Post date: Monday, March 5, 2012 - 20:48
Updated date: 2/6/17
Lake Whitefish - Coregonus clupeaformis


An iconic fish of the north, the elusive Lake Whitefish is as challenging to catch as it is tasty. Often scorned by mainstream anglers, this fish is a tremendously under-appreciated facet of our northern aquatic ecosystems.




Lake whitefish are olive-green to blue on the back, with silvery sides. They have a small mouth below a thick, rounded snout that overhangs the mouth. A deeply forked tail affords the lake whitefish good speed and maneuverability. They are mostly found in larger lakes, where they prefer deep, cool water for most of the year. Shallow, heavily vegetated areas are too warm for lake whitefish in the summer. The lake whitefish feeds on insects, snails, clams, freshwater shrimp, small fish, fish eggs, and bottom organisms. Larger whitefish feed more heavily on fish than small ones do. Most feeding takes place on or near lake-bottoms, and feeding whitefish often churn up silt from the bottom, producing smokey puffs of silt that can be seen and recognized from a distance, by a watchful angler (or a competing school of whitefish, eager to get in on the good eating!). Lake Whitefish once reached weights of up to 20 pounds, but now fish over 10 are extremely rare.




In the summer, lake whitefish often roam about in deep water, without relating to structure. At other times they relate to reefs, weedbeds, and shallow flats. Wherever there is an ample food supply to browse on, along with cold, oxygenated water, you will find whitefish in good numbers. Lake Whitefish occur in many of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior and Lake Michigan are the best producers; the lower lakes have become too warm for whitefish.  They also occur in many deep, coolwater lakes east of the prairie. They are present in many lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Quetico of Ontario, where they often co-occur with native lake trout, burbot, and several species of cisco.  and in lakes of the Upper Mississippi River drainage (for example Ball Club, Cass, Leech, the Whitefish Chain, and Ten Mile). They also frequent the massive Upper and Lower Red Lake and Lake of the Woods. Like the cisco, they require cool, well-oxygenated water in the summertime, which keeps them confined to the deeper portions of the lake. In the winter, however, they can be found in water as shallow as one foot. These areas, since they are off-limits to browsing whitefish for most of the year, offer a smorgasbord for the whitefish once the lake freezes over. Whitefish spawn over sand and gravel shoals, in the fall. Shallow weedbeds near these spawning shoals may become a whitefish magnet soon after the spawn.





Lake Whitefish can sometimes be caught in deep open water during the summer. Try plumbing the depths with a heavily weighted rig and a tiny spoon. Heavy insect hatches (usually Caddis, Mayflies, or Midges) may bring them to the surface, at which time fly tackle becomes very effective. The Giant Mayfly Hexegenia limbata is a known attractor for whitefish, and heavy Hex hatches can drive whitefish into a surface-feeding frenzy.


Ice Fishing for Whitefish

Fishing for Lake Whitefish through the ice is a really fun way to spend a winter day in the northlands. Big whitefish move into very shallow water in the wintertime. We like to set up in about 6-12 feet of water, near a break that drops down to a large area of deep water. If you can find an area with good schools of baitfish, all the better. Whitefish travel the edge of the break, picking off any baitfish they find there. Young-of-the-year perch are a favourite whitefish snack food - I've caught whitefish that were positively stuffed full of tiny yellow perch. We often use crappie minnows for bait, usually suspending two of them - one near the bottom, one suspended several feet up. The higher bait is less likely to be harassed by small perch. I like a plain #8 circle hook, a single split shot, and a small bobber that barely floats.  Some whitefish lakes also hold populations of burbot and lake trout, so a switch from whitefishing to pounding the deeper side of the break with big baits might be a good tactic near sunset.


Chumming up Whitefish

In Canada, die-hard whitefishers also chum for whitefish - which is illegal where I fish, but might be a good option for you if it's allowed in your area. Chum consisting of cooked pasta, salted minnows, rice, barley, oats, or fish eggs can be used to attract whitefish to your area, and to keep them around long enough to catch them. A favorite is cooked macaroni mixed with tapioca and cod liver oil.



Whitefish for the Table

One of the most versatile fishes, Lake Whitefish are unequalled in the culinary department. Fried, baked, broiled, smoked, or canned, it is simply delicious. French explorer Antoine Denis Raudot wrote in 1710:

“The fish that [The Chippewa] fish for there are the trout, the sturgeon, and the whitefish. This last, which is the size of a shad and has no other bones but one in the middle, must be the best fish in the world, since all those who have eaten it say that they never grow tired of it and prefer it to all other meats that one could find.”

They can be filleted the same as their trout or salmon cousins, leaving you with white, flakey, boneless meat that puts even the vaunted walleye to shame. Smoked, they are simply superb. My favorite way to cook them is to bake them whole, with the body cavity stuffed with herbs. Once cooked, open them up, sprinkle a little lemon juice, and dig in, pulling the white, flakey meat off the bones with a fork. Incredible!


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