COLUMN: Imitate a perch to get whitefish

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It’s been almost 10 years since the last great year for limits of whitefish on Flathead Lake. There are some fish being caught out on Flathead, in fact in lots of places, just not the numbers we grew so used to during the heyday of the great runs. A little history is in order.

The Lake Superior whitefish differ from their native cousins, the mountain whitefish, and were imported into the valley, and Flathead Lake in particular in the early 1900s, around the same time as the lake trout, or mackinaw, and the yellow perch, all planted to provide familiar food fishes and maybe even develop a commercial fishery. Fast forward 90 years and the lake whitefish were a steady source of income for dozens of anglers when Ron Moen was buying and selling whitefish fillets and roe, in the late 1990s and into the mid-2000s.

Since 2008, a major shift seems to have taken place on Flathead Lake, and the whitefish simply quit appearing in the shallows before making their spawning run up the Flathead River. The fish are still in the river each fall, and many anglers still catch them. But the easy fishing in the lake was entirely dependent on small yellow perch fry moving into shallow weedy areas in late July and into September.

For the last seven to eight years, perch populations have varied, and anyone who fished East Bay for perch this spring knows there were incredible numbers. That a record hatch may have occurred may not be known for a couple more years, but there is some indication of that as it pertains to whitefish.

Mackinaw anglers this year have seen massive amounts of baitfish in the water, and certainly over the last 10 to 15 days. Many lake trout are spitting up perch fry as they surface, and full bellies are observed as fish are cleaned for clients. The perch are here this year, and there is a glimmer of hope that the whitefish are following them in shallow as I write this. While most folks will focus on the major places in the lake, like the north part of the lake, Woods Bay Point, Hatchery Bay and Elmo Bay, many of these places get hit very hard and there is so much bait on the north end that it is very hard to identify schools of whitefish.

There are dozens and dozens of protected, shallow and weedy bays all along the lakeshore, and where you find weeds, you will find perch, pikeminnow and peamouth etc. You will also find lake trout and bull trout and lake whitefish. Most weed edges thin out past 35 to 40 feet. Focus here. Don’t be discouraged if you only find one or two of the listed species, if the baby perch are there, the whitefish will be, too.

Once you locate the whitefish that are feeding on the perch fry, you simply want to imitate a perch, and a Pete’s Tackle Tail Dancer, green Rattle D-Zaster by Zimmer Tackle or the ever popular Rattle Snakie in green or gold is the easiest way, but anything that remotely imitates a small perch fry will work. The two lures mentioned get down fast, don’t tangle and can handle the occasional big mackinaw that hits your lure.

Tip it with a small piece of night crawler or maggot, or don’t, but a little scent goes a long way! Drop to the bottom and jig one to three feet off bottom to start with. Watch those anglers around you, but keep a courteous distance from your neighbor. There’s a LOT of lake out there! I’ll see you on the water.


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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