March 05, 2012
By Matt Straw
They live in the deeper, two-story lakes around here. In the Great Lakes, they often retreat to depths of 200 feet or more to escape the warmer surface layers. They thrive in water temperatures in the 40°F range, but often utilize warmer surface waters in spring to take advantage of the major insect hatches. Their family (salmonidae) includes trout, salmon, and char.
The lake whitefish (coregonus clupeaformis) can be found on, or above, deep flats most of the year. In winter, we hunt them where the bottom is soft and flat somewhere in the 35- to 65-foot range. Typical to find them all suspended or all hugging bottom. Though they might be doing both, all of the biters seem to be doing one or the other.
Whitefish have great vision and small mouths. When they suspend, we drop small handfuls of crappie minnows in the hole. They cluster together and descend slowly. You can watch them with the depth finder while you feed 4-pound line tied to a size #14 treble into the hole. The hook holds a single, tail-hooked minnow. At some point, whities may come scissoring through the cluster of minnows in a criss-crossing array of red flashes on your screen. Or they may not. Go hole hopping, looking for more activity before trying it again.
When whitefish root through the soft bottom looking for annelids and insect larvae, draw them to you with a small, rattling spoon. Pounding 1/16-ounce Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon or Lindy Rattl'N Flyer Spoon calls them to the spot. When marks appear, keep rattling the spoon.
But today the fish were biting a copper-colored tungsten jig from HT Enterprises tipped with a waxworm or two. To get something small enough down past 40 feet, I just tie it to a leader below a bigger spoon or I add a big split shot to the line about a foot above the jig. All the bites came within 3 or 4 feet of the sand, indicating the biters were cruising along bottom but looking up. Rattle spoons were less effective today.
The best is yet to come this evening. As I write this, the last embers of orange are fading in the west, over the semi-frozen Mississippi and I'm done cleaning up. Whitfish rank right up there behind coho salmon, and splake, and right alongside perch — maybe even a notch above bluegills and walleyes on my list of preferences. Gutted, scaled, filled with tiny cubes of garlic, ginger, sea salt, pepper, slices of onion and green pepper, and poached in a pan above a bit of water mixed with brandy, whitefish are haute cuisine. Tonight I have whitefish fillets waiting on ice, and I'm about to saute them in a hot, sweet, and spicy Thai ginger sauce. Oooh baby. Rumors to the effect that whitefish are too oily or must be smoked to be enjoyed are greatly exaggerated. Besides — they're hard to light. (Sorry. Old joke up here. Really breaks up the Ole and Lena crowd.)