To catch a whitefish

Crewman Tom Burleson shovels ice into a bin full of whitefish. (Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR)

Crewman Tom Burleson shovels ice into a bin full of whitefish. (Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR)

by Jim Pennell

Every area and culture has certain foods that help define it, and the Upper Peninsula is no exception. The ubiquitous pasty comes to mind, but there are also area foods provided by nature that are abundant, tasty and healthy, like berries, fiddlehead ferns, chanterelle and morel mushrooms, wild leeks, rhubarb and, of course, whitefish.

When it comes to names for fish, it seems that whitefish is one of the most popular. With over 60 species of freshwater whitefish alone, whitefish are found in inland lakes all over the world and in most of the oceans. Some are well-known and common, while others are rare and a luxury. The Ives Lake Cisco whitefish has only been found in Ives Lake at the Huron Mountain Club. The Beluga whitefish in the Caspian and Black Seas is the fish that

Beluga Caviar comes from. The Alaskan whitefish is found only in very northern rivers and streams, while the Mountain whitefish lives in mountain lakes and streams all the way from the Northwest Territories of Canada to Nevada. Even the Russian Not-So-Great Lake Baikal has its own species of whitefish.

U.P. waters are primarily home to three whitefish species, according to Phil Schneeberger, the Lake Superior Basin Coordinator for the Michigan DNR. They are the commercially-caught lake whitefish, a round whitefish and the uncommon pygmy whitefish.

“Those three are found in Lake Superior. The lake whitefish and round whitefish are in the other Upper Great Lakes, Michigan and Huron, but not the pygmy. The pygmy does occur in some inland lakes in Canada and other areas,” Schneeberger said. “Lake whitefish are in inland lakes in the U.P. and in the Lower Peninsula, but that is somewhat rare, more because of the depth and temperature preferences of the fish. They prefer colder deep water. There are also related fish such as the lake herring, which is now called the cisco.”

The whitefish’s diet is varied, ranging from plankton to other fish.

“It is an interesting fish because it is so adaptable. It’s mouth, if you look at it and think about how it evolved, is designed for feeding off the bottom or things close to the bottom, and it doesn’t have any teeth, per se,” Schneeberger continued. “You wouldn’t think of it as something that would eat a fish, but they are very adaptable and have been found to eat fish. They do have a kind of grinding apparatus, almost like a gizzard, as the food passes into their stomach. They are one of the species that has capitalized on the Goby invasion, and they’ve been eating Gobies, but historically and evolutionarily, with that mouth, they were designed to eat smaller prey that are closer to the bottom.”

Whitefish is a very popular eating fish, and the fishing industry is closely monitored. In Michigan, there are both state licensed commercial fishermen and Native American or Tribal fisheries.

“We get size information by monitoring the catches, and from that, we determine the age structure and the growth of the population,” said Schneeberger. “You might think of it being one big population, and certainly, the fish do swim all around the lake, but for management terms, we break it down into separate management areas. For whitefish, the Upper Peninsula is broken down into nine areas. Throughout the Upper Great Lakes, whitefish are self-sustaining, and we hope with our regulations and quotas, they will remain self-sustaining.”

There are regulations for both Native and commercial fishermen, but with differences between them.

“The big one for whitefish, especially in Lake Superior, is our commercial fishermen can only use trap nets and Native fishermen can use gill nets. This makes a big difference if you’re trying to set them and get them in and out in the winter or under the ice. Gill nets are a lot easier to set and retrieve and get off the lake completely if the weather turns on you, compared to a trap net.”

It’s legal for everyone to take whitefish year-round, except for November when they spawn. Natives can fish one week into November, but commercial fishermen cannot fish for them at all that month.

“Whitefish moving around the lake is somewhat seasonal,” said Schneeberger. “They do normally come back to the same areas to spawn. In general, they come closer to shore, but not real shallow water, and they like a place where the eggs can settle and have some protection from waves and current and even predators and have a chance to incubate and hatch.”

Schneeberger said as the years have gone by, there have been a number of changes to the fishing industry.

“We don’t have a lot of state licensed fishermen anymore. We used to back in the ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s, but there has been a steady decline and then quite a precipitous decline with some of the negotiations and consent agreements. There has been an increase in Native fishermen, and part of that is just natural reduction,” Schneeberger said. “Fishing has pretty much always been in people’s families, like farming and other businesses, and sometimes the kids grow up and don’t want to keep fishing. They look at how hard it is to make a living in rough conditions, and the economics don’t make it attractive, so they find other options.”

Recreational fisherman Roy Sarosik, who fishes for whitefish off the Marquette breakwater, said he has noticed a similar trend there.

