Bonneville whitefish

A Bonneville whitefish is seen next to a ruler.

Bear Lake occupies more than 100 square miles and straddles the state line between Utah and Idaho in the northeast corner of Utah. Approximately half of the lake is found in each state. Bear Lake is referred to as “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its aqua-blue water. When visiting during the summer you will see throngs of tourists picnicking at state parks or private beach areas, boating, kayaking, jet skiing and paddle boarding in the lake. You will also see many “tour” buses with tourists passing through on their way to visit western national parks and these buses make lunch stops here between Salt Lake City and Yellowstone and Teton National Parks.

One thing you will not typically see much of in the summer, though, are people fishing. Or at least, fishing successfully on Bear Lake proper. The summer months are the slowest time to fish on Bear Lake since most the fish seek the deeper, colder depths during the heat of the summer which makes them inaccessible to most anglers who do not own the specialized equipment, electronics or knowledge to target them.

Although cutthroat trout and lake trout (mackinaw) are the most sought after sport species, there are other fish found in Bear Lake. Bear Lake’s fish population is one of the most unique in the world. Bear Lake has four endemic fish species, found nowhere else in the world. These species — Bonneville whitefish, Bear Lake whitefish, Bonneville cisco and Bear Lake sculpin — tend to spend most of their lives in the off-shore, deep waters in the middle of Bear Lake. The first three species are “sport fish” species which are sought by anglers. The sculpin is a fish that most anglers or visitors to the lake will never see since they are relatively small, are not a fish that anglers desire, and mainly serve as a forage fish for the larger sport fish predators.

There is one thing in common with the endemic species, each comes to rocky areas to spawn. They have evolved so that each comes at a different times of the year, but this article will focus on only one of these species, the Bonneville whitefish. Beginning in late November, around Thanksgiving, and continuing through the middle of December, the Bonneville whitefish will begin spawning in mainly shallow, rocky shoreline areas. During this time the whitefish move to rocky areas off the shoreline on both the east and west sides of Bear Lake and can be caught either from boat or from shore. Some of the hottest fishing action occurs during the coldest time of the year.

The Bonneville whitefish are a sport fish and are typically only caught during their late fall spawning season and again during the ice fishing season — late January through March. The Bonneville whitefish are a completely different species compared to the mountain whitefish, which are found in many Utah streams and some lakes. The mountain whitefish are similar in appearance and color to the Bonneville whitefish, but that is where the similarities end. The Bonneville whitefish has a much larger mouth and has a completely different diet. Once Bonneville whitefish reach about 12 inches, they begin feeding on other fish almost exclusively, whereas their river “cousins” feed on insects their entire life. Since Bonneville whitefish are only found in the lake, they do not develop the strong intermuscular bones that mountain whitefish do which is the objection that is most often heard about anglers not wanting to harvest mountain whitefish for eating.

Before you turn up your nose at eating Bonneville whitefish you should at least try them. The Bonneville whitefish has a nice firm, white flesh and is easily prepared many different ways as you would most other fish. They are good deep fried, baked, smoked or grilled.

How do you catch the Bonneville whitefish? Well if you don’t have a boat, don’t worry you can catch these fish right from shore. However, if you plan on fishing from shore, chest waders or hip boots help and will allow you to walk out a few extra feet in order to cast out a bit farther. If you are in a boat, simply anchor in about 8 to 15 feet of water next to a rocky shoreline and either vertically jig under the boat or make short casts and retrieve your lure so it is right on the bottom. If you do not snag up on a rock occasionally, you should either slow down your presentation or move to an area with more rocks. You can “tip” the lure with a piece of night crawler or meal worm, but it really isn’t necessary since the fish are hitting the lure more out of aggression during their spawning season rather than feeding on the bait. Use a medium to light rod with 4- to 6-pound test mono line. Even better are small diameter superlines such a Spiderwire or Nanofil with a 4-foot leader of fluorocarbon line. These lines do not stretch and are therefore much more sensitive and you are able to detect the sometimes light bite of the whitefish.

You might be surprised, but pound-for-pound Bonneville whitefish fight better than trout. They will readily hit lures such as small — 1/16 to 1/8-ounce — marabou or twister tails jigs, small spoons, small spinners and ice flies. This is a time when they can also be caught on fly rods using a sinking fly line with large flies such as wooly buggers or other brightly colored patterns.

Popular spots to catch Bonneville whitefish from shore include off the Utah State Park marina in Garden City and along the rocky shoreline on the east side of the lake at First and Second Points and Cisco Beach. The water temperatures will be around 40 degrees or even colder, so come prepared to fish in cold weather.

If Bear Lake freezes — historically it happens three out of every four years — then you can also catch the Bonneville whitefish through the ice. The best time to target them is after the Bonneville cisco spawning run which ends around the end of January. Use the same rods and lures that you would for the fall fishing. During the winter the Bonneville whitefish will feed on cisco eggs and you should target them in slightly deeper water. Try fishing over weed beds in anywhere from about 15 to 30-feet of water. Another good spot to try is off the rock piles just north of the Bear Lake State Park marina. These rock piles were built by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to provide both spawning areas for cisco and fishing areas for anglers that are easily accessible. Do not overlook the natural rock pile off the Ideal Beach area. You can’t miss it since there usually are many ice anglers who fish this area and it looks like a small city on some weekends.

After gill-net sampling for over 25 years on Bear Lake for the DWR, I noticed in the last few years the nets have been catching some really large Bonneville whitefish. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Utah state record for Bonneville whitefish is broken sometime this fall or winter.

During sampling in October 2018, the DWR actually caught and released a Bonneville whitefish that was a half-inch longer than the current “catch and keep” state record fish.

The daily whitefish limit is a liberal 10 fish — no size limit — so come up to Bear Lake this winter and try your luck at catching one of Utah’s truly native sport fish species. Not only are they hard fighting but excellent for eating too.