10 Tips For Fishing The Cisco (Tullibee, Lake Herring) Spawn
Updated: Nov 22
For all you die hard anglers still out on the water, and maybe even through some ice, one of the last big feeding opportunities before spring is quickly approaching. After this period ice will lock up the lakes, fish will get into their winter slumbers, and catch rates will decrease considerably. However, this period gives anglers one of the only opportunities of the year to target the biggest fish in your body of water. The fish that roam freely around the open stretches of the lake throughout the entire season outside the reach of anglers. There is a reason so many big fish, even world record sized fish, are caught at this time of year. Learn our tips for fishing the cisco spawn to put a trophy in the boat!
For those that don't know cisco are big, silver, pelagic baitfish that are rarely near shore. This species is also commonly know as tullibee or lake herring depending on where you are in the country. As the season winds down and ice up nears they decide to make their way near shore to rocky and gravel flats in 0-10 ft to spawn under low light conditions.This may be the only time of the year (on big expansive bodies of water anyways) that anglers can target fish chasing them. The fishing is not easy but the rewards can be huge!
Boat Safety - At this time of year the water is cold and you won't stand much of a chance should you fall in if you aren't prepared. Wear personal floatation devices, floater suits, have ladder or other means to re-board, and most importantly do not fish alone! Keeping the boat organized to avoid tripping hazards is huge as well. Have a plan to warm up should someone fall overboard, emergency blankets, heaters, backup clothes, and quick ride back to boat launch is a must.
Comfort - Fishing this time of year is not comfortable. It's even less comfortable if you aren't prepared and if you aren't comfortable you can't put in the time needed to be successful. Be sure to layer up, wear "snowmobile" floater suits, and have all the winter apparel you would for a day ice fishing. If your boat has an enclosure be sure to use it to maintain heat and through the bow cover on as well; it makes a huge difference!
Travel Cover - This time of year is rarely nice weather. The roads will be wet, dirty, and may even be covered with snow & slush. As you trailer to the launch so much of this will end up in the boat. A wet seat, wet & dirty gear, or snow will make fishing a lot less comfortable and can also make the boat dangerous to be in (wet carpets get slippery when wet!). If you have a travel cover be sure to use it and if you don't find a way to cover up the boat so the inside is dry when you get to the launch.
Be Deliberate - Days are short and so are the feeding windows. Don't plan to cover a ton of water in the boat. Pick your spot ahead of time, work it hard, and keep lines in the water as much as possible
Target HUGE Rock / Gravel Flats - There are typically very few areas that have sufficient spawning grounds for cisco. The entire population in a body of water (even as big as great lake) will only use a few locations. To support such a large population at once the spot needs to be big! Pick out the biggest flats, shoals, and shorelines near deep water.
Big Baits - Cisco can grow up to 24" in length. Use big baits! If you are able to run multiple lines you can use smaller baits after a sufficient number of big presentation options are already out just in case. Size your bait according to the species being targeted as well. For walleye (yellow pickerel) big is 8-10" but for northern pike or musky big can be 16-20".
Trolling / Jigging - With cold water and cold air temperatures casting becomes difficult and expensive. Freeze up in eyelets from wet line coming in and out can make casting difficult and lead to breaking your gear. Trolling & Jigging limit the amount of water on the eyelets and will lead to fewer problems. If the day allows it casting can also be productive but more often than not you won't be able to count on it
Lure Depth - Cisco (tullibee, lake herring) spawn under low light conditions. When they spawn they will move up on top of the shoals or into shallow water flats. When the sun is bright and high they will retreat to the depths they are normally found in. As an angler you can use this info to set your bait depth. Early or late in the day as well as on overcast days the bait is likely to be shallow and so will the predators! It is not uncommon to only run your baits 5-10 ft down while working the spawning structures.
Low Light - In addition to majors & minors when big predators become most active low light conditions are when cisco become most susceptible to predators. Try to be on the water early and don't quit until after sunset. Look up big musky photos and you will be surprised just how many come at or after sunset. Don't quit too early!
Electronics - When working these giant areas being around bait is key and keeping your lure at or above the fish is a must. Fish feed up not down unless they are getting something right off bottom. Often in shallow water bait will scatter as you go overtop of them. This means you may not see it on your sonar! In addition the sonar cone is very small in shallow water so you need to be directly overtop to even get a reading. BUT, when you don't see anything on sonar your confidence drops! Side imaging is a must to be sure you're not leaving an area where there are fish. You will also be able to spot if fish are sitting really high in the water column (0-5 ft) where you would never be able to do this with sonar and so you can adjust your bait depth!
The fishing is not easy but the rewards can be huge! Taking into account these tips will help you make the most of your time on the water as the season draws to a close and help put one last trophy in the boat!
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