Fishers hope to catch whitefish on Little Atlin Lake as part of the YFGA youth outdoor camp in partnership with YG Environment and the Yukon fish and wildlife enhancement trust. (Dennis Zimmerman/submitted photo)

Angling for one of Yukon’s overlooked fishing gems

Fish and game association educates kids on the upside of the overlooked whitefish

If Pixar were to make a coming-of-age-style animated movie featuring Yukon’s fish, it would have an easy time assigning characters. The sporty, monied, all-American golden boy would be played by a lake trout, the dim-witted and misunderstood bully would be a northern pike. The love interest would be the rare-but-much desired coho salmon, surrounded by an entourage of gorgeous rainbow trout and grayling girlfriends, who shun the unpopular punk-fish, burbot and inconnu.

Against this typecast, the whitefish would play the good hearted but overlooked and socially-awkward boy-hero as he tries to win the girl, avoid getting eaten and save the lake from depopulation by well-meaning but uneducated townsfolk during a fishing derby.

“Whitefish are the Yukon’s forgotten species,” says Dennis Zimmermann of Fish On Yukon.

Zimmerman, in partnership with the Yukon Fish and Game Association, recently hosted a day class aimed at teaching kids to appreciate (and catch) these lesser known fish on Little Atlin Lake.

Fourteen kids went out for the day, and they caught eight good-sized fish, says Zimmermann. They kept three, and served them up for dinner so the kids could taste them.

“Just because you’re catching a lot of a fish doesn’t mean you have to keep your limit,” he says Zimmermann. “You catch what you need for dinner.”

Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) are green and brown, with a silver stripe and underside and a dramatically-forked tail, according to the Environment Yukon website. They are native to Yukon’s lakes and rivers where they dine on mollusks, insects and smaller fish. They prefer cold water and can grow to be between two and four pounds. They are sometimes called “humpback” whitefish because of the telltale bump along their spine.

Whitefish are native to Yukon’s lakes and rivers, but are easiest to catch in lakes, where they prefer clear, cold water says Zimmermann.

“There’s very few lakes they’re not in — you’re going to find them in almost every lake system (in Yukon),” he says.

Zimmermann says he thinks whitefish aren’t as popular for recreational anglers, partly because they’re not as easy to catch as more gregarious, better-known species, such as grayling.

“We always target the more iconic species. They’re tasty and it’s what we know. There’s a Yukon-based culture around lake trout, for example,” he says. “And pike are basically junkyard fishing — pike aren’t fussy and we’re kind of spoiled by pike.”

“Whitefish are just not as sexy — they’re picky and they have small mouths.”

Despite this finicky reputation, Zimmerman says whitefish are a rewarding (and delicious) challenge for the recreational angler.

“It’s kind of a special mindset to target these species,” he says. “You’ve got to get into ‘whitefish zen-mode.’ That’s how I explain it to kids. You’re a kind of jedi, using mind-tricks, to catch these fish.”

Zimmerman says that sight-fishing for whitefish — going out in a boat and looking for the fish moving directly under the surface of the water and then tempting them with something they might find alluring, a common practice for pike-anglers — is a great way to nab them. Whitefish typically travel in schools, so where you see one, there’s often many.

Small spoons and spinners work, but Zimmerman recommends beadhead flies. These common patterns are a wet fly — meaning they are meant to be fished below the surface of the water— and work either on a fly or spinrod and mimic nymphs (the immature larva of various insects) on which many fish feed. On a spin rod, they are often rigged with a bobber and weight so that they can just drift around, tempting the fish with the prospect of dinner so they can be your dinner.

“The aim is to demystify fishing. We’ve made fishing so technical. This is just a bobber,

weight and fly. Simple,” Zimmerman says.

“Tactics-wise, you have to employ a lot of patience.”

Winter is also a great time to target whitefish, Zimmermann says, and environment Yukon has a program working with Yukonstruct to make ice fishing rods for kids for this purpose.

While they’re not nearly as popular as trout or grayling, whitefish played and continue to play an important role among Yukon’s First Nations, for whom whitefish were a traditional staple.

“There’s definitely a latent demand and interest in Whitefish,” he says.

Fishing for whitefish isn’t just about a challenge (or a shore lunch) says Zimmerman. It’s also about conservation.

Lake trout are highly-prized by anglers, but are slow to mature and spawn, making them highly susceptible to overfishing. This is especially true of lakes near campgrounds or easy road access. Snafu and Tarfu Lakes, for example — traditionally popular lake trout destinations — are closed for recreational lake trout fishing this year, permitting only catch and release for this delicate species.

“I think lake trout in the accessible lakes are in trouble,” he says. “They’re a super slow-growing species and they have a lot going against them in terms of climate.”

Changing the kinds of fish anglers target from slow-growing species like lake trout, to faster-spawning, more common and more numerous species like whitefish take pressure of these threatened lake trout populations, says Zimmermann.

“It’s about making sustainable choices,” he says.

Zimmermann and the Yukon Fish and Game Association recently released a video on how to catch whitefish. For more information or to see the video, you can visit www.yukonfga.ca.

Contact Lori Garrison at lori.garrison@yukon-news.com