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I was lucky to experience two special treats this summer. It came in the form of one modest fish. A whitefish. A round whitefish. From the Kenai River. I do not know if whitefish are rare in the Kenai River or simply rarely caught. No matter. You know what I say. All fish are interesting. Some are just more interesting than others. So it was a special treat just to catch this fish just because it was a whitefish. It was a treasure trove and I kept it.
I pulled out my books and checked this and that. I identified that it was a round whitefish. I cut it open. A female, nearly ready to spawn. The gut was filled with Sockeye Salmon eggs – and pebbles. Pebbles that were bigger than the salmon eggs. I was expecting to find invertebrates such as caddis flies. I didn’t know they ate salmon eggs. I consulted with some colleagues. One carefully agreed; another said that he had also found fish eggs in round whitefish stomachs.
Whitefish are members of the trout and salmon family, Salmonidae. There are eight species of whitefish in Alaska waters and 21 in North America. They are often quite abundant in some drainages and are often important in diets of subsistence users. Of the whitefishes, perhaps the best known is the Inconnu, or sheefish. I was informed that, in the Cook Inlet drainage, round whitefish have also been reported in the Susitna River along with Bering cisco and humpback whitefish. Bering cisco have also been reported from the Kenai River and pygmy whitefish are found in Lake George. Mind you, whitefish may be found in other Cook Inlet waters and other species may also be present and we just don’t know about it.
Most whitefishes are somewhat anadromous but most do not remain long or travel far in saltwater. They are broadcast spawners, usually in flowing waters. Typically, whitefishes are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders so I should not have been surprised to discover salmon eggs in the gut of the one I caught. I have no explanation for the pebbles . . . perhaps they are just messy eaters. Inconnu are mostly predaceous fish eaters (called piscivorous). Interestingly, a colleague reported that he had found big stones in Inconnu stomachs. He thought that the pebbles in the round whitefish could be passed – apparently, round whitefish produce a lot of mucus in their stomachs – but that the stones in the Inconnu would need to be regurgitated.
Here, I must stray a bit from my usual Fish Talk focus to reveal the second special treat that this one round whitefish provided. The fish itself! It was delicious! Do not pass one up if you have a chance to try it. Fine, delicate, white flesh. Flour lightly, season lightly, and sauté quickly. Very good, muy bueno, schmecte gut!