Our Man In Canada
August 19th, 2002

Lake Whitefish On Dry Flies

Whitefish - great eating!

By Gord Ellis
From Fly Fishing Canada, Published by Johnson Borman Publishers

Lake Whitefish are Canada's most overlooked game fish, and for no apparent reason. They take a dry fly with vigor and fight with spirits - if somewhat spastic - determination. Whitefish are also a great on the table, and in most jurisdictions their sheer numbers allow for a guilt-free harvest. Canadian fisheries managers have been trying for years to promote whitefish as an under-utilized species - sort of a poor man's salmon. Luckily, when taken on a fly, a whitefish will blow away a similar-sized brookie, laker or brown trout, so given the chance, a whitefish sells itself.

Whitefish aren't suckers. They're also not bony, nor oily. In fact they are few of the things that most people think they are. Whitefish are, in fact, more closely related to trout than to suckers and sport a very troutlike adipose fin. They do have large scales and a small, pouty mouth, but run a fillet knife through that body and you'll find the bone structure of a salmonid and fine, flavorful meat.

If you've wanted to catch a few whitefish but have had some difficulty in the past, there is no better time to try than during the may fly hatch. Timing the hatch in Canada varies depending on our latitude, but most hatches occur from late May to mid-July. Track down an entomologist or biologist in the area where you live, and they will be able to tell you when the peak of the may fly hatch occurs. The key to making good whitefish catches during the may fly hatch is to fish on the surface, and no technique is more successful than classic dry-fly fishing.

My first real introduction to dry-fly fishing for whitefish took place at Ivanhoe Provincial Park near Chapleau, Ontario, on Canada Day (July 1), 1990. The height of the may fly hatch usually falls on the first week of July in northern Ontario, which is why the local Ministry of Natural Resources was holding a Whitefish Weekend at the park. The may flies were going and the bite was on. Local angler John Seyler and I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours fly fishing the reedy shoreline of a point no more than a stone's throw from the Junior Ranger Camp on Ivanhoe Lake.

The bottom was dark, muddy and shallow - perfect conditions for a mega-sized may fly hatch. We started fishing the lake two hours before the main body of the hatch, yet the whitefish were already lying in wait for that magic moment. Anchored in the canoe, enjoying the muggy afternoon air, we methodically cast to the reed edges and let our flies float on the calm surface. Strikes came quickly, usually in less than a minute if our may fly imitating presentation was sitting high and dry on the water. The whitefish would erupt suddenly under the fly, causing it to disappear into a plate-sized swirl. My heart skipped several beats thanks to these surprise attacks.

At nightfall when the may fly hatch kicked into gear, the whitefish went crazy. In an effort to slurp up as many of the insects as possible, the fish became less wary of a water-saturated fly. Strikes came steadily and double headers were common. By the time it became too dark to thread a line through a hook eye, the fish were on a rampage, striking with abandon. Even a cigar butt was fair game. Seyler called it "a feeding frenzy in every sense of the word" as hundreds of whitefish turned the surface of the lake into a seething cauldron, their silver flanks flashing in the moonlight. We had a blast that night, catching and landing over a dozen 2 - 3 lb (900 g-1.4-kg) fish, while losing countless others due to those paper-thin mouths, slippery scales and our lack of a landing net.

As the moon appeared, the hatch slowed and we went back to camp, wet, slimy and smiling. By any measure it was great fishing, yet only one other angler had been there enjoying the phenomenal action. Since that day I have experienced similar dry-fly fishing for whitefish in several Canadian provinces, and I continue to be struck by the lack of anglers taking it in. That's a shame.

Medium-weight fly gear is all you need for whitefish angling. A 6-weight fly rod, single-action reel and weight-forward floating line will do the trick nicely. For lake fishing during the hatch, I like an 8-9' tapered leader with a 4-6-lb test clear tippet. This setup will do justice to just about any whitefish you run into, and since they can grow to double-digit proportions, a 6-weight will allow you to land any larger fish that may come along. You'll be amazed at how hard these fish pull.

A varied selection of may fly- and caddis-imitating dry flies, a hook hone and a bottle of fly floatant will round out the required equipment.

Long, graceful casts are not usually important in this game, so don't be afraid if you're inexperienced. When whitefish are biting, a short roll cast from the boat or shore is usually fine. Douse your fly liberally with floatant, or it will drown under the barrage of whitey strikes and be virtually useless. The use of floatant helps keep flies on the surface longer, but it's a good idea to carry lots of flies so you don't run out of bone-dry ones to throw. Wear a bandanna or hat and dry your soaked flies on it. Whitefish are not super discriminating about dry flies, but my favorite patterns lean toward old classics that include both the Gray and White Wulff, March Brown, and Mosquitoes in sizes ranging from No. 12-8.

Although lighter-colored flies are a little easier to see, I've found that neutral or grey-colored imitations are most attractive to surface-feeding whitefish. Occasionally, the addition of two or even three flies to a leader can create a feeding frenzy without the benefit of real may flies. This works especially well in the early part of the evening when the whitefish are "looking." Attack the flies to the leader by leaving a long tag end off the top hook eye, or just add an 8" length of leader on the hook shank of the preceding fly. Using the same size and color of fly is a good bet if you want to mimic a may fly hatch, but occasionally, adding two or three different sizes and colors of flies will allow you to figure out quickly which pattern the whitefish want. (Editor's note: Always check provincial/territorial fishing regulations to ensure whether or not more than one fly can be use, and if so, the maximum number permissible.)

When searching out feeding whitefish, watch for boils on the surface and the occasional forked tail slicing the water as signs that the silver fish are gearing up for dinner. Muddy-bottomed bays, weed beds, reed-tipped points, swimming beaches and tapering shorelines are all high-probability spots for major may fly hatches. The fish will be cruising around the reed beds and along the edges of submerged weed beds, waiting to pounce on the flies as they emerge. The splashy take of a whitefish is an exciting thing to witness, especially when it's your fly that is being whacked.

Fly Fishing Canada Expect to miss a lot of strikes and lose a lot of fish when fly fishing for whitefish. They have a small mouth, and the membrane that connects the jaws is paper thin. If a fish strikes your fly, wait to feel it on the line before gently lifting the rod tip to set the hook. A sharp hook really increases hooking success. Play the fish gingerly and take a net - trying to hand land a whitefish is a nerve-wracking experience as they inevitably get off due to those extremely slippery scale.

Fly fishing for whitefish during the may fly hatch is a hoot! It requires only a modicum of skill and equipment while providing maximum fun. In fact, whitefish angling during the may fly hatch deserves to become a Canadian fly-fishing tradition. ~ Gord Ellis

Credits: From Fly Fishing Canada, From Coast to Coast to Coast, By Outdoor Writers of Canada, Published by Johnson Gorman Publishers. We appreciate use permission!

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