How they bitin'?" called the driver of an ATV as he hitched a portable ice shelter to the back of his machine. "Oh, pretty good ," responded a man in a pickup. "We filled four buckets this morning, then they slowed down."
Buoyed by that news, the men put the four-wheeler in gear and headed onto the frozen expanses of Leech Lake, in search of tullibees. Leech, one of Minnesota's finest walleye producers, is also renowned for huge muskies, lunker largemouths, and nice perch.
But in March, Leech Lake is tullibeeland. Ditto for Mille Lacs, the state's premier walleye fishery, and also a top producer of muskies, pike, perch, and smallmouth bass. The annual tullibee "run" is an event not to be missed by anglers there, too.
In the United States, the tullibee is the most common member of the whitefish family (Coregonidae). Some ichthyologists, though, consider this fish group a subfamily of the trout family (Salmonidae). The tullibee, Coregonus artedii, also is known as the cisco or lake herring. The whitefish clan contains at least 18 species in three genera, plus many subspecies and local varieties or races.
The tullibee range extends from the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins north to Labrador and northwest to the Mackenzie River drainage, including the coastal waters of Hudson Bay. Wherever they're found in large numbers, ice anglers target tullibees, for their delicate flesh, a treat whether baked, pan fried, smoked, or canned. And the fast action they provide appeals to kids and ice veterans alike.
There's no denying the attraction of the tullibee, a sleek and beautiful fish, if a bit slimy. In Leech Lake, tullibees average nearly 11/2 pounds, with occasional 3-pounders mixed in to test the ultralight panfish tackle usually used to catch them.
Tullibees feed primarily on zooplankton, like Daphnia and copepods, and on aquatic insect larvae they ingest from the water column or from the bottom. In other lakes, tullibees run smaller, to the extent that some biologists believe a dwarf strain exists that may be genetically identifiable.
When large schools of tullibees feed actively, teardrops and other shapes of ice lures in the 1/50- to 1/32-ounce range take 'em by the bucketful. When fish are more finicky, though, darting toward baits before turning away, thin-diameter 2-pound-test mono with the teeniest of ice baits tipped with a maggot provides action.
For heavy-duty ice fishing action, try the tullibee's larger cousin, the lake whitefish. This member of the clan averages from 3 to 6 pounds in the diverse lakes it occupies. The current angling record (14 pounds 6 ounces) came from Lake Medford, Ontario, in 1984, a record often approached by whitefish from other lakes in Canada. Commercial fisheries take many whitefish from Canadian lakes and the Great Lakes. A 42-pounder reportedly was taken commercially off Isle Royale in Lake Superior around 1918.
Like tullibees, lake whitefish are coldwater fish, preferring water temperatures in the 50°F range, hence their great potential for offering ice fishing action. They reach their greatest abundance in lakes north of the 50th parallel and range across Canada from Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories and north through Alaska. In the United States, they range from Maine across the northern tier of the Great Lakes states and into Washington and Oregon.
Lake whitefish are silvery colored with a thick body and relatively small head. Larger specimens develop a broad back that almost forms a hump (shoulders) that provide awesome pulling power when hooked. Like tullibees, whitefish are relatives of trout and salmon, evidenced by a soft adipose fin on the back between the dorsal fin and tail. Whitefish have a prominent overhanging snout, much different from the tullibee's long lower jaw and straight mouth.
This overhanging snout is believed to be an adaptation for feeding on bottom-dwelling invertebrates and fish. The thick-walled stomach of the whitefish resembles the gizzard of a chicken. And like some birds, whitefish ingest gravel and pebbles, which they hold in their stomachs, presumably to help grind food.
Whitefish and tullibees spawn on gravel bars in 6 to 20 feet of water in fall, when water cools into the mid-40°F range. Eggs incubate slowly under ice, hatching in early spring. At ice-out, whitefish forage in shallow water on invertebrates and minnows. During spring and early summer, they sometimes enter warmer surface waters or even shallow bays to feed on insects or small minnows.
Once the thermocline develops, however, these coldwater species remain almost exclusively below or near it, where water temperatures remain in their preferred range. They've become a popular sportfish, pursued by anglers who combine sonar with trolling techniques, or who vertically jig small baits.
Under the ice, they scatter throughout lake basins, where water temperature varies little and plentiful oxygen exists in the infertile lakes where they thrive. In the large mesotrophic lakes these fish occupy in Minnesota, they often feed on deep main-lake structure that also holds walleyes and perch. Look for them on deep gravel and rock bars that rise from the deep lake basin into the 30-foot range.
In lakes where they aren't abundant, making contact with roving bands of whitefish can be difficult. The best strategy is to stay mobile by pulling a portable shelter in a pickup, or behind a snowmobile or ATV. Cut a series of holes toward the tip of a point and out into the basin. Lures attract whitefish cruising the area, so don't consider a blank sonar screen reason not to drop a line.
But don't dally long, for a few minutes of jigging in each of a series of holes should attract a bite if a school's nearby. You may catch only a few or maybe only two from a hole before the group moves on. Move to the the next structural element and check it. Like tullibees, whitefish feed most actively during early morning and toward dusk.
Whitefish hit 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigging spoons tipped with a minnow head, and they also strike live minnows set on tip-ups. Spoons of chrome, chrome-blue, and chrome-red seem particularly attractive, based on the limited experience of the In-Fisherman staff.
Despite the shape of the mouth, whitefish are piscivorous. In summer, they sometimes strike large minnowbaits trolled deep for walleyes or pike. In Canadian lakes where whitefish are more abundant, ice fishermen set up on deep underwater points extending out into the basin of the main lake. The tops of such bars may range from 15 to 30 feet in depth and slope into 60 to 100 or more feet of water. Groups of whitefish apparently move from one point to another in search of prey. They also may group on flats that range from 20 to 40 feet deep.
For unlike walleyes and perch that seem to move onto structures and hold on them for weeks, groups of whitefish may feed briefly on a spot, then wander to another. In the southern part of their range, whitefish usually comprise incidental catches, though highly memorable ones, as these 5- to 8-pounders usually convince walleye anglers that they've hooked a record-class 'eye.