McFeely: Tullibee, or not tullibee — Unique fish provides a fun day on the ice in Otter Tail County
The early spring ritual of catching 'off-brand' fish is still alive and well in Otter Tail County, Minn.
OTTER TAIL COUNTY, Minn. — There is no quick way to lower your bait into a school of tullibees when the fish are 60 feet below the ice. Conversely, there is no quick way to reel up a hooked tullibee from the same depth. So there is a fair amount of patience needed when the silvery fish are lighting up a depth-finder and they are biting.
"You don't realize how long it takes to pull up a fish from 60 feet, when you're used to fishing in 15 or 20 feet of water," says Jason Stetz, of Pelican Rapids, Minn., while recently cozied inside a portable fish tent jigging for tullibees on an Otter Tail County lake. "You just keep reeling and reeling and you think, 'Is this thing ever coming up?'"
It is, as the line went on "Monty Python's Flying Circus," something completely different. That pretty much describes tullibee fishing in its entirety. While walleyes and crappies dominate the thoughts of Minnesota ice anglers, there is a small but dedicated group of fishermen who spend at least a few outings each early spring jigging for tullibees in deep lakes in the northern half of the state.
Tullibees are not a highly sought-after species, nor good table fare unless smoked. A member of the salmon family that are often less than a pound, tullibee (also known by some as ciscoes) are more important as prey for bigger fish like walleye, northern pike and muskies. The oily whitefish is a perfect source of protein for game fish.
But they are also great fun to catch through the ice, and anglers like Stetz and his cousin Tony Stetz, of Cormorant, Minn., are part of the dedicated legion that pursues them. In some ways, tullibees are a perfect target for anglers: Willing to bite throughout the day, not particularly hard to catch if you can find them and delicious if properly prepared.
"It's not hard to catch 20 or 30 fish between two guys. You don't have very many bad days tullibee fishing if you know where they are. And they are the perfect fish to put in the smoker," Tony Stetz said.
The Stetz boys took a trip to a popular Otter Tail County lake on a recent morning and allowed a tullibee rookie to tag along. They set up their pop-up ice shacks over a 90-foot-deep hole, drilled three holes side-by-side for each angler — the middle hole used for the depth-finder sonar to pick up where the fish were roaming — and proceeded to start jigging.
This is not complex fishing. The tackle is simple: Basic ice-fishing rods and reels spooled with monofilament line, a large Daredevle-type spoon with the hooks removed tied to a swivel at the end and a small teardrop-style panfish jig on a 2-foot drop line below that. A single waxworm impaled on the jig was the only bait.
"I don't know exactly if the spoon attracts the fish, but it does give you some weight to get the bait down to the fish faster," Jason said. "It's better to let out your line slow and steady instead of just ripping off the reel like you might do in shallow water, because the spoon flutters and runs sideways. If you go too fast, you just end up with a rat's nest."
The challenge is to watch the depth-finder for fish and raise or lower the bait to get it in front of them. Tullibees mostly were hanging out in 55-60 feet on this day, but sometimes they'd pass through at 25 feet. Tony Stetz said he's had days when the tullibees were swimming 5 feet below the ice and he fished them by sight.
Tullibees are a compelling fish, even if they'll never rank at the top of popularity lists. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the state contains more high-quality tullibee lakes than any other in the lower 48. They require cold, deep lakes that have oxygen-rich water. Minnesota, according to the DNR, has about 600 tullibee lakes, including many in Otter Tail County.
They are considered what one DNR researcher described as "a great canary in the mineshaft" species. As Minnesota lakes have become warmer because of climate change and more polluted because of heavy development, tullibees have suffered. The slightest changes in water temperature or oxygen levels can cause tullibee die-offs.
"We saw a pretty steady decline in tullibee populations in some lakes from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The last several winters have been pretty cold and so we think that has helped, but we could return to that warming trend at any time and then who knows what might happen," said Peter Jacobson, a fisheries habitat research supervisor with the DNR. "I think generally we can say the deepest, clearest, coldest lakes have probably fared the best and the shallower, warmer lakes that hold tullibees probably didn't fare so well."
The population in this particular Otter Tail County lake seemed healthy, given the number of fish lighting up the sonars as schools roamed the 90-foot basin.
"I don't have any idea why tullibees swim around randomly in the deepest part of the lake," Tony said. "But it seems like a pretty carefree life."
Fishing with Jason and Tony is like fishing with Steve Martin and Martin Short. The jokes never stop, the insults are sharp and the ribbing is pointed but harmless. There's a fish story for every situation and some of them might be true. They are dedicated anglers who are pretty good local walleye sticks and have been known to put a crappie or two in the boat or 5-gallon bucket.
They fish tullibees for the best reason of all — it's fun.
On this day, about 30 tullibees ended up on the ice after a few hours of fishing. Most were average-sized, but Tony landed one that was probably 24 inches long and weighed upwards of 3 pounds. That's a good-sized tullibee.
"It's a Buick!" Tony exclaimed.
"It's a record-breaker!" Jason responded.
It was neither. Minnesota's state record is a 5-pound, 13-ounce fish caught in Otter Tail County's Sybil Lake in 2015.
Tony gathered the fish at the end of the day and tossed them in a burlap sack. They'd be gutted and smoked.
"The fishing's only going to get better," he said. "The later you get into spring, the more they seem to bite. This wasn't a bad day, but it wasn't gangbusters. The best is yet to come."