Recreational fishing has changed significantly over the course of Michigan’s history. Fish that were originally native to waters thousands of miles away, such as Chinook salmon, now make up a major part of Michigan’s sport fishery. Others that were once of primary importance to state anglers – such as grayling – are now a distant memory, having been fully extirpated from state waters. And still others, that were once of significant import, are now mere bit players in the recreational fishing narrative.
The cisco – commonly known as the lake herring – is one such example. Though some recreational fisheries still exist – most notably in the late summer in the St. Marys River – cisco were once an important recreational, as well as commercial, species in Michigan. Though most commonly associated with the Great Lakes, ciscos exist in a number of inland waters, too, where they provide limited recreational opportunities and the occasional, unusual by-catch to anglers who are seeking other species.
At one time, a small recreational gill net fishery existed in some inland lakes. Recreational anglers – who were required to buy a cisco stamp – were allowed to harvest fish for their personal use with what most consider commercial gear. And though that fishery is also part of Michigan’s the past, cisco are not. The state did away with recreational gill netting many years ago.
Cisco still exist in a number of inland lakes and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s Fisheries Division has been surveying lakes in some parts of the state, trying to determine where populations of the fish exist. In some lakes they’ve been extirpated. The survey has two purposes – to find out where cisco populations exist and to, potentially, serve as brood stock lakes should the DNR ever decide to re-introduce the creatures into other waterways.
Members of the whitefish family, cisco inhabit cold, clear, well-oxygenated water. In the summer, they inhabit the thermocline – the area of the lake, often about 20 feet down, where the temperature breaks and well-oxygenated water tends to run out. Otherwise, they are usually deep, open-water denizens, except in the late fall, when they move inshore to shallow shoal areas to spawn. That’s when they are most susceptible to hook-and-line or gill-net fishing.
Though most anglers commonly refer to them as herring, they are not. Herring are members of another family, with a salt-water component to it, and are more closely related to shad. Ciscoes are more delicate; because of their need for cold, well-oxygenated water, they are vulnerable to water-quality changes. And on that note, there’s some good news; cisco have been found in some lakes that have become heavily developed in recent years. Nonetheless, cisco are considered a threatened species in Michigan, although it is legal to catch and keep them.