Isn’t that why we go? Good times with ‘rough’ fish

Home|Outdoors Feature|Isn’t that why we go? Good times with ‘rough’ fish

I consider myself a “sport fisherman,” as, I suppose, do most of you reading this column. As such, we spend much of our leisurely time in the pursuit of catching various species of “game fish.”

In doing so, we occasionally have the misfortune of catching those other species of lower life forms known to many as the dreaded “rough” fish. These include the many species of lake and river suckers, the common carp, whitefish and even a freshwater herring known as a Goldeye. Upon landing one of the “lower” species of fish, our reaction typically runs anywhere from annoyance to uncontrollable anger; from surprise to a feeling of revulsion and nausea. Take heart dear readers!  Your opinion of rough fish can become more appreciative with a little education and an adjustment in your mental approach. Doing so will make your overall outdoor experience more enjoyable.

First, a few thoughts about carp and suckers. I’m fine with carp now, even though I used to despise them as a young fisherman.  While nymph fishing the Big Horn, I’d occasionally catch a big carp. Usually, however, the carp would stick to the slower, warmer stretches of the river where you wouldn’t find trout anyway.  Every time I, or one of my clients, would catch a carp we’d notice that the battle to get the fish landed was typically just as exciting as with any trout we’d ever landed. When I began to actually look closely at a carp in the net, I noticed all kinds of beautifully bright gold and orange coloring woven throughout its gigantic scales. I came to realize that carp were just a large, brownish colored version of the goldfish we used to keep on the table at home as kids. Back in the 1990s I would go up on Big Horn Reservoir with outfitters Steve Hilbers or Brad Downey to spend the day intentionally fishing for carp with our fly rods. It was more fun stalking and catching five to ten pound reservoir carp than any saltwater bonefish I’d ever caught in the Bahamas.

Plain old river suckers are the only rough fish that I still have a problem catching. They are so incredibly ugly!  Fortunately, they are total bottom feeders which you don’t often catch on a fly rod.  I try to remember that they have a place in nature, and that large brown trout love to eat sucker minnows for an afternoon meal.  When I catch them, I try not to touch them and their icky slime.  I just remind them verbally that they need to lay some eggs to feed the trout in the river, and to stay away from my flies! If they don’t seem to be listening, a tablespoon of tobacco spit into their circular, gaping, sucking mouth will surely remind them to stay away from our artificial flies. You all can thank me for my years of training suckers to refrain from eating artificial flies and lures.

As to the Goldeyes, my young son has helped me to develop a great appreciation for their place in nature. Goldeyes, often referred to Goldeneye Shad, are actually a member of the herring family, and exist in heavy numbers in the lower Yellowstone River and the lower Big Horn. In years of very hot summers and unusually warm water temperatures, the Goldie’s would migrate upstream into higher reaches of the Big Horn and Tongue rivers to join up with the trout. Although not a terribly unattractive fish, the Goldie’s would frequently get in the way of efforts to catch trout on dry flies, and then, when hooked, they’d fight about as well as a wet sock. You just have to learn to recognize their rise forms and avoid casting to them.  They typically feed in schools which the trout wish to avoid anyway. When I had my fly shop on the Big Horn, I used to take my 5-yr-old son with me when I’d go out to pick up my rental boats anchored at different access points along the river. One night at the 3-mile ramp, my son went wondering along a high bank looking for fire flies.  He yelled excitedly for me to come see the fire flies in the river.

Wondering what he was talking about, I joined him to witness hundreds of little bright lights slowly swirling around in the calm, deep waters below the boat ramp. I finally realized these were goldeyes, and we were seeing in their eyes the reflection from the large street lamp looming over the boat ramp.

My son would toss a pebble into their midst, and the lights would quickly swirl about for a moment and then completely disappear.  Five minutes later the lights would reappear, one by one, until we’d see the hundreds of fish all lined up in their schools and moving about again in their slow, dreamy swirls. To this day, I thank the Goldeyes for many nights of quality time with my young son, when I would otherwise be working alone.

Finally, let’s consider the Rocky Mountain Whitefish. Back in the ‘70s, when I guided daily on Montana’s Madison River, I used to absolutely hate catching whitefish.  A whitefish, native to this part of the country, is a bland white/silver in color, with a soft tiny, little mouth similar to a sucker but extending out from the front of its face like a trout, vs. the circular sucking mouth hanging from the underside of a sucker’s head (See?  Some of you’re already getting nauseated).  Besides, once hooked, they too would put forth a very timid battle compared to a trout.

There are heavy populations of whitefish in the Madison, and they’d always get in the way of me and my fishing client’s pursuit of the more attractive brown and rainbow trout.  Over the years, however, my opinion of the “Whitey” began to evolve.  There are many hot summer days on the Madison where it seemed like whitefish were all you could catch.  I remember clients hooking a 12-inch whitey and yelling “Yeah! I’ve got a nice rainbow on the line now!”  I’d roll my eyes, and jump out of the boat to net the fish and tell the client he’d not caught a rainbow — rather something far from it.  Then, while holding the fish in the net, out of view along the boat’s side, the fish would squirm away before I could ruin the client’s excitement.  They’d typically yell “That’s alright, I’ve got plenty of trout pictures.  Get back in the boat and let’s catch another one!”  Hmmmmm.  This later evolved, on those hot slow, days of trout fishing, into my jumping out of the boat, netting and unhooking the whitefish, then holding it up quickly with my hands covering the fish’s face and forked tail.  Before the client could get a good look, I’d intentionally let the fish squirt out of my hands and back into the water.  Occasionally the client would say “Hey, that was just a whitefish!” but many times they’d say “Hey, great rainbow!  I can catch ‘em on the slowest of days!”  Who was I to spoil their fun with proper identification of the species?

When you realize that whitefish are most closely related to the arctic grayling, and, along with grayling and the Yellowstone cutthroat trout, are the only game fish native to the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, you begin to develop a better appreciation for the species.  One day, back in 1979, I decided to take a day to hike alone into the lower reaches of the Lewis River Canyon in Yellowstone Park.  I was hoping to catch a few large browns or cutthroat who are known to migrate into the Lewis from the upper reaches of the Snake River.  All I caught that day were a few small cutthroat, and a ton of whitefish.  One of those whiteys, however, I measured to be exactly 23.5 inches long.  If I’d kept it for recording, that fish would still stand as the Montana state record.  All “game fish” in the Lewis River, are required by law to be released back into the water.  I probably wouldn’t have kept it anyway, even if I’d known about the record.

It just seemed that old fish had weathered a lot to get that big in the rough waters of the Lewis River Canyon, and I was happy to let it go.  Later that night, when told I’d caught and released a state record, I wasn’t upset at all.  In fact I later fell asleep in bed with a very contented smile on my face.  After all, isn’t that really why we go fishing in the first place?


GORDON ROSE works as a commercial fly tier and operates Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, part of a national nonprofit organization which teaches disabled military veterans fly fishing, fly tying and fly rod-building as part of their therapy. – See more at:

By |June 12th, 2014|

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