Lake whitefish inhabit large infertile lakes and river systems in the northern tier of the United States, all of Alaska, and across Canada, from the the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. Despite the short growing season and harsh environment, whitefish often grow large — one taken off Isle Royale around 1918 weighed an incredible 42 pounds. Today, lake whitefish rarely exceed 15 pounds, with fish from 4 to 8 pounds more common. These fish readily attack artificial lures and, once hooked, they pull like a smallmouth and jump like a baby tarpon. They’re also abundant in some waters and always provide an excellent meal. You may not book a whitefish-only fly-in trip after catching one, but you won’t go into whitefish country without light tackle, either.
Rod: 6- to 7 1/2-foot, light- to medium-power spinning rod.
Reel: medium-capacity spinning reel.
Line: 6- to 10-pound-test mono.
Lake whitefish, like other members of the whitefish clan, are cold-water fish. When surface temperatures rise into the mid-60F range, they move deep, staying below the thermocline much of the time. Researchers have collected them as deep as 420 feet. In early summer, however, they can be found on shallow offshore reefs or rocky points, feeding on small clams, insect larvae, leeches, and small fish. They return to these shallow rocky areas again in fall, when they spawn. Biologists report large spawning groups leaping over shallow reefs with water temperatures only in the upper 40F range.
It’s hard to beat 1/16-ounce marabou jigs or small in-line spinners, but in lakes with large northern pike populations, expect to get bit off continually. A small jig suspended beneath a float or casting bubble near the surface still takes lots of whitefish and won’t attract as many pike. This rig can also be drifted or slowly retrieved across rocky reefs and points without hanging up. Just before dark, whitefish sipping emerging insects from the surface film often hit dry flies presented on a fly rod or casting bubble, or small compact spoons like Acme Kastmasters or Little Cleos. Trolling spoons also are effective later in the season when whitefish suspend over deep water.