“When I first started fishing in the ’70s, there must have been 30 guys out there. A lot of them were grumpy old men. They would not tell you how to catch a fish or lend you a net if you did catch a fish,” said Sarosik. “Now there’s such a small group of us, I call us the Penguin Club, because when you look out there in the freezing weather of December, you see these three or four guys all huddled real close together with fishing poles in their hands and they kind of look like penguins sitting out there. At the most now, I think there’s about eight very dedicated whitefish fishermen. You have to have some Sisu in you because most people consider us nuts. I’m the old-timer now, and I’m 66. In the old days, guys that were in their 70s and 80s would come out. They had to fish. It was almost like you were addicted to it.”

Even in the best weather, fishing for whitefish with a rod and reel can be challenging to say the least. What was successful yesterday may not work today, and changes in the wind and currents can affect where and even if the fish are feeding.

“Whitefish are very finicky,” said Sarosik. “Most of the guys I know use a single egg, which is the size of a pea, and you’re trying to get it on a very small hook.”

Sarosik said catching whitefish can be broken down into four parts—a good location, the right bait, the right method and lastly, “Are the whitefish here today?”

All this might explain why a place like Thill’s Fish House in Marquette sells as much whitefish as it does.

“Whitefish outsells everything else we have 10 to 1,” said Thill’s employee Tim Anderson. “During the winter, we sell from 300 to 400 pounds a week, and in the summer, you can double that to even 1,000 to 1,500 a week.”

Some of the cleaning of the fish is still done by hand at Thill’s, but it does have machines that scale the fish, fillet it and take the pin bones out.

“If you wait about 24 hours after the fish is caught, the pin bones will come out easier. You can’t get ’em out otherwise. They snap off,” Anderson said.

Owner Ted Thill started fishing with his father and has seen changes in the 43 years he’s been working the nets.

“It was trout originally. Back in the ’70s, we’d sell trout 10 to 1 over whitefish. We used to ship a lot of trout all over back when it was popular. Then there was a gradual change and whitefish took over,” Thill said.

He’s seen the size of whitefish change, too.

“Around the Marquette area, they’ve gone down a little. They used to average around four pounds; now they’re down to about three or two-and-a-half,” Thill said. “The biggest I’ve seen was back in 1992. It was a 22-and-a-half-pound whitefish we caught in the trap net right down by the Chocolay shores. In certain areas, you will see bigger fish, but we don’t like the big fish. They’re a lot more work. Anything over six or seven pounds you have to hand-filet. Sometimes, you lift the nets for three or four fish. Other times, you come back with 2,000 or 3,000 pounds. If you can do 2,000 pounds of lifting, I’m happy with that.”

Just up the way, patrons of the Vierling Restaurant have a great view of the big lake, and of Thill’s. The Vierling has specialized in whitefish since it opened 30 years ago.

“Whitefish is real big for us. It’s great to have a restaurant where you can go down to the dock and get it every day. In the summer, we’ll be serving up to 120 pounds a day,” owner Terry Doyle said. “It’s always been popular, but now it’s sought after. If you went to Maine, you’d have the lobster. If you’re coming along Lake Superior, you’re coming for whitefish. In the last five or so years, a lot of Northern Europeans are coming over and touring the Great Lakes. They’re eating whitefish at every stop, but the Lake Superior is the best.”

In addition to whitefish dinners and sandwiches, the Vierling has two other specialties: whitefish chowder and an appetizer called whitefish bites.

“We used to make clam chowder, and then we thought, ‘What are we making clam chowder for?’ so we started making whitefish chowder. We’ve become quite known for that. It’s real big. We joke sometimes we should be making it in the brew kettle,” Doyle said. “The Food Network called us the other day and wanted to know about our whitefish bites. Whitefish bites are deep-fried whitefish cut up into strips. They’re very tasty.”

Enough about regulations and nets and eggs and penguins and pin bones. How does it taste? There’s a good reason why Thill’s sells so much of it, people will travel across the world to taste it and men will become penguins for hours trying to catch a fish that is often uncatchable.

Whitefish has a flavor and texture that sets it apart from other fish. It is never overpowering or fishy and has a mild flavor that can stand alone but will also take seasoning without losing any of its character. There is a difference in taste between whitefish from Lake Superior and those from Lake Michigan. Lake Superior is a cold, deep, clean lake. The fish from it eat mostly plankton and vegetation and have a very nice light, flaky texture. Lake Michigan is a warmer shallow lake, with more large cities on it and is more like an ocean than a lake. The flavor of the fish from it seem to reflect that. They are also rumored to have become more carnivorous than the Superior fish, but are still tastier than most other fish. When frozen, whitefish tends to change in texture.

By the way, if people are advertising “Fresh Whitefish” after the first week of November, they’re either blurring the truth a bit or got it from a poacher because it is illegal for anyone to catch them then. It’s a good thing turkey is the traditional Thanksgiving meal and not whitefish. Keep in mind that even frozen whitefish from Lake Michigan is better than no whitefish so be grateful that there is such an abundant, healthy delicacy available to us here in the U.P. and enjoy.

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