Respect the pucker

Why whitefish matter to a river
South Fork of the Snake River - Whitefish
Photo: Kris Millgate

The best fishing trips have an inside joke. On this trip, it’s a word: pucker. And we say it a lot. The late fall cold causes chills on the South Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho. The breakfast shots of whisky shaking off our shivers make us pucker. The jokes start.

“We’re puckered up,” says Justin Hays, The Lodge at Palisades Creek general manager. “Now catch a fish. It’s all you need to take your mind off the cold.”

It’s a two-boat float. Four girls, two guides. I’m in Hays’ boat. We are both known for excessive energy so we are a circus of activity, but among the pucker jokes and fishy fun, we’re here for a serious reason.

The goal of the float is to see a decade of restoration work in action. Trout Unlimited’s concentrated effort to protect this wild fishery, and the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout in it, is paying off. So are the many conservation easements along the undeveloped river that are worth more than $40 million according to the Bureau of Land Management. Some of that money comes from our nation’s now defunct 50-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund that expired in September.

“The fund is one of America’s most successful conservation programs, and until this fall, it’s stood the test of time,” says Chris Hunt, Trout Unlimited national communications director. “The fund improved everything from access to habitat all over the country, including the South Fork, one of the West’s best trout fisheries.”

Along with cutties, there are beefy browns and line-ripping rainbows in the South Fork and as soon as Hays hollers set, I know I have a doozie on the line. The fish surfaces and laughter ripples down the river. I’ve caught a pucker. Not a sucker. A pucker. Also known as a mountain whitefish. Pucker is appropriate because of its small pie hole that’s shaped like your mouth pre-kiss. It takes some skill to set a fly in that mini-mouth, but that’s always dismissed because whitefish get no respect.

“I just don’t think they’re as glamorous as a trout,” says Dan Garren, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional fisheries manager. “They’re easier to catch and in an anglers world, fish that are easy to catch don’t get the respect the wily ones do.”

Fly Fishing - South Fork of the Snake River
Photo: Kris Millgate

Whitefish deserve respect. They’re a river’s canary in a coal mine. Sure you laugh when you catch one, but you should cry when you don’t.

“If you don’t have a healthy population of whitefish, you don’t have a healthy population of trout,” Garren says.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Upper Snake Region is the unofficial expert agency when it comes to whitefish. The South Fork is one of the oldest monitored stretches of water in Idaho so even whitefish, that live a decade longer than trout, are considered in data collection.

“We’re definitely ahead of the curve. We’ve monitored whitefish populations since back in the 80s,” Garren says. “Those habits carried on and turned out to be valuable. We’ve been able to document some fluctuations in population and having that information as a pre-existing condition provides benchmarks for our data collection now.”

I’m tallying my own fish count in the back of the boat when the next set comes from the front. Angler Jen Kugler-Hansen has a whitey within reach. Then my fly takes a hit. We have a double shot of pucker. I want a fat brown on this gray day, but all I see is white. A lot of white. Instead of one whitefish, it’s more like one after another.

South Fork of the Snake River - Whitefish
Photo: Kris Millgate

“We are setting a new whitefish world record today,” Hays jokes. “I’m just sure of it.”

I don’t know about setting any records, but for me, the entertainment value of poking a fish in the pucker never gets old, even if it’s a whitefish. Laugh all you want, but do so with solid respect and a soft release. Hooking a pucker means your water is still good enough for whitefish.


And freshly smoked whitefish is wonderful. Those old gents on the Bitterroot with the long poles and maggots knew a good thing or two.