The Washington Outdoor Report - Fall And Winter Whitefish

This 9.6-pound lake whitefish was caught this month during a pike netting survey at Lake Roosevelt. Pictured are Ashley Caldwell and Randy Osborne with WDFW. Courtesy WDFW

A small mountain whitefish taken on a fly. Courtesy John Kruse


Call them the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the Pacific Northwest. The whitefish, whether it be the mountain whitefish found in streams or the lake whitefish found in Eastern Washington reservoirs and the Columbia River, are fish that like Rodney, “Don’t get no respect”. It’s a shame, because in the steelhead-salmon-trout centric state of Washington, we are overlooking a fine gamefish that tastes good, fights well, and offers liberal limits of 15 fish per day with no minimum size.

Mountain Whitefish

Found throughout Central and Eastern Washington (as well as the Rocky Mountain states) the mountain whitefish is truly underfished. Many trout anglers look down on them but these scrappy fighters are a lot of fun and have a reputation of tasting very well out of a smoker. An average mountain whitefish runs from 8 to 11 inches long but 16-inch fish are not uncommon and even a 20-inch whitefish is not out of the question.

In the summer casting nymphs or streamers from a fly rod or casting small spinners works well for these fish but as the water cools in the late fall you should change your tactics. Danny Garrett is a fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with a solid knowledge of whitefish. He suggests fishing a brightly colored nymph (with red, orange or pink) under a strike indicator above a dropper weight and near the bottom. Garrett says, “In the fall you’ll find the whitefish in slow runs below riffles” and this is a prime time to target them. In late fall the whitefish will move into these riffles to spawn and they can be trickier to catch. After that, they will move into deeper holes for the remainder of the winter and in some cases will move out of streams into reservoirs such as Lake Roosevelt. 

Unfortunately, many rivers and streams that traditionally provided good opportunities for late fall and winter whitefish (such as the Wenatchee and Methow Rivers) have been closed for several years because of the impacts on endangered summer steelhead. However, several rivers still offer good winter fishing to include the Yakima, Entiat and the Little Spokane Rivers (open December 1st through the last day of February) and The Kettle River in Northeast Washington (open from November 1st through the end of February). On all of these rivers whitefish gear rules must be followed (only a single hook, size 14 or smaller is allowed and bait (usually maggots) may be used).

Lake Whitefish

Lake whitefish have a tremendous following in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes but only a few anglers target them in Washington State. These fish are not native to Washington but are now found in the Upper Columbia River and several connected reservoirs connected to include Lake Roosevelt, Banks Lake, Moses Lake, Potholes Reservoir and Scooteney Reservoir. They commonly weigh two to three pounds and the state record (caught on rod and reel) is 6.81 pounds). 

Danny Garrett with WDFW says, “There is a tremendous biomass of whitefish in all of these reservoirs”. However, Garrett says unless you know where to find them you probably won’t run into them. In the summer the lake whitefish will stay in the deepest holes. 

In the winter lake whitefish will move into shallower waters and reservoir inlets to spawn. At Banks Lake you will not only find them by the inlet but also at the very south end of the lake as well. This makes the months of December and January a great time for anglers to go after these fish from the bank or from a boat. 

No matter what time of year you are looking for them, use your electronics to locate schools of these large fish near the bottom. Then, fish close to the bottom with bait like a shrimp fished under a slip bobber or use a small vertical jigging spoon such as a small Northland Forage Minnow Spoon, a Mack’s Sonic Baitfish, a Swedish Pimple or a Cicada Reef Runner. 

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has produced an excellent video about fishing for lake whitefish which can be seen on YouTube at 

Finally, if you are looking for some recipes to cook up these chunky lake whitefish, try the Great Lakes Whitefish website at You’ll find recipes there for blackened whitefish with asparagus, broiled whitefish with caper berry aioli and even cedar plank-roasted whitefish with roasted tomato and olive relish. These mouth-watering offerings alone are enough to get you bundled up and outside to try your hand at whitefish this fall and winter.

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