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Lake Whitefish: Tips and Tricks to Catch Whitefish in Spring

If you’re an angler from the northern US or southern Canada, chances are, you’re familiar with lake whitefish. And whether you fish them through the ice or on open water, you know that they’re as fun to catch as they are good to eat.

Though primarily a commercial species, sport anglers are slowly warming to whitefish. And they’ve discovered that, especially on the Great Lakes, lake whitefish are prime angling in the spring when they gorge themselves on mayfly larvae.

Do you know how to make the most of the opportunity? How about which lures and techniques work best for lake whitefish?

We’re here to help, and below, you’ll find some of our favorite whitefish tips and tricks to tilt the odds in your favor.

So keep reading!

Lake Whitefish Basics

Lake whitefish, or Coregonus clupeaformis, is a member of the salmonid family, and like its close kin--the salmon and the trout--you’ll find it at home in cool, clear waters.

Whitefish fishing tips

Long upper lip? Adipose fin? Silver-white body? You’ve got a lake whitefish!

Lake whitefish are easy to identify. Look for an elongated body sporting silver-white scales, a darker greenish back, an upper jaw that overhangs the lower, and an adipose fin between the dorsal fin and tail.

Commonly growing to 20 inches and 4 pounds, lake whitefish can get much larger if given a chance by commercial fishermen. Lengths of 31 inches have been recorded, and a 15 pound, 6 ounce monster is currently the record on rod and reel!

big whitefish from lake michigan

This beauty was pulled from the waters of Lake Michigan.

Whitefish spawn in the fall, sneaking into shallow water under the cover of darkness to deposit eggs before returning to the depths immediately. The following spring, those eggs hatch, and the fry begin feeding on plankton.

As they mature, they’ll begin preying on small invertebrates like mussels and clams, as well as insect larvae. And when buzzing mayflies land on the water, the lake whitefish hears the dinner bell!

That makes spring an ideal time to target this species, as emerging mayfly larvae offer a veritable feast as the water warms.

catching whitefish

This is what you want to see when you open the lid of your cooler!

“Warm” is relative, of course, and though these cool-water fish can be found at the mouths of streams waiting for an easy meal in spring, they’ll usually seek the shelter of deep holes in summer.

Whitefish share territory with some aggressive predators, the foremost of which is the pike. And when the whitefish are feeding, so are these savage hunters--and you can bet that hungry pike will be lurking near whitefish wherever you find them.

Unfortunately, that means that you’ll have to contend with bite-offs as hungry pike hit the lures you throw for whitefish!

What Does This Mean for You?

Whitefish are easiest to catch in the spring when they’re actively feeding on insect larvae and adult mayflies.

While typically holding to deep water, spring finds the whitefish hunting the shallows looking for an easy meal. But wherever you find them, you’ll find hungry pike, as well!

Rods and Reels for Lake Whitefish

For maximum excitement, lake whitefish can be caught on ultralight gear, and even a brute can be tamed by 6-pound test, an appropriate drag setting, and good technique.

We’ve reviewed some great ultralight options, and if this sounds like something you’d want to explore, we recommend you take a look at our article covering reels, as well as the one discussing rods.

Among our top picks, you’ll find the awesome Cadence CS8 1000 reel, which I’d pair with the Cadence C5 7-foot ultralight rod. This combo won’t break the bank, but it will catch whitefish - and each and every one will feel like a real humpback!

Light to medium-light power rods are also a great pick, and I really like the 7-foot medium-light Ugly Stik Elite. But if you want a more premium rod, it’s very hard to beat the 7-foot medium-light St. Croix’s Mojo Inshore. Both provide plenty of backbone for even the biggest whitefish you’ll hook, and they cast superbly.

Either of these rods wearing a quality reel like Cadence CS8 2000 or 3000 or Pflueger President 30 is a whitefish’s worst nightmare!

Lake Whitefish Tips

Whitefish aren’t piscivores, and though some anglers throw them minnows, that’s not really your best bet to attract a bite.

Keep in mind that small insects like mayflies and other insect larvae are the whitefish’s natural prey in spring. You’ll want your lures to reflect this.

adult mayfly

This adult mayfly is the whitefish’s natural prey in spring.

larvae for whitefish

Larvae are a prime food for whitefish as the water warms.

Marabou jigs under a slip float

The feathery skirt of a marabou jig is just the thing to entice a lake whitefish into a strike. J S Hanmei offers a nice kit containing a wide range of colors, with a random assortment of ⅛, 1/16, and 1/32 ounce jig heads.

Marabou Jigs Fishing Lures Kit

Another solid option is the Lindy Little Nipper. Available in a rainbow of hues and 1/16, 1/32, and 1/64 ounce weights, you can find the right color and size to turn on the whitefish where you fish.

Lindy Little Nipper

For lake whitefish, one of the most effective techniques for a marabou jig is to suspend it under a slip float. Where wind is a problem, I reach for Lindy’s Thill Mille Lacs Center Slider Kit, matching my float to the weight of the jig I’m using.

Lindy’s Thill Mille Lacs Center Slider Kit

These are high-quality floats, and they’re easy to cast. Remember, you’re working shallow water where the whitefish are looking for insects. A slip float is ideal for suspending your jig at a precise depth, and with an occasional pop of the float, you can attract a lot of attention.

Most anglers find that a slip float cuts down on the pike, too!

Waxworms or fish eggs on hooks under a slip float

A #6 circle hook baited with either fish eggs or waxworms also works well under a slip float. Use a few slip shot to give the hook some weight, or sweeten a marabou jig with either bait.

Both options lure whitefish in for a bite, and small, self-hooking designs are ideal for solid lockup. Just remember to tighten your line rather than truly set your hook.

In-line spinners

Dressed Mepps spinners like the double-bladed Aglia can be just the thing when the whitefish are feeding aggressively.

double-bladed Aglia

I also really like Worden’s Original Rooster Tail.

Worden’s Original Rooster Tail yellow

The ¼ and ⅛ ounce options work well, but going smaller can produce nice fish as well.

The one issue with throwing in-line spinners is that pike love them, too. Expect a few bite-offs.


Something experienced whitefish anglers know is that creating a simple lure that looks like a larva can work wonders.

Start with a sharp #6 hook, and either using a padded normal vice or a fly-tying vice, twist colored wire tightly around the shank. Then, using pliers, cut the wire neatly and pinch it down flat.

You can also add beads to enhance the look of your wireworms.

beads on wireworms

These tutorials show you how it’s done, step-by-step:

Suspending these wireworms under a slip float can be magic! Just suspend them to within about a foot of the bottom and let them sit. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

Final Thoughts

As more and more anglers discover the excitement of catching whitefish, it’s inevitable that they’ll be looking for tips and tricks.

We hope we’ve answered some of your questions, and if this article has helped you, we’d love to hear about it!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. Whether he's casting a line in a quiet freshwater stream or battling a monster bass, fishing is his true passion.