Whitey Saves the Day
There’s only one place in the world where the Rocky Mountain whitefish gets its due. That’s in Idaho, in the Big Lost River drainage, where whitefish are towing the line for listing as an endangered species. Nobody wants the whitefish to be listed because the non-native rainbow fishery might be compromised. Catch a whitefish on the Lost and you better handle it properly.
Elsewhere, Senor Whitey, as some anglers call them, get the shaft, meaning many are pitched to the bank, or cracked over the head with a rock, or sent airborne for an impromptu flight. Even when released to the water, most whitefish endure a harsh handling and hook extraction before gaining their freedom. If they struggle in the shallows, a boot is often implemented as a crude cattle prod. Get your ass on out of here now, ya’ har’ me boy. Compared a trout, which is often sent away with a palm waving over its head and a dozen grapes placed in its maw, whitefish get no respect.
I’m no saint, but most of the whitefish I’ve killed, I’ve eaten. It’s a little known fact that whitefish are some of the tastiest fish that swim. In many areas they are considered delicacies. Some say they are too bony, but there are ways to clean and cook whitefish where the bones melt away with a single pull. Compared to a salmon or a blackcod or a tuna, whitefish is completely mild, which makes it a nice meal for those who aren’t true fish connoisseurs. Basically, those who say walleye is the best fish in the land—uneducated seafood palettes that they harbor—would truly love the whitefish. Whitefish are so treasured, in fact, that even Montana holds a commercial fishery on them—in Flathead Lake where the Lake Superior strain of whitefish is harvested by the thousands and sold to trendy restaurants located on Flathead Lake and around the region.
Chefs aren’t the only ones who appreciate the whitefish; Rocky Mountain fishing guides treasure Whitey. When mismanaged clients can’t cast dry flies to discerning trout, or when a double nymph rig keeps hooking around a strike indicator, guides can take off the tandem rig and tie on a Prince Nymph or Lightening Bug and let their clients slay. Tip possibilities grow with each whitefish captured and released.
Where whitefish get a bad rap is from their propensity to eat everything that floats over their heads or past their snouts, which, in some situations, makes reaching a trout among the whitefish fray, just about impossible. In addition, whitefish are true Nazis when it comes to getting a hook out of their mouths. A trout? Simply turn him on his back and he holds still like a sleeping baby. A whitefish? Hold him in any position and he’ll go into convulsions, spinning circles, spitting bubbles, wrapping itself in an anglers fly line. Two-fly rigs and whitefish are downright dangerous and I’ve lost a shop’s worth of patterns to those angry suckers. Other times I’ve had flies imbedded in my hands and fingers as a whitefish struggles for freedom. Some of those occasions I’ve turned a whitefish into an impromptu version of a Boeing jet.
Still, a whitefish, unlike a brown or a rainbow or a brook trout or, god forbid, a splake, is native to the Rockies and belongs in our streams. I’m not opposed to killing whitefish. In fact, I think more whitefish should be killed, especially in the Big Hole and the Bitterroot and the Clark Fork where those rat-bastards attack in Mongol hoards. I just think that we anglers ought to utilize our whitefish bycatch and get creative in the kitchen. A whitefish is no trout, but it’s a utilizable fish with a place in the world. I still might dispatch one with a heft toward the heavens, but I’ll track it down, gut that sucker and place it in a roasting pan or the Big Chief smoker that night. Believe, me, with the proper care, you might gain a new impression for this lamented fish.
Here are some tips on cleaning and cooking whitefish, if you choose to give it a shot.
In the Field Preparation
Allow the blood to drain out. Gut soon. Gently push blood from the veins with a thumb. Place on ice. Fill body cavity with a little ice. (If ice isn’t available, wrap in moist leaves)
In the Kitchen
Recipes courtesy of Mountain Lake Fisheries in Columbia Falls, Mont., 888-809-0826 http://whitefishcaviar.com/
4 6-8 oz. boned whitefish fillets
1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup slivered almonds
1/4 lb. butter
Juice of one freshly squeezed lemon Make thin batter by adding eggs to milk and beating
thoroughly. Roll fillets in flour, dip in egg batter, and roll in flour a second time. Fry in light vegetable oil at medium heat for approximately five minutes on each side or until golden brown. In second smaller skillet, melt 1/4 lb. butter on medium high heat. Add slivered almonds and stir butter-almond mixture until almonds are golden brown. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, to taste. Put finished fillets on plates and pour almondine sauce over them. Serve immediately. Serves 2-4.