging the salmonfly hatch for all it's worth and this is resulting in every able-bodied male in the valley heading up there. I think you're right -- the rain put the hatch down and probably the angler traffic, too. But tomorrow and Sunday are supposed to be very cheery and warm, and I'm willing to bet it's going to be a big day for the river (in a bad way, of course).

    1. Yes, we need to get together and fish some of the local waters. That would be fun. I have a 365 day Utah license so any day is a good day. As for BSF, I think you are right. The canyon will be crawling with people this weekend, and maybe next. Maybe in a few weeks when things calm down then I'll come back down there and give it another go.

      Do you ever fish down near Avon or Paradise? Or is there too much private land down that way?

    2. Yes, there is some fishing to be done down that there, but there is private land to negotiate, too. My mates and I could show you to some spots that are fished less often and are less known than the BFR. I also have an annual license for Idaho, so we could fish both states. As the saying goes: All the the best fishing in Northern Utah is in Idaho.

  2. Do whitefish really count? That depends on what you are fishing for. If you are fishing specifically for trout, no. If you are fishing for natives, the cuts and whitefish count and the browns don't. If you are fishing for whitefish, the trout don't count.

    I just fish, and to me they all count.

    1. You are so right! It does depend on what you are fishing for. I too just fish!


  3. My thought is that I go fishing, not trouting. I've had plenty of whitefish fight a lot harder than a trout would.

    And, they taste good smoked too! But then, what doesn't taste good smoked?

  4. Hey Tom,
    I check your site every week but, no updates since May?! Have you died and gone to "Fishing Heaven"? or just been so busy fishing and playing this summer, no time to update, eh? Like to hear from you! Tim, Idaho

    1. Hi Tim,

      I have written many posts each month since May. The latest was just the other day:

      Can't you see them on the Blog?