Winter Whitefish

Cold weather brings out cold water fish—a delicious part of Northern Ontario winters.

The historic lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) is one of Northeastern Ontario’s lesser-known cold-water fish. They are highly important winter sport fish nonetheless and are superb table fare. Found in cold northern lakes, whitefish were at one time this country’s most important commercial fish species.

They are often associated with the lake trout, as the two share similar habitats. The whitefish is a close relative of the trout, being a member of the family Salmonidae, and is usually caught on lake bottoms by ice anglers during the wintertime. Their flaky white meat and mild taste make them an ideal choice for a variety of dishes (we've included a recipe below to get you started).

Back in the 1960s, the Great Lakes alone produced nearly 18 million pounds of whitefish per year. This "white gold" was caught commercially using gillnets and trap nets and marketed in the 1- to 5-pound range. Although the commercial whitefish industry has all but disappeared, sport fishing for whitefish remains popular in Ontario, especially in the larger waters of the Northeast. If you're fortunate enough to catch one of these special creatures, you're among a chosen few.

Whitefish regulations

A mix of whitefish, yellow perch, and pickerel (walleye)

Photo: Fish Bay Marina & Smitty's Ice Bungalows

Recreational fishing regulations for Northeastern Ontario in Fisheries Management Zone (FMZ) 10 & 11 offer liberal regulations for whitefish, with a year-round season and catch limits of eight under a Conservation License, and 12 for a regular Ontario Fishing License.

Click here for more information on fishing Lake Whitefish in Northeastern Ontario.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry explains that whitefish are most easily caught during the winter, with the use of small (live or salted) minnows, or small jigs tipped with a worm or leech. They prefer deep sections of deep lakes and shallow sections of lakes in the north. Whitefish move into rivers and streams to feed in the early spring and are often found in deeper pools behind spawning beds. Whitefish move to shoal areas of large lakes and rivers during the winter season.

Fact: The largest whitefish ever caught by an angler weighed a scale-straining 19 kg (42 lbs) and was caught in the northwestern part of Lake Superior in 1918.

Lodge opportunities in northeastern Ontario

 Photo: Grant Bailey

The elusive cold water-loving whitefish can be found in fishable numbers, under the right conditions with the right tackle in parts of Ontario. Several lodges in the northeast offer ice fishing opportunities onsite.  

Temagami Shores Inn & Resort, for example, is open year-round and well-located geographically for targeting whitefish. Lake Temagami is a large glacial lake stretching 60 kilometres from north to south. The name Temagami means “deep water” in the Anishinaabe language, dropping to over 300 feet in some spots. The deep-water whitefish have ample habitat in this large body of northern water.

Ice huts on Lake Nipissing. Photo: Fish Bay Marina & Smitty's Ice Bungalows

Lake Nipissing is another top destination for winter whitefish action. The cold deep and oligotrophic structure of Nipissing is picture-perfect for deep-water whitefish. While travelling in the North Bay area, be sure to check out Fish Bay Marina and consider renting one of their cozy ice huts. Sam and Kevin Simpkin are your hosts and know a thing or two about catching winter whitefish. The Simpkins offer four, six, and eight-person ice bungalows for rent, equipped with cooking facilities, a TV, and DVD player.

Whitefish as table fare

Whitefish is a pleasant, mild-tasting fish that many people avoid cooking because they are unclear on how to properly season it. One challenge when preparing whitefish is getting flavouring into the meat, since fish is not usually cooked long enough to really take on the flavour of whatever you cook it with, and these fish are particularly mild.

Simply cooking with herbs layered on top, either fresh or dried, doesn’t really do the trick for whitefish. You will have better success by first infusing herbs or spices in oil or melted butter, then brushing it on the fish. This basting action allows a natural absorption of the flavours into the unassuming fish.

Magnificent Broiled Whitefish

For a delectable winter whitefish treat, try this Magnificent Broiled Whitefish recipe featured in my Outdoor Writers of Canada award-winning Canadian Fishing Cookbook, published by Canada’s foremost authority on cooking, Company’s Coming.

Serves: 4

  • 3 lbs whole whitefish, bones removed, not filleted
  • ¼ cup melted butter, divided
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp chopped parsley
  • lemon wedges, for garnish

Preheat broiler. Brush the broiler rack lightly with some melted butter. Stir salt and pepper into the remaining butter. Brush the inside of the whitefish with some butter mixture. Place whitefish on broiler rack. Brush the skin with a small amount of butter mixture. Reserve the remaining butter mixture. Broil whitefish 7.5 to 10 cm (3 to 4 inches) away from the source of heat for about 10 minutes until fish flakes easily with a fork. Place whitefish on a serving platter.

Stir lemon juice and parsley into the remaining butter mixture and pour over the whitefish. Garnish with lemon wedges.

About Jeff Morrison

Jeff Morrison is an award-winning outdoor writer, book author, and nationally-syndicated newspaper and magazine columnist.

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