A herring trip revisited

Hunting for lake herring (cisco) is fun all year long. (Photo by Tom Pink)

In July 1985, a friend and I borrowed another friend’s 17-foot aluminum runabout and took a 30-mile trip down the St. Mary’s River to look for a fish neither one of us had heard of, let alone pursued.

We left Sault Ste. Marie at sunrise and blasted downstream, only to be stopped dead in less than a mile by impenetrable fog. Not wanting to waste a precious weekend without fishing, we idled toward shore and dropped anchor once we were well out of the shipping channel. And we fished.

By and by, a lake freighter came down the channel, sounding its fog horn. As it passed, we pulled anchor and followed slowly in its wake for several miles downstream until the fog lifted. Then we pulled out and passed, and made it to our destination – Lime Island, just east of Raber and north of DeTour – a place where I would go many more times over the next several years to catch fish, hunt ducks, pick berries, hike and just hang out on the boat.

On that memorable day in 1985, through blind luck we came home with a cooler full of lake herring, ciscoes, tullibee…whatever you want to call them. When I gave some to a neighbor, he called them whitefish. As a newly established U.P. resident who was still trying to find his way around the river, I didn’t argue, but I’ve since learned that those fish we caught were not whitefish.

Ciscoes have fueled my fishing addiction ever since, and I enjoy pursuing them with both rod and spear.

Thirty-five years later, the same friend and I went on pretty much the same adventure, with a couple modifications and drastically different results on the dinner table. We launched in Barbeau, several miles downstream from the Soo, and it was a good thing, as we spent the rest of the day bouncing from island to island in Potagannissing Bay, north of Drummond Island, looking to fill another cooler full of ciscoes.

Unlike the first trip, when we were going by tips provided by a colleague at work, this year’s intel came in by cell phone call, text and Facebook Messenger from friends who were also on the hunt. We used binoculars to spy on fellow anglers. You can’t hide a cisco when it’s hooked. Your rod doubles over and it takes a couple minutes to get the fish into the net. We look for bays with gulls feeding on mayflies, anglers holding on to bent fishing rods and landing nets flashing in the sun.

The Potagannissing Bay herring fishery has changed over the years, largely due to the arrival of zebra and quagga mussels that have zapped the food chain. It takes much more effort to get into a cisco dinner, but if you are lucky enough to find the fish, you can still fill a cooler quickly. It’s not just summertime anglers having trouble finding fish – anglers who set up spearing shacks in the lower St. Mary’s aren’t finding as many, either.

In recent years, the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources has been attempting to supplement the northern Lake Huron cisco fishery. MON Field Editor Steve Griffin wrote a story in June about how anglers can help the DNR track its success.

I hope the fishing will improve, because hunting for herring is fun all year long.

Through 35 years passed between our two trips, and the cooler ended up with more ice than fish on this latest adventure, one element was basically the same:  there are worse places to spend a hot, sunny day than on a boat with a friend, listening to bald eagles, terns, gulls and loons, running from cove to cove, ever hopeful that your fishing rod will soon be doubling over and the landing net will be flashing in the sun.

Categories: Blog Content, Michigan – Tom Pink

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