Catch & Cook Great Lakes Tullibees & Whitefish NOW!

Four decades of knowledge shared...

by Lake-Link Staff

Traverse City, Michigan-based ice angler, erstwhile multi-species guide, and veteran outdoors writer, David Rose, has been pursuing tullibees and lake whitefish for nearly four decades. In fact, Rose holds the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame record for tullibee/lake herring/cisco on 2-pound test monofilament-3 pounds 8 ounces, caught out of Lake Michigan's East Grand Traverse Bay in 1997.

"Funny thing is, whether you call them tullibees, ciscoes, or lake herring, they're not really considered a junk species here in Michigan. In fact, when the bays freeze over, it's a main target for most of the ice anglers around here. We're allowed a limit of 12 fish and they're big-two to three pounds on average. Anglers are doing all sorts of stuff with 'em. They're great smoked, make a really good smoked fish dip, make an excellent chowder, and can be grilled, baked, or fried. The limit is actually 12 tullibees and whitefish combined because they're so big here a lot of anglers confuse the tullibees with whitefish. Their mouths are different, though," says Rose.

Along that train of thought, lake whitefish are characterized by a large snout that overhangs their mouths. Tullibees, a slimmer and typically smaller whitefish member, exhibit mouthparts that extend beyond the nostrils.

"The thing about tullibees is, they can be suspended in 30-35 feet deep or over 200 feet plus, also suspended. You really need to expand your horizons looking for them. You want to drill a bunch of holes right off the bat to begin your day because they can be suspended right under the ice and they're a bit spooky until the auger racket settles down. So it's kind of like panfishing in that regard-drill a bunch of holes, move around and try a lot of different depths and don't worry about seeing marks on your flasher. Once the commotion settles the tullibees will come back," notes Rose.

You want to drill a bunch of holes right off the bat to begin your day because they can be suspended right under the ice and they're a bit spooky until the auger racket settles down.
In terms of presentation, Rose and most other Michigan anglers favor heavy, long, and slender spoons with lots of flash and wobble to them.

"The best spoons have a lot of flutter on the fall, especially in the extreme depths we're fishing. Swedish Pimples, Hopkins Spoons, PK Lures Flutterfish, Custom Jigs and Spins' Slender Spoons, etc. are all really good options. But my main go-to is the U.S.-made Rattle Snakie Spoon, which is hollow, has an internal brass rattle, and features a little bit of prism tape. I'm down to my last one right now. Time to order more."

BTW, the Rattle Snakie Spoon is also the lure that caught the Ohio state record smallmouth bass (caught by Kevin VanDam's older brother, Randy) in 1993, which weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces, and measured 23.5 inches. Nabbed in the spring of the year, Randy caught the state record jigging a Rattle Snakie off a deep break right before the bronzebacks started their pre-spawn, shallow-water migration.

Now back to tullies and whitefish with Mr. Rose...

"In our really clear waters, pearl, white, or glow patterns are hard to beat. Anything that really resembles small baitfish - shiners, chubs, etc. - is a good presentation," offers Rose.

"The tullibees are also eating a lot of plankton in the suspended depths, maybe even smaller gobies off the bottom. They're eating food from bottom all the way up to the ice surface. In that regard, they're really opportunistic feeders. It's amazing what they can get into their tiny mouths. They're almost like mini tarpon in how their mouths open up," observes Rose.

The day's reward for a couple of ice anglers. Good eating!

Tullibee/Whitefish Hardwater Set-Up

In terms of rod/reel/line setups, Rose prefers 10-pound Seaguar superline with a long 8-pound Seaguar "blue label" fluorocarbon leader tied directly to the superline with a uni-to-uni knot.

"You definitely want a small, quality ball bearing swivel a foot above the bait to prevent line twist. You might be fishing 100 feet down over 200 feet of water and you can really build up some line twist without a swivel. That can be a real mess," adds Rose.

When it comes to rods and reels-and although some anglers will use small baitcasting rigs to further prevent line twist in the abyssal depths fished-Rose prefers medium-heavy power spinning ice sticks like the affordably-priced St. Croix Mojo Ice rod.

"Tullibees hit aggressively and fight pretty hard. With the superline and fluorocarbon combo, the real key is making sure that the reel-something like a Daiwa Tatula LT or Abu Revo-has really smooth drag in combination with the smooth, bending action of the St. Croix Mojo Ice rod. You'll be fighting a three-pound fish when all of a sudden they decide to go the other direction and pull really hard. You don't want to pull hooks out of their mouths. Good, smooth drag is important."

So, what time of the ice season is best to target tullibees in Rose's Great Lakes region?

Because early and first ice is later on the bays of the Great Lakes, the best action is really from what's considered mid-season throughout the rest of the Ice Belt.

"For us, the best tullibee bite seems to be from mid-season until the end of winter-basically right now-although we get 'em year 'round. We've got them in our inland lakes, too, like Elk Lake and Torch Lake, but they're a slightly smaller genetic strain. A 15-inch fish on these lakes is pretty respectable, but they start out at about two pounds on the bays of the Great Lakes. Out here both strains have one thing in common-their fillets are clean as a whistle-no parasites. Still, they're best cooked right away; the meat doesn't freeze well. It gets mushy."

Tullibee Table Fare: Not Just For the Smoker

While most anglers prefer to smoke tullibees/ciscoes-considering them unpalatable prepared any other way-Rose goes a different culinary direction.

"I fillet them like any other fish, lay them on tin foil, coat them in pesto from Costco, and throw them on the grill. Without foil, I leave the skin on, and lay the fillets directly on the grill grates," offers Rose.

"Then I grill 'em until the meat starts to flake. Poke the fillets with a fork and you know when they're ready," instructs Rose.

"This recipe has been a real crowd pleaser; they're good for a lot more than smoking!"

You can catch all year, too! David Rose with an open-water Michigan tullibee that ate a Lindy Viking Spoon in 10 feet of water, while buddy Pat Bentley looks over.
Photo courtesy of David Rose

Great Lakes Whitefish

When it comes to lake whitefish, Rose says they're found closer to the bottom but everything else in the strategy and tactics is pretty much the same as tullibee fishing.

"We're using the same kind of spoons, a minnow head-that scent is pretty important-but we're typically catching both tullibees and whitefish in the same spots. As mentioned, it's a combined limit of 12 fish because they look almost identical with exception of their mouths."

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