Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lake Michigan Whitefish

Dear George,
In 1695 a French explorer visiting what’s now the U.P. praised the whitefish caught by the Ottawa at Mackinac as follows: "Moreover, better fish can not be eaten, and they are bathed and nourished in the purest water, the could see anywhere."  Native Americans in the region made a powder of smoked whitefish to use in soups, stews, and fish pies.  When we were growing up in Menominee in the 1940’s and 50’s, our whitefish came from Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Fishing had been an important local  industry since the 1800’s, and fishing boat expeditions from the twin cities extended from Green Bay into Lake Michigan and even Lake Superior.  An 1899 news story reported that a wholesale fish dealer from Buffalo purchased 15,000 barrels of fish from Menominee and Marinette fishermen for $55,000. The local catch included whitefish, perch, blue fin, and herring.   

Menekaunee fishing boats, Marinette, Wisc. (ca. 1990)

According to the sources listed below, the whitefish has a small head with a blunt snout that hangs over its lower jaw.  Older whitefish develop a bump at their shoulders that makes their head look even smaller.  Whitefish aren't entirely white.  They're greenish-brown on the back, and their sides and belly are silvery-white.  Whitefish have a sharply forked tail which enables them to swim very rapidly.   On average, whitefish measure 17 to 22 inches in length and weigh between two and four pounds.  They can live for over 25 years.  Whitefish are also known as Sault whitefish, gizzard fish, and humpbacks.  Their scientific name is Coregonus (meaning "angle eye") clupeaformis (meaning "herring-shaped").

Great Lakes whitefish spawn from September through January and lay their eggs on shoal of rubble and gravel.  The young hatch in the following spring and are immediately on their own to survive.  At the larval stage, baby whitefish feed on plankton.  Once they're 3 or 4 inches in length, they become bottom-dwelling fish, feeding on snails, insect larvae, freshwater shrimp, and small clams.  Whitefish swim in schools and prefer depths of 200 feet or more in the summertime.  Their natural predators include lake trout, northern pike, walleye, and burbot.   Sea lamprey also constitute a major threat to Lake Michigan whitefish.

Biologists believe that whitefish runs on the Menominee River between Menominee and Marinette ended in 1870, probably because logging and sawmills contaminated the river with a lot of silt.  Much to the amazement of experts, whitefish began returning to the Menominee River to spawn about seven or eight years ago, and they've shown up on the nearby Peshtigo and Oconto Rivers as well.  According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, scientists believe that the whitefish's return is due in part to the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.  In November 2013 a crew of biologists netted 106 whitefish in a morning's effort at the Menominee River public boat ramp on Stephenson Island in Marinette.  The largest was a 22-inch female, about ten years old.       

Commercial fishing for whitefish is normally done by means of gillets and trapnets.  Whitefish are the most important species for Great Lakes fisheries, and about 8 million pounds have been harvested annually in recent years.  There is some sport fishing for whitefish.  Fishermen use a small hook which is usually baited with a fish egg.  Ice fishing for whitefish is also popular, especially in northern Wisconsin.  The largest whitefish on record was caught in Lake Superior in 1918 and weighed 41 pounds.  Whitefish are rich in vitamins and protein, including Vitamins B6, B12, Niacin, and Thiamin.  A 3-ounce serving provides 1.38 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids, more than pink or sockeye salmon.  Grilled, broiled, or poached whitefish is one of the regular specialties in several of Menominee’s restaurants, and we've never failed to enjoy whitefish dinners at Schoegel’s or Berg’s on Landing on trips home.  In our youth my dad would purchase newly caught whitefish at Pederson's Fisheries in Menekaunee, and my mother would make them the centerpiece of an extraordinary meal.  On my last trip home before my mother’s death, she instructed me while I cooked a broiled whitefish with almonds for dinner at Farm.  It was a passing of the torch.

Sources:;, "A century later, whitefish are turning up in Wisconsin rivers (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov 27, 2013);, "DNR - Lake whitefish, Coregonus clupeaformis";, “It’s a great time to fish for whitefish”;, "Fishing", Marinette County Centennial 1879-1979, p. 6;, "Lake whitefish"

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