Game Fishing > Salmon Family, Salmonidae > Rocky Mountain Whitefish

Rocky Mountain Whitefish

Rocky Mountain WhitefishThis fine fish was first described from the Des Chutes River in Oregon by Dr. Charles Girard in 1856, who described most of the fishes collected during the Pacific Railroad Survey, and named the one under consideration in honor of Lieutenant R.S. Williamson, who had charge of one of the divisions of the Survey.

Its general form is not unlike that of the grayling, which has led to the absurd opinion, held by some, that the grayling is a hybrid, or cross, between this whitefish and the red-throat trout, its body being rather long, nearly elliptical in outline, and somewhat compressed. It is found in the clear streams on both slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and on both sides of the Cascade Range. In the tributaries of the Missouri River in Montana it differs, slightly from the typical form, and is known as the variety cis-montanus. It is bluish or greenish on the back, sides silvery, belly white. All of the fins are tipped with black; caudal and adipose fins are steel-blue.

I know this fish only from the streams of Montana, where it coexists with the red-throat trout and grayling. It spawns in the fall. It feeds on insects and their larvae, small crustaceans, and the eggs of other fishes. It grows to about a foot in length, usually, and to a pound in weight, though I have taken much larger specimens. It is a very fair food-fish, - as good, I think, as the red-throat trout, as its flesh is firmer and flaky, and devoid of any muddy or musky flavor.

The Rocky Mountain Whitefish rises to the artificial fly as readily as the trout or grayling, and to the same flies, though a little more partial to small, dark, or grayish ones, as black, brown, and gray hackles, black gnat, oriole, gray drake, etc.

When the streams are higher and not so clear, lighter-colored flies are useful, as professor, coachman, Henshall, miller, etc.

Light trout fly-rods and tackle are used both for fly- and bait-fishing by Rocky Mountain anglers, the bait, when used, being the larva of the caddis-fly, and known as "rockworm." GrassĀ­hoppers are employed in the late summer and fall. Fly-fishing, however, is the most successful method.

Large baskets of whitefish are made in the three forks of the Missouri River, especially in the lower Gallatin River, where it is taken with the grayling, the red-throat trout not being so plentiful in that part of the stream. The tributaries of this river are also well supplied with whitefish. Bridger Creek, one of the tributaries of East Gallatin River, has some large whitefish. I have taken them in that stream up to two pounds; for gameness they were equal to trout of the same weight, and just as good for the table. They are at their best in the early fall months, before spawning, when they are fat and in fine fettle. At this season they must be looked for in deep holes, especially in August and September, when they are gregarious, and one's basket may be filled from a single hole when of considerable extent. Later they depart for the shallows and pair off for spawning, when they seldom rise to the fly.

There is a sentiment among trout fishers, and among people generally in a trout region, that no other fish is quite so good to eat, or possessed of as much gameness, as the trout. While I concede beauty of form and coloration to the trout, far excelling all other fresh-water fishes, there are others equally as good for the table, or even better. When camping by mountain streams, freshly-caught trout, fried to crispness in bacon fat, has a happy combined trout-bacon flavor that is certainly delicious, especially when one has the sauce of a camping appetite to favor it; but under similar conditions the mountain whitefish, in my opinion, is fully as good. Nine out of ten persons who are prejudiced in favor of the trout will declare that it has no scales, thus showing a lack of comparison and observation. In the Rocky Mountain region, where there are so few species of fish for the angler, usually only trout, grayling, and whitefish, the latter should be better appreciated.