It was the first time Alex Dietz got out on the water after the birth of his first child, a daughter named Willow, a month prior—certainly an auspicious moment for any angler. Dec. 19 brought a chill over Oregon’s hallowed Deschutes River, where he and friends were nymphing for the river’s native redband rainbow trout when something else grabbed his egg pattern.
“It was crazy. It was really heavy in the beginning, and the fish actually jumped twice, completely out of the water,” Dietz told MeatEater. “I was like, ‘What the hell is this thing doing?’ Never had a whitefish jump before, but this one did. So that was kind of cool, I got a little preview before we got it in the net.”
Immediately the group was surprised by the stature of this mountain whitefish, a member of the Salmonid family native to much of Western North America that rarely exceeds two pounds.
“Right when we got it in, we were laughing and saying, ‘Geez, that's such a great whitefish, blah, blah, blah,’” he said. “We literally almost let it go. It was actually my buddy that was like, ‘That could be the state record.’ And we said, ‘Well, should we keep it?’ I legitimately had the fish out of the net in the water with my hand on its tail reviving it.”
Ultimately, the anglers decided they needed to at least see what the massive whitey weighed, so they put it in a bag in the truck while finishing their session. As it turns out, the comment about the state record was quite prescient: Dietz’ 5-pound, 12-ounce fish not only shattered the Oregon state record by nearly a full pound—it was larger than any ever recorded anywhere. Dietz said the International Game Fish Association told him the fish is the pending All-Tackle World Record Mountain Whitefish, besting the existing record from Alberta in 1995 by four ounces.
Dietz, a lifelong fly angler and salesman for Sierra Pacific Windows living in Bend, said he hadn’t caught whitefish more than incidentally until this year.
“Actually, it’s kind of funny, there's a local fly shop around here, Fly and Field, that puts on a tournament called the Whitefish Derby,” he said. “I actually fished it this year and it was super fun. It was the first time I've ever targeted whitefish. But yeah, this one changed the game for me.”
While some anglers treat whitefish as a “trash fish” or distraction from trout and walleye, Dietz doesn’t look at it that way.
“I am not a fish snob in any sense of the word,” he said. “I’ll fish for anchovies with a 1-weight and billfish with a 14-weight. They always say the tug is a drug and that's what it's all about to me, the excitement and enjoying the time you spend fishing.”
Still, diehard anglers do tend to gravitate toward marquee sportfish species: “Do I wish it was a steelhead? Eh, maybe not,” Dietz laughed. “World-record whitefish or steelhead, I’d take world-record whitefish.”
Most regular readers, viewers, and listeners will know that the MeatEater crew are also diehard whitefish anglers and consumers. Steve Rinella filmed two episodes of “It’s Alive” with Brad Leone last summer, where they caught and smoked mountain whitefish from the trout-mecca that is the Yellowstone River. We’ve even speared for lake whitefish in Alaska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They’re plentiful, hard-fighting, and hands down one of the best-tasting freshwater fish on the continent. This fish cakes recipe is sure to make anyone a believer. So think twice about turning one back if you need meat—especially if it weighs more than 5 pounds.