In the 30-plus years that I have guided on the Bighorn River, I have witnessed varied responses from anglers who inadvertently catch a whitefish.
Usually the angler is nymph fishing from the boat as we drift downstream from 3-Mile Access. The strike indicator slips 2 inches or so below the surface and the angler sets the hook. His rod bends over markedly and the angler exclaims, “I’ve got a good one.”
The angler fights the fish for a minute or so with the anticipation of landing that “good” fish. Finally, the fish rolls on the surface and reveals its identity and the angler growls, “god damned whitefish.”
This attitude rankles me and I ask, “A minute ago you said you had a good fish on. What happened? Didn’t that whitefish give you a good fight? Didn’t it put a bend in your fly rod? Didn’t your heart beat a little faster?
“You know when I read Genesis and the good book says, ‘On the seventh day God rested and looked out on his creation and said that’s good;’ he didn’t say that’s good except for whitefish.”
If I am really on a rant I’ll tell the angler of the day that I once guided a blind fisherman. We were floating the Snake River in Jackson Hole. When we floated into a big pool I would instruct the fellow to cast his spinner to the left or right. He would make the cast and patiently reel the spinner in. About one in 20 casts would be rewarded with a fish grabbing the spinner.
The fellow would reel in the fish, and I would net it. All the fish the man caught that day were whitefish, but each would elicit the same excitement and joy. He would ask, “Tell me about it.”
I would describe it as being quite sleek with a silvery sheen, pale blue fins, an adipose fin and a downturned mouth. He would respond, “Let me see it.”
I held the fish so the man could reach out and touch and stroke the whitefish. He exclaimed, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
I would conclude by saying to my whitefish detractor, “Perhaps we should fish with blinders so that we would appreciate each fish that we catch.”
In December I had the pleasure to hunt with an old friend, Jim Zumbo. Zumbo and I harvested four doe white-tailed deer in our two-day hunt, but most importantly we caught up with happenings during the past decade. Zumbo loves to hunt, of course, but he also loves to fish for a variety of fish.
He queried, “Do you know of any good spots for whitefish? It’s been hard for me to get enough to smoke.”
I replied that I knew of a couple of spots that held good numbers of whitefish in the Sheridan area on the Tongue River and would be happy to show the spots to him.
Zumbo was pretty excited about catching a bunch of whitefish. He said, “I have plenty of trout fishing around Wapiti, but finding whitefish has become a challenge. I so like smoked whitefish; it’s as good as smoked fish get.”
He also asked me, “Did you know that Wyoming lowered the whitefish limit from 25 a day to six?”
I admitted that I hadn’t noticed that the limit had been lowered. So I checked the regulations and found that the statewide limit had been reduced to six.
I called regional fisheries supervisor Paul Mavrakis and asked, “Why the lowered limit?”
Mavrakis said that a study conducted by the Game and Fish — headed by fishery biologist Gordon Edwards — had found that the whitefish population in western Wyoming had taken a dramatic downturn.
“You know that the whitefish is a native fish of Wyoming, and that the decline has caused concern, so the reduced limit was a consequence,” Mavrakis said.
Perhaps a downturn in whitefish numbers doesn’t bother you, but I would sure miss catching a whitefish, especially when I want a few for the smoker or when the day’s fishing has been slow. I sure am glad that God created them and called them, “Good.”