When you can catch them, whitefish are great for your smoker

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Yukon (left) and Lulu do some whitefishing on the Crooked River

A friend of mine, who I refer to as Yukon, has been raving about the whitefish in the Crooked River. "Let's grab the fly rods and go get some fish for the smoker," he told me. Sure, why not I thought. I could always use new fodder for humor stories.
   As it turned out, we caught a bunch of trout and only a few whitefish. Some whitefish guide, I mumbled to myself after taking another 10- to 12-inch trout from my line and releasing it back into the river. I recalled one of Yukon's stories about catching 100 whitefish in one day.
   A few casts later, the strike indicator went down and I raised the tip of the rod to set the hook. It appeared, by the bend in the rod and the fight in the fish that I hooked into something pretty nice. Here's my whitefish for the smoker, I thought. After a minute or two, the fish got close enough to ID -- a 15- or 16-inch redband trout.
   What happened next has been told in two different stories, mine and Yukon's. He claims I panicked and splashed my way for shore in order to drag the fish onto the bank (he was across the river with the net). Gossip goes that I continued up the bank until I hit pavement.
   My version goes something like this: Upon realizing the lunker fish revealed itself to be a trout, I did indeed head for shore but only about three feet onshore and not the alleged 100 yards. When the trout found itself in only six inches of water, it made one last gallant burst toward mid-channel and broke the line.
   After a subsequent solo outing, Yukon responded to my email inquiry concerning his luck with the whitefish. He responded, "Unfortunately, I had a great day for trout - 18 to be exact, with several 14 inchers, and broke two off. Only caught 6 whitefish, two of which were big enough to fillet." Again, so much for trying to catch these not-so-elusive mountain whitefish.
   However, the other day, I received a call from Yukon saying he caught a small school of these salmonids in the "smoking range" of 16 to 18 inches. He walked me through the process of removing heads and tails, splitting the fish longwise (leaving the skin on), removing spine and ribs, spicing them up, smoking them a few hours and then eating with crackers and cream cheese. The result is as good as any smoked fish I've ever had.
   Mountain whitefish are in the same family as trout and can be found in similar habitat and share a similar diet. According to ODFW studies, the larger concentrations of whitefish are found in the slower, deeper water while the redbands tend to occupy the boulder-riffle runs. Whitefish generally tend to stay in the lower half of the water column while trout loiter in the top half.
   "I just like to go out and catch fish and some of these whitefish fight as good as any trout," Yukon said. "The whitefish make really strong runs compared with the high-speed run of a trout."
   Even though whitefish can be found just about everywhere in the section of river below Bowman Dam, he prefers targeting them at the head and tailout of pools, noting that he hasn't found as many whitefish in riffles. He likes to fish the slower water and get the fly down near the bottom, using flies such as beadhead nymphs in copper or reddish color in size 14 to 18 hooks.
   Brett Hodgson, a fish biologist with ODFW once told me that whitefish are an untapped population with a huge abundance available for both recreational and consumptive purposes. And also one of the densest populations of fish in Central Oregon. He believes it's possible that a state record whitefish could be in the Crooked River but given the density of fish and available habitat, especially in winter, he doubts the growth conditions exist for many fish over four pounds. The current state record whitefish came out of Crane Prairie Reservoir in 1994 and weighed 4 pounds 14 ounces.
    The state would like to reduce the numbers of whitefish since they compete with redband trout. There is no limit on size and number of whitefish caught but Hodgson cautions that whitefish are a game species and catching them and tossing them up on the bank would be considered waste of a game fish, resulting in a citation.
   The section of the Crooked River below Bowman Dam is an extremely productive stretch of river with an incredible food source to support the number of trout and whitefish. Most anglers report catching more whitefish on flies rather than bait or lures. Whitefish will feed on scuds, caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies - just like trout.
   If you're looking for some fun fishing and some tasty eating, grab your fly rod and head for the Crooked River. However, you may have to put up with catching a bunch of nice trout until you get into some smokable whitefish.
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