Sometimes you just want to catch a batch of fish. If for no other reason than to prove you can. Anyway, that’s how I felt last week after being housebound for several days because of the latest cold weather inversion.
So I talked a fishing buddy into going after mountain whitefish on the Hanford Reach. He was agreeable, mainly because I took my boat and picked him up at his front door for the short drive to Ringold.
Despite high flow and a cruel north wind, we managed to hook and release more than a dozen whitefish ranging from 12 to 18 inches long opposite the Ringold Springs Hatchery complex. A bonus was netting a small hatchery steelhead that struck my buddy’s single-egg rig.
Mountain whitefish are one of about 30 fish species native to the Columbia Basin. They were also one of the first fishes encountered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition when they crossed the Continental Divide in 1805. Similar to their trout and salmon cousins, whitefish have an adipose fin, but are considered trash fish by many anglers.
Although as many as 100,000 mountain whitefish passed upstream over McNary and Priest Rapids dams annually 50 years ago, their current population status is unknown. The daily catch limit, 15 fish with no size restriction, is generous for a species that lacks a formal management plan.
One thing is for sure, however. Large numbers of mountain whitefish hang out near fall Chinook salmon spawning areas every autumn to gorge on loose eggs. And it’s during and shortly after this feeding binge time where they are most vulnerable to hook-and-line. Indeed, one friend reported seeing anglers catch them “two at a time” near Vernita Bar in mid-November.
Whitefish are relatively easy to find this time of year, particularly if you know where fall Chinook salmon spawn. A common habitat denominator is riffle runs adjacent to gravel-cobble bars that range in depth from 6 to 20 feet. Boat anglers familiar with Reach bottom profiles might give Vernita Bar, Coyote Rapids, Locke Island, Ringold or Taylor Flats a try. Drifting slowly downstream at a speed slightly slower than the current helps keep your lure bouncing along the bottom. Deploy your bow-mount motor for better control of drift speed and position.
A slight upstream presentation works well using either a three-way swivel or drift rig set up with a slinkie or pencil lead as a terminal sinker. Attach a 18- to 24-inch leader with a size 10 to 14 barbless hook. Slide an artificial salmon egg, such as Exude soft plastic roe or a 10mm orange bead, over the hook shank to fool an egg-hungry whitefish. I’ve also had good results bouncing a No. 12 sparse-tied red or orange hackle fly tipped with a maggot. Whitefish are aggressive feeders and will also hammer small spinners, such as a No. 2 silver-and-blue Vibrax trolled in a downstream direction. Because they are a schooling species, keep moving until you feel the distinctive sharp rap that signifies a strike.
I’ve found that a lightweight trout rod provides good sport from a boat. In contrast, a medium-light 8½ foot spinning rod and reel loaded with 10-pound test works better for shoreline anglers, allowing for longer casts with a traditional drift rig. Shoreline opportunity is pretty much restricted to the Ringold and Vernita Bar areas.
Early naturalists called mountain whitefish “bottlenose,” perhaps because their narrow pointed mouth ends in a bulbous nose. This mouth shape allows them to pick loose eggs and insect larvae from within the crevices of river cobble. It is also a deterrent to getting them off the hook. So don’t forget your needlenose pliers if you choose to practice catch-and-release.
The Hanford Reach is a great choice for local anglers considering the state record for mountain whitefish — 5 pounds 2 ounces — was caught at Vernita Bar. Unfortunately, the lower Yakima River downstream of Granger is closed to fishing for the year. I admit to being one cast away from learning that fact the hard way a few years back.
As for my latest catch, it took exactly eight medium-sized whitefish to fill my Little Chief Smoker. While some bone-picking was involved, their meat was as flaky and delicious as rainbow trout. A bonus was a pint of small translucent eggs that I soaked in brine to transform into tangerine-colored caviar. You might consider doing some of the same this holiday season.