Some fly anglers see whitefish as a nuisance, a bottom-feeder species that impedes their ability to land beautiful rainbow trout.
But others appreciate the whitefish for what they bring to trout fisheries, and some even specifically target the fish.
A group of Central Oregon anglers took that appreciation to another level this past Saturday in the inaugural Whitefish Fishing Derby, hosted by Fly & Field Outfitters in Bend.
On an unseasonably warm day, about 40 anglers competed on lakes and rivers in the region to attempt to land large whitefish. In Central Oregon, whitefish are native to the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius rivers, and to Odell, Cultus, Crescent and Suttle lakes.
The derby was the brainchild of Kyle Schenk, a guide for Fly & Field Outfitters who also handles the shop’s marketing and media.
“Whitefish tend to get a really bad rap from a lot of people,” Schenk says. “Even on the river with clients, they’ll hook a whitefish, their first fish ever on a fly rod, and they get disappointed because it’s not a trout. We constantly have people saying, ‘Oh, just another whitefish.’”
But Schenk and other anglers know the importance of whitefish to Central Oregon waters, as whitefish actually help trout thrive.
According to fisheries biologists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, whitefish play a crucial ecological role because their eggs are an important source of food and protein to trout during the winter months when whitefish are spawning.
Whitefish — the variety common in Central Oregon is called mountain whitefish — are a salmonid, in the same family as salmon and trout. Part of the reason why whitefish are unpopular with anglers might be that they are simply not as aesthetic as a red-sashed rainbow trout or a dark-spotted brown trout. Mountain whitefish feature a mouth that is turned under, and they are covered by large, rather unsightly scales.
“Honestly, I think they get a bad rap mainly because of the way they look,” Schenk says of whitefish. “They’re bottom feeders, but they also eat dry flies and streamers, and they’ll chase flies down. I think people just think they’re a nuisance, when you’re catching those instead of trout. But we just want to let people know that they’re not a nuisance and actually a very important part of our river and lake system, and they’re something we should celebrate instead of being opposed to them.”
The celebration in Central Oregon started with “Whitefish Week” last week at Fly & Field as a buildup to the derby. Schenk loaded the shop’s social media pages with fun facts about whitefish and several photos.
For the derby, anglers (about 40 participated) were allowed to fish on any open waters across the region starting at 7 a.m., but they had to return to Fly & Field in southwest Bend by 5 p.m. Contestants used official whitefish derby rulers to measure their fish and provide photos or videos of each fish landed next to the ruler before releasing the fish. Two divisions were offered, guide and open, and the winners would be those with the greatest aggregate length of their five longest whitefish.
Jay Boucher, of Bend, won the guide division with a measurement of 81.25 inches, landing his fish on the Lower Deschutes near Mecca Flat. Bend’s Adrian Zamarripa was the open-division winner, netting a five-fish total of 77 inches after a day on the Metolius.
Dylan Brandt, also of Bend, caught the most whitefish, landing 43 on the Upper Deschutes near Lava Island Falls. But his five biggest fish did not quite stack up.
“The largest whitefish I catch have always been on the Lower Deschutes,” says Zamarripa, 36. “But my strategy on this derby was getting all five (on the Metolius), and the average fish that I get on the Metolius is about 15 inches. I figured that would be my best bet, and it worked out. From my experience, when you catch a big one at the Crooked it would be the average size on the Metolius.”
Zamarripa focused his fishing on the deep pools of the Metolius, getting his nymph to the bottom of the river using a long leader and split shot for weight. He had his wife and a few friends help him measure and photograph the fish he landed.
“If you’re catching a lot of whitefish, that’s a really good sign for the fishery altogether and it’s a really good sign of a healthy river and healthy water,” Zamarripa says. “Once you start catching those big, fat, heavy whitefish, it’s a pleasure. I’ve grown to really appreciate that fish. It’s not like you’re fishing for trout and you catch a catfish or something. (Whitefish) feed on the bottom, but they’re eating the same bugs that trout are.”
For winning the open division, Zamarripa was awarded a trophy and an Echo Base fly rod. The anglers met back at Fly & Field that evening for a barbecue and to share their stories of a day on Central Oregon waters targeting whitefish.
Schenk says the whitefish derby will likely become an annual fall event.
“People were really hyped about it,” he says. “And our goal is to bring some love back to the whitefish.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,