For the most part, fishing is both pleasurable and exciting…a day on the water can be one to remember. Anglers of the sport seek walleye, perch, bass, Northern pike and many seek only salmon. But when it comes to dedication and pure pleasure, count on fisher people to track and follow the annual herring run. Anglers lucky enough to own a fishing boat have most likely already filled that spot on their bucket list.
Lake herring belong to the trout and salmon family. Also related to the whitefish; they often bear the name of northern cisco. They range smaller than whitefish and can be found not only in the St. Marys River and along the northern shore of Lake Huron, but can also be fished in numerous inland lakes as well, such as the Manistique and Higgins Lakes and far to the western U. P., Lake Gogebic.
Herring are preyed upon heavily by lake trout, northern pike, yellow perch and walleye and are an important part of the food chain in the Great Lakes ecosystem. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, herring made up a significant part of the commercial fishery but their numbers dropped dramatically. Basically, today, they are eagerly sought by anglers as they gather into spawning schools from late June through fall. Peak herring activity usually occurs during the 4th of July weekend with hundreds of avid anglers hauling boats, heading north for the annual herring run.
Many species of fish including herring were the subject of a collection effort and survey conducted during August of 2017 by the St. Marys River Fisheries Task Force of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Agencies involved were the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry including the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The purpose of the study was to gauge the health and status of various fish populations in the river. Herring were included. Edible fish killed during the survey were donated to local food banks after being examined. This survey is conducted every five years. Results will be made available after the study is complete in 2018.
Here in the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, herring runs start at St. Ignace, move onward towards Cedarville and Hessel, better known as Les Cheneaux…feeding until mayfly hatches diminish, then herring move on, finally reaching Drummond Island and the lower St. Marys. Here once again, schools of fish hungrily feed on new hatches. The mayfly is the ‘key’…the ‘trigger’ that spawns the annual run.
Last month, I had the pleasure of talking with brothers Ray and Randy Reasner of Rose City, who have been fishing the Raber/Drummond area of the St. Marys River since the late 1970s, zeroing in on the summer’s herring runs. Now retired, both men and their families enjoy their cabin off Raber Bay near Lime and St. Joe’s Islands in the lower river.
Ray added, “We spend the entire month of July at the cabin so we pretty much judge when the run begins. A lot of anglers only fish when the run starts but mayfly hatches progress throughout the entire month and well into summer and fall. Actually, we don’t fish this area; instead, we set our sights 12 to 13 miles to the south, in the vicinity of Drummond, Maple and Butterfield Islands; finally, fishing off Burnt. (Once a private group of Islands, Burnt being the largest is owned by the State of Michigan and remains a popular fishing spot for bass).”
Next we discussed area mayfly hatches. I asked if they were as heavy as those along the St. Clair River downstate where they multiply to the point of having to be swept off storefronts. Randy filled me in; “Not the best! We have so much high wind that new hatches cannot fight the wind; carcasses, rather castings, often litter the water. I should add that on rare occasions, the hatch has produced enough mayflies that we have had to sweep them off the cabin deck, but that is certainly not the norm.”
When I asked where their favorite herring fishing grounds existed, both men claimed that…they enjoy fishing where the run is at its peak…where the more herring boats the better…they enjoy catching herring to give away for others to enjoy. During the 4th of July long weekend, it is not uncommon for Reasner’s boat to be surrounded by 40 to 50 boats. On some days, the brothers advised, “There may be three distinct groups on the water close to us; one batch to the south, one to the east, another to our west.”
I might also mention that the Reasners’ prefer a bit of a chop to the surface of the water as it proves better fishing than having water flat as a mirror.
Next, Ray joined in the conversation, “As previously mentioned, we hit the islands seven miles off Drummond Island. These islands tend to break the wind, giving mayflies a better chance at survival. If you can term it survival, for mayflies have a lifespan of 24 hours.”
Let’s talk technique! Now Randy spoke up, “Everything we use is ultra-light; long and flexible rods, 8-10 feet in length with a super sensitive tip. Some herring fishermen prefer a cane pole measuring up to 15-feet; once made of bamboo, now manufactured of metal so they can extend. We prefer to use a light line, 4-6 lb. test.”
“At times our catch of the day runs 50 percent whitefish and herring. Last year my brother and I had taken some 80 herring by July 11 and no whitefish. Average length was running 26-27 inches. If fish are small but in good shape, we very carefully return them to the waters of Potgannissing Bay.
The brothers cleaned their daily catches first, ate them fried, cleaned some for smoking or pickling. Back in a day, there was no limit on the number of herring caught. Today, there is a daily limit of 12 per person in the boat.
Speaking of boats, I asked Randy what type of boat they use for herring fishing; “We have a 21-foot Mako, similar to a Boston Whaler that holds a wide open space mid-ship for easy rod activity. Furthermore, the boat is easy to maneuver and handles rough seas well.”
Next we talked about physical attributes of the herring species such as being hard to keep and clean for they can quickly turn soft. Most anglers drop herring directly into an ice water filled pail. The brothers advised, “If we end up four or five miles away from our dock and discover that we left our coolers at the cabin, it is important enough to us that we turn the boat around and head back to get them. If not iced down, herring tend to quickly mush. Once cleaned, the fillets must be submerged in cold water. Finally, freezer bags holding herring filets are filled as full as possible with water, and then placed in the freezer. Special handling is of utmost importance.
The topic of bait surfaced; “We basically employ mayflies or wax worms on tear drops. It is not unusual to buy wax worms 200 at a time and they should be kept cool.”
I have often heard that herring have what is termed, ‘a paper mouth.’ Ray commented regarding that statement; “Yes indeed, absolutely! They possess a very soft mouth. Set the hook and you might get…just lips! They fight extremely hard, making them fun to land. Herring don’t like sunlight; probably one good reason why they tend to fight hard.”
My next question during the interview centered on whether or not the brothers fished elsewhere than St. Marys River bays and they replied, “As far back as I can remember, we always enjoyed fishing perch and walleye in Saginaw Bay. Other hot spots proved to be the Singing Bridge at AuGres for smelt dipping. Area inland lakes were popular for bluegills, sunfish and crappies. But going herring fishing, well that was the ‘frosting on the cake!’ And we have been coming north to the Raber/Drummond Island area since the 1970s with our parents when Randy and I were 7 and 8 year old kids.”
My final question for Ray and Randy Reasner was; “Has anything extraordinary ever happened to you during the herring run season…bad storm…unusual catch…mishap? Ray responded, “There was one time when the water was extremely rough that crossing back to our canal was dangerous. We were in the vicinity of Lime Island so we tied up at the old Lime Island Coal Dock, a former ore carrier refueling station on the St. Marys River. Long abandoned when oil replaced coal, the dock remained open for watercraft visitors to the island. Lime Island holds a former small village (now Michigan State Park cabin rentals), a small rustic campground, and former village buildings such as the school which is open to the public as well as the refueling company’s superintendant’s home, currently a museum.”
“We tied up to the dock to wait out the wind and waves. We were there about three hours. At one point, the caretaker came down to the dock to see if we were alright and offered us sandwiches. Later the U. S. Border Patrol also checked in. Truly, Lime Island provided a welcome port in a storm.”
At the closing of the interview, both of the herring fishermen expressed their feelings regarding the sport; “Herring fishing, from following the annual ‘herring run’ from first fish on, to last fish of the season landed, is a great experience for kids (and grown-ups alike).
“Let’s keep the sport alive for future youngsters; sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is a special way of introducing a young fisher kid to the sport of fishing as it often represents a fast and furious pace for bringing in a lot of fish in a short amount of time. No time for boredom ever exists!”