Despised mountain whitefish has numerous positive attributes


STATE BRIDGE — Don’t call me Ishmael. Ahab would be more accurate, albeit lacking the requisite spite, vengeance and, to be honest, white whale.

Instead, it was the great white fish that served the object of our obsession on this day. The hardly rare Prosopium williamsoni, or mountain whitefish, perhaps the most widely distributed salmonid in the West. And arguably among the most despised.

Yet the loathing is as unwarranted as it is confounding. Unlike the regal rainbow and fierce brown trout these high-mountain bottom-dwellers share habitat with, whitefish are actually native to Colorado rivers. Mostly they suffer from an image problem.

Many fishermen regard them as trash fish, even though they eat the same food as trout, are anatomically endowed with the telltale adipose fin common to all members of the trout and salmon family and have been swimming side by side with indigenous cutthroats since the last ice age. At best they are considered a consolation prize for trout fishermen, perceived as a nuisance that gets in the way of an otherwise certain trophy for the mantel.

But more often these second-class denizens will actually salvage a slow fishing day. They are spirited fighters that feed actively at all times, even when trout don’t. Their size and prevalence in some of the West’s most notable trout streams — including the Colorado, Roaring Fork, Yampa and White rivers — should make pursuit worthy, especially in the slow, cold months of winter, when mountain whitefish tend to be much more active than trout. As a bonus, a whitefish just 15 inches long qualifies for Colorado’s Master Angler award, upping the ante for anglers seeking accolades.

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“I like to think of the whitefish as the Colorado River bone fish,” said Dave Bryant, who chases Colorado River whiteys until his Lake Ice USA guiding season kicks in for the winter (720-298-9260). “Pound for pound, they fight better than a rainbow. And they are physically a tough fish that can survive in all kinds of water temperatures and oxygen levels, kind of like smallmouth bass.”

That same tenacity that allows whitefish to thrive in a wide range of waters may account for at least a portion of their public relations problem. Some of the scorn emanates from a presumption that they compete with trout, although there’s no evidence that whitefish numbers diminish trout populations. In reality, their presence typically serves as an indicator of a river’s overall health since they tend to feed off the bottom and are used as a food source themselves by other fish and animals.

“They really are an equal-opportunity fish,” Bryant said. “They get treated like the redheaded stepchild, but they are a nice recreational fish because you can go anywhere on the Colorado where there are some nice deep runs and really get into those things. They’re a little bit easier fish to catch.”

They say the tug is the drug that keeps recreational fishermen coming back for more. How else do you explain fly-fishing for carp, the entire concept of catch-and-release or how I talked a lifelong spin fisherman into picking up a fly rod, skipping out on the shopping mall and joining me over the Thanksgiving weekend in dedicated pursuit of whitefish? Consider it a quick fix.

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“Can you even catch those things?” Ken Hoeve asked before agreeing to our “Black Fly-day” mission. “I see them all the time but I’ve never caught one on a spinner.”

“You need to use nymphs,” I explained. “They’re pretty much bottom feeders.”

With their small, down-turned mouths, whitefish can be a challenge to hook on dry flies, although they will occasionally rise to a summer hatch. More often they tend to suck in smallish, shiny flies like a beadhead prince, pheasant tail or copper John heavily weighted to bounce off the riverbed.

Fall spawners, whitefish huddle together in deep pools below gravel bars and riffles where eggs are scattered rather than deposited in nests like many salmonids. It makes the fish somewhat easier to spot once a suitable pool is located, and the fishing action nearly constant once the proper depth is dialed in.

You may not land Moby Dick, but you’re still bound to have a better day than ol’ Ahab.

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993,

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>