Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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‘Fun fishing’ for cisco in Grand Traverse Bay

Paul Zeman shows off a cisco he caught while jigging on a recent trip to Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. (Photos by Bob Gwizdz)

By Bob Gwizdz

Contributing Writer


Paul Zeman dropped his lure (a Swedish pimple) to the bottom, put his rod into a rod holder, grabbed another rod, and began rigging it up when he noticed the tip of his first rod dancing. He grabbed it, set the hook, and, in short order, brought a fish to net.


It was what we were looking for: a cisco (aka lake herring).


This was an exploratory mission for both of us, fishing in 130 feet of water for fish that were largely suspended. We’d both caught them through the ice in the past and I did catch them a couple of times in open water. Once in the spring, not far from where we were fishing this day, when I fished them in much shallower water (35 feet) on the kind of places you might fish for bass in summer, on structure (like points or drop-offs); and once in the St. Mary’s River at night during a mayfly hatch on a fly rod. But we’d both been hearing reports of good cisco on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, and we decided to give it a go.


Our plan was to get out in 100 feet of water and troll until we found a pod of fish, then get over them and jig. But we never had to get the trolling rods out to find them. By the time we got to 100 feet of water – which doesn’t take long here; the bottom drops like the Dow did when the housing market collapsed a dozen years ago – we were marking so much bait near the bottom that we couldn’t tell if there were any predators in among them.


So we kept going until the bait thinned out and there they were – you could see fish clearly on the graph – anywhere from right on bottom to a third of the way up. So we started jigging for them, and it took just moments longer than it did for our first bait to hit the bottom to get into the plus column.


Nothing to it, eh? Wrong. It was an hour before we hooked another, again, right off bottom, and again on Zeman’s Swedish pimple.


Almost an hour later, Zeman had his third strike.


“I’m calling this right now – this one’s a lake trout,” Zeman said. “It hit differently – a little harder – and it had a different feel to it when those hooks went in.”


He cranked it in. It was a keeper laker, again taken on the bottom.


A short while later, Zeman connected again, but the fish came off about half way up. Then he hooked another, but this one came from about 80 feet down. Zeman said he was watching his bait fall on the graph, he stopped it when he saw it was down to the suspended fish, jigged it up one time and, wham.


“Just about all my hits have been on the initial drop,” Zeman said. “It hits bottom, I jig it, and bam.”


That approach wasn’t working for me. I never had a hit, alternating between a Swedish pimple and a Snap Rap. Zeman tried a blade bait for a while; it never produced. He had one more strike that he missed on the Pimple, which caught all of his fish.


At noon, we decided to go back to our original game plan and troll. Zeman rigged up with dodgers and spoons, we set lines at 85 and 95 feet down – higher in the water column than most of the fish we were marking in 130 to 140 feet of water. We caught one almost immediately on the higher line and 30 minutes later, caught another on that same rig. We trolled for about an hour and called it day.


Zeman was pleased.


“I think it’s an awesome fishery,” he said. “It’s fun fishing, a fun fish to catch. You see them on the screen, you can see them react to your lure. But they’re not a piece-of-cake fish. You’ve got to work them.


“And they came from nowhere,” he continued. “We never heard of them 10 years ago. I’ve caught them in Traverse Bay through the ice a couple of times and I’ve caught them in Lake Charlevoix through the ice. And I’ve caught them on inland lakes, but they only get up to about 13 inches – but they act the same way – the way they suspend, how they chase, and what it takes to get them to hit.”


Through the ice, we both agreed, we fish them aggressively, above them in the water column, jigging the lure up as though it’s trying to get away.


“It’s the first time I ever caught a cisco in open water,” Zeman said as we put up the tackle. “Look at the size of the things. They put a scrap. They’re not a salmon going on big runs and they’re not jumpers, but they’re going crazy down there – like a bucking bronco.


“To be honest, I thought they’d be easier to catch. But I think it was just the day – nobody was tearing them up,” he said.


True, there were a handful of other boats in the same area, but we didn’t see a lot of fish caught.


“Finding them was easy,” Zeman said. “They were there. The graph was full. But getting them to hit was the hard part.”


And as table fare?


“They’re excellent,” said Zeman, who cooked them with lemon pepper and olive oil on tin foil on the grill.


That’s something we agree on.

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