Monday, July 07, 2008


Over the July 4th weekend, I spent one leisurely afternoon casting small spinners on the Boise River just across the road from my home. After a couple of hours of fruitless fishing, a fish aggressively hit my lure.

I could tell it was a decent-sized fish, but even on my light spinning rod, I quickly reeled it in: a 15-inch mountain whitefish.

According to too many fishing books, my reaction should have been disgust. Whitefish are often regarded as a nuisance, a pest when fishing for more desirable species, or even a “trash fish.”

Which is unfortunate. Much of this contempt can be summed up by the title of E. Donnall Thomas Jr.’s fly fishing book, Whitefish Can’t Jump. While Thomas’ well-written book is actually about appreciating the diversity of fish found in North America, many other anglers view the whitefish’s tendencies not to jump or fight hard as major character flaws.

They also forage for food they disturb from the bottom, and many people have an innate dislike of "bottom feeders."

But the whitefish requires clean, cold waters and it’s a true native to our rivers. Stories of anglers catching 25- whitefish a day remain common on some rivers, but they obscure another fact: Whitefish are declining and even disappearing on many waterways.

Whitefish are native to Silver Creek, but recent fish surveys have found them to be almost, if not entirely, absent from large portions of the stream. Certainly the waters are still cold and clear, so what could be the problem? Conventional wisdom suggests the non-native brown trout, which grow huge in the creek, and become fish eaters as they grow. But more research is needed to be sure. Why can whitefish survive and even thrive in some rivers with brown trout, like the Boise, while they have largely disappeared from others? This remains as an important question for fisheries biologists to answer.

Fortunately, many anglers and outdoor enthusiasts now recognize that a river is best appreciated with its full range of native species, and that fish should be viewed on their own merits, not just their sporting qualities.

The Boise River has a thriving whitefish population, so I took mine home and grilled it in a foil pack with butter and organic onions raised on a Boise farm--a true local dinner. The whitefish, as you might expect, has a white, mild-tasting meat, and goes well with local vegetables on a warm summer evening. I appreciate the fact that in my home river I can still catch and eat native fish—an activity becoming an unimaginable luxury in many parts of the world, as rivers are increasingly polluted, diverted or overtaken by non-native species.

Long may Idaho’s rivers run cold and clear—with mountain whitefish and other native fish feeding in their depths. –Matt Miller


Anonymous said...

This was a very well stated story. I always fish the Boise river whether it be the north middle south fork or just through town i see dead white fish and carp along the banks. pretty soon all the carp will be gone and the river will be to weedy to fish.Most people go of what they hear about white fish, there gross and disgusting. NOT, take one home grill it with butter salt pepper and garlic or however or even deep fry, but don't over cook. very good almost similar to talapia.

Michael said...

Good story. I love catching whitefish, and don't feel guilty about killing and eating them the way I do with trout. I've never grilled or baked them, but always smoke them in my electric smoker. What a delicacy.

Roger said...

no one mentioned they are actually member of "salmonidae" family whinch includes salmon and trout, they were a very important food fish for native peoples and have been described in flavor as between salmon and trout, yet they are confused with northern pike minnow or "squawfish" and considered not a sport fish.