The Great Lakes cisco is one of those fish that is known by a number of alias names. Chubs, lake herring, tullibee are just a few of the names that anglers have tagged onto the cisco.
History of Ciscoes in Lake Michigan
At one time ciscoes were considered one of the most abundant species in Lake Michigan. As many as eight million pounds were harvested annually by commercial fishermen. By the late 1950s the cisco population in Lake Michigan was showing serious signs of collapse. In the 1980s the commercial harvest dropped to around 2,000 pounds a year!
Recently stocking efforts provided by the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians has helped the cisco enjoy a comeback in certain waters. Nearly a million dollars in federal grant money has been provided as part of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative aimed at studying ciscoes and lake whitefish in an effort to reestablish these species in Lake Michigan waters.
A native Great Lakes species, ciscoes have done something no other fish in Michigan can claim. Up until recently the cisco were considered a forage fish. These days a growing number of anglers are targeting ciscoes as a sport fish!
The interesting thing is that for reasons biologist simply can’t explain, cisco are growing to much larger sizes than were noted historically. Smaller cisco are of course an important forage species for lake trout, salmon, steelhead and brown trout. Once these fish grow up a bit, it’s anglers that are targeting them for food.
In Grand Traverse Bay, Litte Traverse Bay, Lake Charlevoix and other locations ciscoes in large numbers are being caught that stretch 20 to 26 inches in length! Cisco that size not only have earned game fish status, they fight like no other. Both open water and ice fishermen are starting to realize how much fun cisco fishing can be. Because these fish travel in huge schools, catching one just about guarantees you’ll catch a bunch.
No one knows why ciscoes are growing bigger these days, but some research biologists feel it has something to do with the decline of the lake whitefish. A niche seemingly has opened up in the Great Lakes and cisco are filling that niche and creating a brand new sport fishery in the process.
The decline of the lake whitefish seems to be linked to an invasive species, the zebra and quagga mussels, that have penetrated nearly every hard bottom area in the Great Lakes. These mussels have covered critical spawning habitat, making it difficult for whitefish to spawn successfully.
Because ciscoes are members of the salmonid group, they are pelagic creatures that are in constant motion. Trolling is often the best way to find these fish which are always on the move in search of plankton, aquatic insects and small fish to feed upon.
Small trolling spoons such as the Wolverine Tackle Jr. Streak and Mini Streak trolled with the help of downriggers, lead core line and planer boards like the Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer are the most popular methods for pinpointing schools of ciscoes.
“Because ciscoes grow to impressive size, targeting them and catching them on trolling gear is surprisingly fun,” says Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV. “The typical ciscoes we catch are about 20 to 22 inches in length and they fight like a similar sized coho or brown trout!”
To maximize the fun when trolling for ciscoes, a lot of anglers are downsizing their gear to match these fish. Jim Chamberlin of Fish with Jim Outfitters uses light action kokanee rods for trolling ciscoes. “Ciscoes are literally a riot to catch on light action tackle,” says Chamberlin.
Once an active school of ciscoes are located, switching from trolling to casting gear makes a lot of sense. Casting blade baits, in-line spinners, swimbaits and small wobbling spoons can literally yield a fish on every cast! The trick is to allow these lures to sink down into the school before starting the retrieve, then hold on because ciscoes are as aggressive as white bass and twice as large!
Medium to medium/light action spinning rods are ideal for cisco casting applications. An eight to 10-pound test braid makes the ideal main line. Because ciscoes live in exceptionally clear water, it’s recommended to add a 36-inch leader of 10-pound test fluorocarbon line at the terminal end.
Not only do ciscoes feed actively in open water, they are easily caught under the ice as well. Lake Charlevoix is becoming a hot spot for winter cisco action. In Lake Charlevoix, ciscoes feed on young of the year alewife. That’s right, one forage fish is preying on another.
Other drowned river mouth lakes up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline including Portage, Betsie, Manistee and Pere Marquette all have potential for winter cisco fishing action.
The same spoons and jigging/swimming lures used by winter walleye fishermen produce great results when targeting ciscoes below the ice. “I enjoy fishing ciscoes in the winter because they are normally found in deep water,” says Jake Romanack. “When you hook a cisco the fight lasts a long time and often you can watch the fish struggling through your ice hole! The action is also fast and catching limits is almost a given.”
The growing interest in fishing for ciscoes has not gone unnoticed. “If you would have told me 10 years ago that half of my charter trips would be targeting ciscoes, I would have thought that was crazy talk,” says Jimmy Chamberlin of Fish With Jim Outfitters. “These days I spend a ton of time targeting ciscoes in open water and also with my ice fishing clients. Folks love the fast fishing action and ciscoes are great on the table as well.”
Tribal fishermen are also targeting ciscoes commercially as an alternative to the traditional whitefish these commercial operations have depended upon for generations. Tribal stocking efforts with ciscoes are no doubt a big part of the reason this species has enjoyed such a rapid rise to fame. Approximately 300,000 ciscoes approximately
6 to 7 inches in length have been stocked to date.
At this point no one seems to know if stocking efforts, environmental changes in the Great Lakes, lack of competition from other species or other reasons we simply don’t understand are contributing to the explosion of ciscoes in Lake Michigan and other northwest Michigan waters. What we do know is this fishery is brand new and it is seemingly expanding to new waters every year.