Lake Superior whitefish

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They’re baaaack…

Lake Superior whitefish that is. This hard fighting, extremely tasty fish that are non-native to Flathead Lake, yet revered by so many, are starting to show up in isolated pockets on Flathead Lake.

Just like last year, (but after about a 10-year absence from the lake in any kind of real numbers) they are starting to turn up in shallow, grassy areas on the mid to south end of the lake, where young of the year perch first congregate after dispersing from their protective, deep water “bait balls.” Perch are key to this feeding frenzy, and they seem to be everywhere once again.

A little history is in order.

Back in the early 1900s, lake trout, lake whitefish and yellow perch were brought west on the “fish trains” to provide subsistence and commercial fishing for the scores of settlers moving west. Flathead Lake received a lion’s share of all three, and they have all been surviving here ever since.

While each species has seen its ups and downs, the whitefish have thrived, and according to the experts, is the largest biomass in the lake. Many will remember the incredible fishing in the late ‘90s through the mid-2000s, and the subsequent disappearance over the last 10 years.

The whitefish never actually disappeared, obviously, but there was a crash of sorts in the perch populations; without young of the year perch to gorge on in the shallows, you would almost never know the whitefish existed. Last year, the perch came back, the whitefish followed and this year seem to be on track for more of the same.

In fact, early last year, after being asked for about eight years in a row when (if) I thought the whitefish would return, I stated that I thought that we might never see the good old days again, but boy was I wrong on that one.

So why is the cycle of perch and whitefish on the upswing again?

After talking to several prominent biologists in the valley, I believe it is because of two major factors. First off, three or four mild springs in a row have given us the perch egg survival necessary for the whitefish to come out of their deep water haunts. Secondly, and I believe this is the larger factor, the number of lake trout have been reduced substantially over the last 15 years or so, through the CSKT Mack Days and gill netting efforts. Bluntly, less predators equals more prey species.

This theory is validated especially when one looks at not just the healthy populations of whitefish and perch, but the appearance of other species in the lake such as smallmouth bass and crappie, and the re-appearance of Kokanee, cutthroat AND bull trout over the last couple of years. Our charter trips have caught more of the latter three species since early 2017 then the last six years combined and that is certainly saying something.

So, where are the whities and how do you catch them? Obviously, stay tuned as I will be discussing this further, but for now, look south to Big Arm, Elmo, Dayton and Rollins areas. Find that 30 to 70 feet of water where there is a weed line, and look for the bait fish on the bottom with your electronics. Jig a perch colored lead jig, like the species specific Whitefish Slayer by Petes Tackle, or the Rattle-d-Zastor by Zimmer Tackle. Use a medium light spinning set up with 8 pound monofilament (shallow) or 12 pound braid if deeper than about 40 feet. They prefer a near vertical presentation so use a heavy enough jig to keep your line straight up and down and don’t be discouraged if the numbers aren’t there just yet.

Rookies will need a little time to develop the touch, and the numbers of fish simply aren’t quite there yet. By the time my next column rolls around in two weeks, it should be a completely different story. I’ll see you on the water!

— Howe is the owner/outfitter at Howe’s Fishing, A Able and Mo Fisch Charters. Call 406-257-5214 or at www.howesfishing.com

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