Development of Iron County’s Ottawa Lake cisco fishery


December 01, 2017

Mike Lemanski of Florence, Wisconsin caught the new Michigan State record cisco while whitefish angling this June on Ottawa Lake. His fish officially measured at 6.36 pounds and 21.8 inches in length. Lemanski said “When I caught this fish I thought I might have a state record.” He had been targeting lake whitefish and had landed four of them prior to catching his record cisco (cisco are a close relative to the lake whitefish). Lemanski said “I make my own custom-made lures” and states he does not chum for whitefish and cisco. When asked, he declined to share what the secret lures looked like.

Lemanski said he hurried off Ottawa Lake since he was afraid he might have trouble finding someone to verify it. He was delayed as he noticed something floating on his way back to the boat landing. The floating object turned out to be an overturned older man who had been kayaking. Lemanski said the man was too fatigued to grab his extended net so he pulled his overturned kayak and him a short distance into shore. The man was very grateful and thanked Lemanski for saving him. By the time he made it to Crystal Falls he said he was not able to locate DNR officials. He did contact the Iron County Sheriff Department who suggested he get it officially weighed at the local grocery store on a certified scale. The record fish was not verified until recently by Michigan DNR officials who said they had to verify the record with genetic tests.

Ottawa Lake is a 551 acre natural lake with a history of lake trout and lake whitefish. This lake is within the Ottawa National Forest and has no human development other than a US Forest Service Campground with associated facilities and buildings and a public access site. This lake has been a popular fishing lake over the years. Different fish management plans have been prioritized over the years. For a period of time this was managed as a trout lake. Northern pike became well established in this splake management lake which forced discontinuing normal trout management. Trophy northern pike were taken out for a few years until that fishery declined into a fairly typical mediocre pike fishery. Surplus brood stock lake trout have been planted at Ottawa in recent decades and have produced lake trout fisheries for a period of years following those stockings. Walleye fingerlings were routinely stocked at Ottawa for over three decades with success. During that time DNR Fisheries surveys and observations showed that the indigenous lake whitefish population had declined in the 1980s. DNR fisheries biologists from Crystal Falls were concerned about the lack of forage that would result from declining lake whitefish populations so they came up with plan to remedy it.

Proactive measures were taken when in 1986 and 1987 cisco (lake herring) were trapped in nearby Smoky Lake and transferred to Ottawa Lake. In 1986 over 3,000 adult cisco were captured and transferred. In 1987 almost 9,000 cisco were transferred into Ottawa. This was a significant undertaking since cisco (members of the whitefish subfamily) spawn in the fall when the weather in the U.P. is typically cold and windy. Cisco and lake whitefish are not easy for fishery managers to capture in inland lakes. This is why the large transfer of cisco into Ottawa Lake is impressive. That same elusive nature is why surveying cisco is also difficult short of deploying a considerable number of gill nets which could lead to significant mortality of the survey targeted fish.

As a fisheries biologist I am interested in the irony that although Smoky Lake was an excellent place to capture the elusive cisco, it was also known for smaller fish. Cisco were very abundant at Smoky and rarely grew larger than 12 inches long. A typical cisco in an inland lake runs from 10 to about 16 inches. Michael Lemanski’s 21.8 inch fish is exceptionally large by cisco standards, as would be expected for a state record.

Michael Lemanski of Florence, Wisconsin, caught this state record cisco on Lake Ottawa in Iron County in the western Upper Peninsula. MDNR photo

Cisco typically feed on plankton and aquatic insects. It would appear forage conditions are favorable for the cisco with the great growth potential in Ottawa versus Smoky Lake. In recent years fisheries scientists have gone to great lengths to only use superior strains or best adapted strains of fish to use as brood stock or transfer. A survey would need to be conducted to verify if improved growth rate is common to the Ottawa Lake cisco population although it would appear that the Smoky Lake cisco were more likely forage limited versus genetically limited in growth potential.

Lemanski stated that he has caught other good sized cisco at Ottawa Lake. Some anglers misidentify cisco as lake whitefish. The best way to tell them apart is to study their mouth. Cisco/lake herring have a terminal mouth at the tip of the head. Lake whitefish have a sub terminal mouth in other words at the bottom of the tip of the head. The cisco normally feeds on suspended plankton and whitefish feed on organisms and aquatic insects on the bottom.

Cisco are a valued forage species for predators in the lake. Lake trout, walleye, northern pike, and muskie all prey on cisco. The waters that have cisco in this area are the waters that produce the larger pike, muskie, walleye, and lake trout.

As a follow up to the cisco introduction to Ottawa Lake, the indigenous lake whitefish population rebounded in the late 1990s and 2000s. This occurred at the same time the cisco population remained strong. These two members of the same fish family overlap some on the food they eat although the lake whitefish diet is more diverse. In 2007 and 2008 cisco were also trapped and transferred into Iron County’s Chicagon Lake. Chicagon Lake has a similar habitat and fish species as Ottawa Lake. Even though that trap and transfer yielded much more modest numbers, fish surveys indicate it was also successful in reestablishing a cisco population in Chicagon Lake to compliment the indigenous lake whitefish found there.

Cisco has a number of common names in the Lake States and Provinces. Inland in Michigan and Wisconsin this fish is normally called a cisco. In the Great Lakes in those same Lake States this fish is normally referred to by fisherman as a lake herring. In Minnesota, Manitoba and some other provinces it goes by the name of tullibee. On the north shore of Lake Superior, it is often referred to as a blue fin. Cisco are found throughout Michigan in deep, cold well oxygenated lakes. As a fisheries student at the University of Michigan I encountered cisco populations in deeper inland lakes near Ann Arbor in the Huron River Watershed.

Lake herring/cisco are often caught in the Great Lake’s bays. Anglers often target them with ice fishing type rigs. Lures imitating large plankton called daphnia and small aquatic insects would be good lures to start with. Swedish pimples or small panfish jigs (tear drops etc.) for ice fishing is a common lure. The cisco is normally a suspended fish so electronics help considerably to adjust to the proper depth. While fishing in Canadian lakes we would often catch them off the bottom on a small walleye jig tipped with a half a crawler.

When you do catch cisco, they are not widely considered as better table fare than lake whitefish although they are very good.