By David Rose
If you’re an angler who loves fishing the Great Lakes, you can’t be anything but troubled by how an ever-growing number of invasive species is altering the environments of these huge inland seas, and, in turn, the populations of gamefish that call them home.
Overall, the changes that have already taken place came quickly, leaving those who love to troll for trout and salmon in a sudden state of despair.
But not every species of salmonid is in a state of doom and gloom.
Take cisco (aka: lake herring or tubilee), for example, and a subculture of these fish that are expanding their range in Lake Michigan. The northern Lake Michigan strain of cisco that is prospering—most prolific in the waters of East and West Grand Traverse Bays near Traverse City, but now found from Traverse Bay near Harbor Springs south to Muskegon—grow fast, and, are much larger than others in the family that call the inland lakes and surrounding Great Lakes home. These fish are averaging three to four pounds, with five-plus-pounders in the mix.
Aggressive by nature, these silvery-sided fish are quite easy to catch. So much so that once you locate a school you stand a good chance of landing a limit. And while the majority of anglers target them with vertical jigs, those who love to troll will find that limit just as easy to come by… if not easier. To boot, they make fine fare for the table.
CISCO SCIENCE 101
Ciscos are native to the Great Lakes as well inland lakes that are classified as oligotrophic – that is deep, clear, cold and with very little nutrients. Pelagic in nature (that is preferring to roam and feast within the upper reaches of the water column) Coregonus artedi, like most of their other Salmonidae kin, can be caught throughout the entire water column over water as deep as 200-plus feet.
As this article is being typed, genetic testing is being done on these larger-than-normal ciscos in the northeastern sector of Lake Michigan to determine their roots.
“There are three known strains of cisco in Lake Michigan, and, so far, this newly discovered strain has been difficult to classify as one of them,” says Heather Hettinger, fisheries management biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources out of the Traverse City Field Office.
“We’re trying to determine if this is a strain that’s been here all along but are now just starting to prosper, which we doubt, or, are a mix of two or all three of the ones we already know of, or even migrants from other Great Lakes that have spawned with the already-known strains. Right now, however, just from looks alone, we feel they are most definitely genetically different than what we’ve had in Lake Michigan before.”
Like any cisco, these big bay fish eat minnows and insects wafting through the upper reaches of the water column. But Hettinger says earlier studies have shown the invasive round goby to be one of their main food sources. And seeing as gobies are bottom dwellers tells us these unique fish have no issue swimming to the lake’s floor to forage.
Overall, cisco populations are cyclical, often rising and falling opposite of their distant whitefish cousins. In fact, the larger of this cisco strain look nearly identical in form to lake whitefish; the position of their mouth being the easiest determining factor when depicting between the two. A cisco’s is located directly off the front of their face, similar to a tarpon’s, while a whitefish’s bottom lip is smaller, thus the mouth protrudes downward in position. And ciscos seem to be adapting better to the massive changes occurring in the Great Lakes than most any other whitefish species.
THREE FOR ALL
Retired charter captain Jay Frolenko is no stranger to trolling for just about any species that swims in the Great Lakes, including trout, salmon and walleye. Lately, he’s been targeting ciscoes in the Grand Traverse Bays while utilizing similar tactics to all three of the aforementioned. And his catch results have been staggering, with limit catches for three anglers (that would be 36 fish) landed in just hours.
Nearly identical to his trout and salmon charter trips past, Frolenko uses spoons pulled behind downriggers, leadcore and wire line when trolling for ciscoes. “Some of my buddies are using the same size spoons they would for Chinook and coho and catching all the cisco they want,” says Frolenko. “But I like to not only downsize my lures, but lighten up my equipment, as well.”
While Frolenko’s buds troll with size-2, -3 and even magnum-size spoons, he chooses the smaller size-0 and -1 baits, and then uses the very same equipment and terminal tackle he would for trolling walleyes.
“I like the smaller-sized spoons as there are fewer missed hits,” the captain adds. “And not only is it more fun catching these hard-fighting fish on lighter gear, but it also allows the tinnier lures to work more naturally in the water.”
Frolenko’s gear consists of eight to nine and a half-foot medium-action trolling rods, with reels filled with 12-pound-test monofilament. This type of line is more forgiving that fluorocarbon or superline; the stretch needed for warding off broken lines during the strike, and, to keep hooks from ripping free from a cisco’s thin membrane around its mouth. His spoons are connected to the line’s end via a small ball-bearing snap-swivel. And it’s 12-pound-test mono for leaders on the leadcore and copper, as well.
As for lure color, the ones that work wonders for salmon also catch ciscos, with metallic blues and greens, glow-in-the-dark as well chartreuse being some of Frolenko’s favorites. Just be willing to change out spoons every 20 minutes or so if strikes don’t occur.
Also similar to fishing salmon, Frolenko finds trolling speeds of 2.1 to 2.3 MPH is what trips strikes from ciscos. As for depth, the captain’s found fish suspended within 40 feet of water all the way to well over 200 feet. And despite the studies that prove cisco are eating more bottom dwelling round gobies than anything else, the captain says the higher the fish are in the water column the more active they are.
And ciscos are relatively easy to spot on sonar as they tend to congregate in massive schools. They have a similar look on a sonar screen as walleyes, but will be seen in more massive quantities. Just get your lures in the fish faces that are suspended highest in the water column, or just above them, and there’s a good chance you’ll get bit.
THEY’RE WHAT’S FOR DINNER
Most anglers tend to turn their nose up at the idea of eating ciscos due to their consideration of being baitfish for other gamefishes like lake trout and the like. But those who have taken the time to fillet these fish, which have flesh similar to a whitefish, have found they have a comparable flavor to Great Lakes salmon.
Although not mushy in texture, a cisco’s meat is softer than other game fish. Thus, proper preparation is required to keep the meat in good shape, especially when freezing them; which will more than likely happen due to the fact if you catch one, there’s a great chance of landing more than you can eat in a week’s time.
With an extremely-sharp knife (which a fillet knife should be at all times, anyways), ciscos will fillet out like a trout or salmon; they are a slightly oily fish. Keep the skin on and they make wonderful fillets for smoking. Skin off and they are perfect for baking, broiling, frying, pickling or in fish chowder.
Biologist Hettinger gave up one of her favorite ways to prepare cisco for the table: Lay a cisco fillet, skin off, on a sheet of tinfoil and then add several chunks of butter (yes, the real stuff, not margarine) on top. Next, sprinkle lemon pepper, dill, garlic powder and sea salt and pepper to taste. Next, you can either wrap the remaining tinfoil over the fish, or, leave it open; place it on a hot grill and cover with the lid. And as with any fish, don’t overcook it. The fish will be done when the flesh flakes with a fork.
Not every species of salmonid is in a state of doom and gloom. Next time you’re trolling in Lake Michigan and start marking masses of decent-sized fish high in the water column on your sonar, downsize your lures and then get ‘em in the strike zone. Don’t be surprised if the fish you catch is a huge cisco.
Better yet, don’t be surprised if you end up landing several. Just remember to bring a few of your favorite walleye trolling rods and you’ll have a blast catching these hard-fighting fish.
David A. Rose is a writer, photographer and fishing guide who lives in the Traverse City, MI, area. Check out his website at wildfishing.com for more information.