Whitefish can wait for better weather

| March 2, 2020 10:44 PM

The best time to catch whitefish on a fly rod is in July when you’re fishing for trout.

Never mind that “whitefish-in-winter” malarkey.

Standing outside when the snow dribbles and the river clinks with ice and your fishing rod guides are plugged like a toddler’s nose in a day care center isn’t what a friend would call punchy.

He means smashing, we think, but no one has corrected the misapplication.

Mountain whitefish are a native species with scales like quarters that flake off and glisten in the sun and could, if dried, make a handy wind chime. Their smallish snout is perplexing and when they fight on the hook they throb, dive and run before giving up.

They are pulled in with anticipatory glee that invariably turns sourpuss when the angler, hoping for a fat, lazy trout sees a plump whitefish on the line, dour as a brush salesman at the happy-hour buffet.

The fish is glum and resigned. It appears sad, and the angler’s demeanor too is downcast.

In winter though, when you’re fishing for whitefish because you still have not used the Little Chief smoker you received as a gift three Christmases ago, the native fish with their flaky smoked meat are a marvel.

And for some reason, they are more difficult to catch in ice-banked rivers than in summer trout haunts.

Once, during a summer’s evening on the Jefferson with the river surface stirring with hatching insects, we cast with joyous hearts only to learn that mountain whitefish were equally giddy in the bug-hatching food court. They took fake flies as readily as rainbows, and more whitefish than rainbows were had.

We threw them all back.

Although it is considered a winter sport, whitefish fishing is best reserved for July or August.

Stand-ing on a bank in February spooling line like licorice as you blow into a cold fist and pick the ice from rod guides in an effort to introduce your smoker to a few slabs of whitefish may be a healthier pastime than watching Dr. Phil on daytime TV, but it has its limits.

There are a lot of taverns near rivers where patrons grumble about many things, but not whitefish fishing.

Inside, talk shows sputter and music plays. These places are dark when it’s really bright outside. Entrees include pickled eggs and mozerella sticks.

Smoked whitefish isn’t on any menu.

Winter anglers suppress knowledge of these comforts.

Instead, they cast yarn flies, soft hackles or bead heads for whitefish in the snow because this peculiar pastime evolved in the days when the state fisheries department prohibited winter trout angling in Panhandle rivers.

Whitefish fishing became a foil. And then it became a thing.

The rules have changed. The rivers are now wide open all year. And no one will begrudge an angler for diverting their attention to tavern stool with a plate of sweet potato fries to warm the fingers.

It’s good to know you don’t need snow for these endeavors.

Because catching whitefish can wait. Until July or August.

Ralph Bartholdt writes about the Outdoors for the Hagadone News Network. He can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com