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Now Is A Great Time To Go After This ‘Mountain’ Fishing Opportunity

Never say “Ahh, it’s just a whitefish” again. Take advantage of this overlooked and underhooked fishing opportunity with a pretty tasty reward.

Looking for an excuse to wader up and tie on some flies or jigs? Look no further than one of Idaho’s native unsung heroes: the mountain whitefish

Mountain whitefish, the disco ballish, tight-lipped river dwellers that populate a majority of Idaho’s streams and rivers, are often overlooked and underhooked. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, they “get no respect,” but where do these unfavorable allegations come from, and are they even accurate? 

Before we get into the benefits of whitefishing, there are a few misconceptions associated with the species that need to be cleared up. 

Don’t believe everything you hear

It’s fair to say that many passionate anglers who’ve seen their rod tip dip, thinking they have a feisty trout on the other end, only to reel in something else, have muttered the words: “Ahh. It’s just a whitefish.”


That whitefish on the end of your line has earned its stripes in Idaho, a fish that has called these waters home for thousands of years. While they might not be as charismatic as the rainbow trout, regarding them as “trash fish” or “bottom feeders” is nothing more than an insult and could not be further from the truth. 

“Mountain whitefish are a fun species to target, especially in late winter when trout and other mountain stream species feed less,” said Joe Kozfkay, Fish and Game’s State Fisheries Manager. “Anglers have a pretty cool opportunity to catch these fish during this season, a lost tradition that often gets forgotten or overlooked.”

Whitefish tend to hunker down in deeper parts of the river. Their placement in the water, combined with their mouth’s small, puckered appearance, often give anglers the impression they’re docile and won’t go after normal-sized tackle. Despite their small mouths, whitefish can still be just as voracious as their trophy neighbors. 

Mountain Whitefish in hand

The interactions of distant cousins

In most cases where the two species coexist, Fish and Game has found that whitefish commonly outnumber trout by 5-10 times. 

But if whitefish are more closely related to trout, does that mean they’re outcompeting their distant cousins?

Not according to stream surveys.

Some anglers might have concerns about the whitefish/trout dynamic in mountain rivers and streams. Fish and Game fish managers have been studying this relationship for decades and learned from research that trout populations can be affected by flow, habitat conditions or even harvest, but competition with whitefish is not a real concern. In the long term, they found the limiting factor for trout populations in good habitat is often winter survival, not competition from whitefish.

With whitefish populations as robust as they are, there’s only one thing left to do: go fishing

A quick and easy guide to mountain whitefish fishing

Whitefish check a lot of the boxes for stream fishing in winter and early spring (or any other time of year).

They’re plentiful, bag limits are high and they’re found in rivers and streams (and some lakes) all over the state. You can pretty much see them shimmering when the water’s low. They are more aggressive than other fish during winter. And they slurp up a fly or bait just as readily as a trout would. 

So what’s the hold up? 

For starters, it shouldn’t be your tacklebox. Whitefish will generally entertain the same buffet of bait, flies and lures that your run-of-the-mill rainbow trout would. If you’re accustomed to trout fishing in the warmer months, chances are your setup will work just fine for winter-season whitefish. You might need some thicker waders, but you won’t have to break the bank on custom flies or lures. 

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A spinning rod is propped up on a clear tackle box with three fishing lures sitting on top.

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