Michigan is blessed with at least 153 lakes around the state where native cisco can be found. Cisco, a member of the whitefish subfamily of trout/salmon, are often called lake herring in the Great Lakes, according to a research summary by Carl Latta, MDNR Research Biologist Emeritus. The tullibee or bluefin are other common names from the lake states and Canadian provinces.
Latta reports Michigan’s native cisco lakes range from 20 to 18,770 surface acres, although over 75% of the lakes are larger than 100 acres. The cisco is typically found in relatively deep, cold, and well-oxygenated lakes with good deeper water summer habitat (Hypolimnion). Lakes that can support trout and whitefish are usually classified as oligotrophic, have relatively low levels of nutrients, are typically relatively clear, and have good hypolimnion waters during summer thermal stratification.
Cisco spend much of their time suspended off the bottom, feeding on plankton. This species also feeds on aquatic insect larvae on the lake bottom and drifting in the water column. Larger cisco have also been documented to feed on some small fish, larval, and young of the year fish species they encounter.
As a result of their feeding behavior, most anglers locate the suspended cisco with their electronics. They are often a schooling fish, making them easier to find with decent fishing locators. Anglers target cisco in both open water and ice fishing, although the majority of angling I have encountered over my fisheries career was through the ice. That may be because schools of cisco are very actively feeding in the winter and can be feeding relatively shallower under the ice. Inland lake thermal stratification does not exist during the winter. Cold oxygenated water is available to this species in shallower water, provided their forage is also located at that depth.
Many anglers target cisco by fishing with light line, terminal tackle, including an attractor lure like a Swedish Pimple or Acme Kastmaster and a fishing fly suspended below that lure. Anglers often use insect larvae live bait like waxworms or wigglers (burrowing mayfly larvae). The attractor lures get the lure down to the cisco’s depth faster and, as their name suggests, attract the constantly moving schools of these fish. I also like to use a “spring bobber” on my jig rod for this species, which sometimes has a very light bite.
Versus some of Michigan’s better inland lake trout fisheries (brook trout, lake trout etc.), native cisco lakes are more prevalent than other trout species lakes in portions of Southern Michigan. Latta’s research found some cisco lakes in Oakland, Livingston, and Washtenaw southwest to Cass County. He stated this results from glaciation scouring deeper lakes in geological formations conducive to more oligotrophic conditions (discussed above) than other southern Michigan lakes.
Latta said, “Many of the other native cisco lakes in Michigan are located in counties contiguous to the Great Lakes. Few cisco lakes are located in Michigan’s interior counties.”
There are some exceptions; my former management area covered the interior U.P. counties of Iron and Dickinson, where a few of those lakes are located. As a fisheries student at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, I gained practical experience with two DNR divisions. While working at the DNR’s Institute for Fish Research on the Ann Arbor Campus, a couple of the research biologists revealed some of their favorite ice fishing was for cisco on some of the nearby lakes in the Huron River chain. As an upperclassman, I accompanied the local conservation officers on weekend patrols. The CO I worked with one weekend was surprised to encounter two anglers catching cisco on a small “kettle hole” lake in the state Waterloo Recreation Area.
Latta’s statewide summary research indicated that the cisco population was known to be declining in eight lakes and had been “extirpated” (died out) in 14 other Michigan lakes. Lakes where cisco populations are either declining or have disappeared are usually waters where lake shoreline/watershed development has degraded the cold oxygenated summer waters through increased nutrification. A common source of this degradation is excessive nutrient input due to runoff of lawn or agriculture fertilizers and excessive septic drain field input to the lake’s aquifer.
Cisco had been native to two of Iron County’s larger two-story trout lakes, although they had died out for some reason (not degradation of the Hypolimnion) in the 1930s. DNR fisheries trapped cisco from nearby Smoky Lake, where they had been documented to be overabundant and slow growing. The cisco were transferred to Iron County’s Ottawa and Chicagon Lakes. The cisco population flourished in both lakes, creating a fishery and more forage fish for larger game fish species. In 2017, Mike Lemanski of nearby Florence, Wisconsin, caught the new State Record cisco in Ottawa Lake. That cisco officially measured 6.36 pounds and was 21.8 inches in length.
Kevin Wehrly, a research biologist at the DNR’s Institute for Fish Research, stated they have “recently started updating Carl Latta’s inland cisco research. It is too early to draw many conclusions from those surveys other than to say some of those cisco fisheries that were strong in the 1990s are still strong. As might be expected, some cisco fisheries have also declined.”
Most of the information I have listed for the cisco/lake herring will also apply to this species found in the Great Lakes. Cisco are a regular fishing target for ice anglers fishing bays in the Upper Great Lakes. If you contact DNR fisheries management biologists, they should be able to recommend inland lakes or Great Lakes bays where cisco fisheries give you the best odds of catching this special whitefish species.
One last tip looking to locate some of Southern Michigan’s cisco waters. Sometimes DNR fisheries also managed the lakes that supported native cisco fisheries with rainbow trout stocking. The public can readily access stocking records on the DNR’s fishery page under Fish Stocking Database. The electronic stocking records go back to 1979, which is handy since rainbow trout management in some lakes has since ceased.