ELK RAPIDS — There’s a species of fish in Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay making a splash for both scientific and sporting reasons.
Cisco are in the midst of a comeback in the bay in ways that astound fishery biologists and excite anglers trolling for new adventures. The change created an altogether new local sport fishery and raised questions about the endurance of the burgeoning cisco population.
In the past decade, cisco or lake herring jumped their place in the Great Lakes food web; the longtime prey fish for lake trout and salmon has now become a predator fish itself, growing larger than anywhere else in North America’s freshwater inland seas and gobbling up belly-fulls of alewives.
“The cisco fishing is great and it’s only getting better,” said Dale Ealy, charter captain based out of Elk Rapids. “It’s wonderful cisco fishing out here.”
Fellow charter captain Jim Chamberlain agreed, adding the species has in recent years thrived out of Grand Traverse Bay and both north to Little Traverse Bay and south to Onekama.
“We’re going out there and catching limits every day. I’m talking 30 minutes and 15 guys have their limit,” Chamberlin said — pointing out that’s 10 cisco on the Great Lakes or five from inland waters like Portage and Charlevoix lakes.
Historically there were six types of cisco in Lake Michigan, all planktivores that ate microscopic zooplankton and phytoplankton, some in deep waters and other in near-shore areas.
Lake herring and bloaters are all that’s left among cisco in Lakes Michigan and Huron, said Charles Bronte of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who presented in 2018 during a statewide fisheries conference in Ludington.
Bronte explained the historic role of cisco were to convert plankton and invertebrates into fish biomass for eventual consumption by top predators like lake trout, burbot and salmon.
Cisco also helped transfer energy from offshore areas to nearshore places during fall spawning, he said, providing eggs for foraging by whitefish, suckers and other fishes.
Bronte said the roster of cisco types eventually collapsed for a number of reasons: overfishing, loss of keystone predator lake trout, effects of invasive sea lamprey, habitat degradation, and competition for food and space among other species. Cisco were nearly extirpated from Lake Michigan in the end, he said.
That crash may be why the cisco in Grand Traverse Bay are so impressive today, biologists suspect.
Randy Claramunt, Lake Huron Basin fisheries coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the loss of cisco in past decades created a “bottleneck” of genetics. The cisco that did survive were the strongest of the species and naturally adapted to the conditions the lake provided, he said.
That’s how cisco eventually made the leap and became a predator fish — now foraging on other fishes such as alewives and invasive round gobies, just like lake trout and salmon.
“It’s extremely interesting because normally a species doesn’t usually change its behavior and diet so quickly,” said Jay Wesley, DNR fisheries coordinator for the Lake Michigan Basin. “Cisco were prey themselves in the historic fishery.”
Today cisco grow much larger, he said, ultimately developing a sizable population around Grand Traverse Bay. Officials said the fishery boomed after officials improved a rocky reef offshore from Elk Rapids, now the heart of cisco spawning.
“Once they get to a certain size they’re eating gobies in addition to alewives and also spiny water fleas,” Wesley said.
Michigan Sea Grant’s fishery biologist Dan O’Keefe said it’s not surprising cisco was the species to so quickly remold its pedigree.
“Cisco are notoriously plastic fish. They can change a lot in response to the environment,” he said. “I think it was a surprise to a lot of people, but it does happen. Fish are adaptable.”
Charter captain Matt Hehn of Frankfort said these new Lake Michigan cisco have become “really cool fishing,” with expected combativeness somewhere between that of lake trout and salmon.
“It’s pretty cool to see how aggressive they are,” he said. “And it’s not uncommon to catch one in the 18-to-22-inch range in the bay. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
State records show more than 75 master angler-size cisco were recorded in 2020 in either the West or East Grand Traverse Bay, with more caught in Lake Michigan offshore from Charlevoix and Emmet counties. Cisco need only be 16 inches to qualify.
Last year’s largest was 23.5 inches and caught May 22 in East Bay.
The statistics bear out what the fishers see out on the water, they said.
“Every one of them we catch is a master angler size, and they aren’t just master angler size — they are trophies,” Chamberlin said. “It’s the only fish we can basically guarantee our clients getting a master angler patch.”
Hehn said fishing tactics for cisco are much the same for salmon, able to be caught by trolling or jigging.
“Most don’t realize how neat of a fishery it is and how much fun it can be,” Hehn said. “They are excellent table fare, too.”
Ealy said he enjoys cisco that are pan fried, while Chamberlin said they can also be baked or smoked.
“The only problem with the cisco is the eating of them. They are not really good to eat if they aren’t fresh, but you can smoke them,” Chamberlin said.
Wesley agreed: “The key is not to freeze them.”
Even tribal commercial fishermen catch cisco from time to time, despite not targeting them.
“They are good to eat, a lot like whitefish,” said Cindi John, of Treaty Fish Company of Peshawbestown.
John said they don’t typically catch cisco because those fish swim higher in the water column than where their nets are pulled through the water. Whenever they are incidentally caught in a net, John said cisco out of the bay are a lot bigger than they ever were years ago.
“I think they probably achieved that because of the goby,” she said, explaining she believes without the invasive round goby becoming Lake Michigan’s primary forage fish, cisco would have remained a prey fish.
“Everything is eating the goby and I’ve observed they also eat alewife,” John said.
Both Chamberlin and Ealy confirmed cisco caught locally are nearly always packed full of alewives; the new predator fish is known to chase around schools of alewives in the bay.
Wes Newberry, board member with the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association, said it does seem the local cisco are altogether different because they “get so big and eat everything.”
He said some salmon fishers have voiced concerns because the cisco are now competition for food with their favorite catch. And they worry too much pressure on alewives may lead to a crash of that forage species, like as happened in Lake Huron, Newberry said.
“I know the cisco in the bay are eating the alewives,” he said.
Chamberlin said he, too, has heard some grumbling along those lines. But he’s been able to sell the new sport fishery to his clients and now has those who return for the cisco fishing again and again.
“This is a very exciting thing for the area, not a detriment,” Chamberlin said.