Whitefish & the Madison River

by | Mar 23, 2011 | 0 comments


Rick Welle lands another.

Over the past several years, anglers and biologist alike, have noticed a decline in Rocky Mountain Whitefish on the Madison River.  Some anglers believe that Whitefish are a plague to the Rocky Mountains and when this resentment comes aboard my vessel, I kick it to the curb.  Whitefish are just that – fish.  They dont eat shitty drifted flies.  And they are native.  And they need respect.   While their fight is not that of Rainbow or Brown, most anglers can’t tell what species of fish is on their line while nymphing.  Many times in my boat, while nymphing a rubber leg and a PT, anglers have unhappily exclaimed, “Damn, just another whitey”.  This comment drives me nuts……because, more often than not, it is a nice brown trout who has decided not to jump.  Said angler plays the fish, like it is wasting their time – slack line, rod tip anywhere but the sky, mis-stripping…….and the fly pops out, or off.   I actually love it when anglers do this and break the fly off.  Why, you ask?  Well, most of the time, a trout with a hook in its mouth will jump.  Even if it never jumped while on the line.  When the trout does jump after being broke off, as a guide, it is feels good to point out the jumping trout and tell the angler to hand you their line since that “whitefish” they broke off was actually a trout jumping with their fly in its mouth.   folks will look at the jumping fish, the to you, then to the fish again, then realize what you said about their fly and grasp at the line to see if there is a fly still on it.  I rarely try to be a smart ass, but that scenario is hard to pass up.

  Moral of the story – RESPECT – if something eats your fly, be happy. 

Montana FWP Region 3 biologists are begining to study Rocky Mountain Whitefish this summer on the Madison.  Whitefish research is relatively non-existent.  FWP doesn’t really know how many ther are in the Madison, as their shocking efforts (a type of creel census…if you call it that) are only focused on trout.   Whitefish spawn in the Fall: October through November and hatch in early spring……about right now.  Some can live past 10 years.  I have heard some old reports that the Madison, at one time, had 15,000 whitefish per mile.  From my experiece on the Madison, there is no where near 15,000 per mile.  The actual number does seem to be down as compared to the my early days of guiding some 13 years ago.  The decline most likey was noticed about 7 years ago…although it only seems like 4 or 5 to me. 

Trout prey heavily on juvenile whitefish during late summer when hatches are scarce.  Some theories say that the lack of whitefish could correlate with the decrease in trout numbers and trout size the past few seasons on the Madison.  Another theory believes that the number of whitefish in a stream is a tell tale sign of how heathy the river is. 

As more information comes to light, we will come back to this interesting study of Whitefish on the Madison River……stay tuned!


Looking upstream from Reynolds Bridge