COLUMN: Pursuing whitefish in the Flathead River

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One of the most popular fisheries in years past was the annual Lake Superior whitefish bite that happened in late summer. These hard-fighting, tasty members of the Salmonid family would stage up shallow as they would seek out the young of the year yellow perch before beginning their spawning run up the Flathead River.

It was easy fishing and 100-fish limits were not too hard to obtain. The last solid year for these fish in Flathead Lake was 2007 and the “good old days” seem to be a distant memory.

I personally feel that the reason those fish used to gorge on the perch was to bulk up for their spawning run. I also feel that with the abundance of Mysis shrimp in the lake, these whitefish are so well-fed all year long that that requirement is a thing of the past. We do still see whitefish stage at the mouth of the river, and yes, they are caught there, but it is nothing like what it was during the early to mid-2000s.

The good news is these same fish can be caught in the river once they have moved up into their traditional spawning holes. If you fished the river last year, then your spots should be just as good this year, as there was no runoff to change any river channels, holes, bars etc.

The water level may be down, but the river bed itself should be the same. Gaining access to some of those good holes may require a little hiking up or down stream, but Montana’s Stream Access Law makes that self-restricting: You can go as far as you are willing to walk to find good spots. Or utilize a boat with a jet outdrive like I do.

These spawning whitefish are seeking out deeper holes — 12 to 16 feet seems about right. The water should be obviously moving, not too fast, and an eddy or two to indicate some hidden underwater structure is present is a good sign, too. They are looking for clean gravel bottom to lay their eggs, so leave the lower, soft bottom river behind.

Tackle is simple: a 6- to 7-foot light to medium action rod with a fast tip is perfect. I have been using six-pound Nanofil line with six-pound fluorocarbon leader and that is a great match. Jigs should be basic, green or black heads and 1/8 to 1/4-ounce weight depending on depth and speed of water. Tip with a small crawfish-imitating plastic but twister tails, GitZit tubes etc. will all work. Local tackle manufacturer Pete’s Tackle makes some of the best crayfish there are for this fishery.

As with most spawning fish, they are not as much feeding as trying to get the bait out of their “zone” when they take it. When the properly presented jig comes drifting through their holding zone, it is a reactionary bite, and many times it is quite a jolt. Other times, when you pick up the rod tip to lift the jig, the fish is just there.

Drifting light jigs thru deeper, moving water, just keeping the line tight and feeling for the bite takes practice. The best way to get better is to spend some serious time on the water. You will miss a lot of bites at first, and you may think like the fish aren’t there. Trust me, find the right river conditions and those holes will be filled with fish, from now until Christmas. The great guys behind the counter at Snappy’s are all very well in tune with this bite, and offer a weekly contest for biggest Whitefish. Go get some!


Howe runs Howes Fishing/A Able Charters. Contact him at www.howesfishing.com or 257-5214 or by emailing Mike@aablefishing.com.

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