Tullibees are a strange fish, that's for sure. Here in Minnesota, they are considered rough fish, not game fish. This puts them in the same category as bullheads, carp, suckers, and dogfish. So, what are tullibees good for? The short answer: a lot of things. Let's dig into it a little bit.
Tullibees, also known as cisco, are a primary food source for many game fish including walleyes, northern pike, and muskies. In fact, many trophy-sized fish of these species depend on tullibees. Because tullibees only inhabit about 650 Minnesota lakes and are considered rough fish, they are not a highly targeted species for anglers. Despite how overlooked these shiny "silver bullets" are, they are both fun to catch and outstanding to eat.
Over the weekend, I had the chance to visit Ottertail, Minnesota through a community collaboration with a company called Shrpa (I'll be making another post diving into the details of the rest of that adventure soon). While I was in town, I had the opportunity to hit the ice with Erik Osberg from The Outdoor Report for tullibees on Sunday morning.
Going into this endeavor I knew absolutely nothing about tullibees, other than that I had heard they taste amazing when smoked. Erik warned me that he was not an expert, but he would do his best to try to get us on some fish. Through his friend Randin, owner of Lock Jaw Guide Service, we were able to get set up in an Ice Castle on one of the local lakes. We were sitting at a depth of 70 ft (water deeper than I had ever fished before) with dropper rigs set up.
If you don't know what a dropper rig is, think of what you would use as tackle for targeting lake trout through the ice. Still can't picture it? Let me try to explain...
At the end of the line, you'd have a standard jig like those used for crappies or other panfish with wax worms on the hook. About 10 inches above that jig you would want to have a "flasher" of some sort tied to the line, something like a Swedish Pimple or another style of a spoon, with the treble hook removed. It should look similar to this example of a perch rig from Sport Fishing Buddy. If it still sounds confusing, that's okay. It's one of those things you have to try in person to truly understand, at least it was for me.
It was 6:45 a.m. when we got to the lake. By the time we had battled the snowdrifts on the ice and got set up with lines in the water it was around 7:15 a.m. Aside from my husband (Lucas), Erik, and myself, we were also accompanied by professional angler Nicole Jacobs. She was also new to tullibee fishing and, like us, wasn't sure when or if we'd be pulling one of these strange fish through the ice.
The fish were marking on our flashers, both Vexilar and Marcum, at anywhere between 30 ft down and all the way to the bottom. I was very surprised that these fish were present all throughout the water column. Our technique was similar to how you'd target walleye. It involved a lot of movement, like a game of cat and mouse. We'd jig the rods, let out line, reel up past the fish, and basically do whatever we could to capture their attention. There was definitely a learning curve to nailing down this technique, but by 7:45 a.m. we had our first tight line.
We all had joked that if we could catch just ONE tullibee our day would be a success. Over the next hour and a half, we hammered the fish. All but two of the ten tullibees we caught were huge in comparison to the size of the ones in photos we had looked up online beforehand. It was a complete success. We kept the eight keepers and I brought them home so I can try my hand at throwing them on the smoker (another experience I'll likely be sharing soon).
After going into the day with no idea what I was doing and not expecting to catch anything, I left with a newfound obsession with tullibee fishing. If it is something you've never done, I highly recommend trying it. Tullibees, in my opinion, are completely underrated. I may not be an expert on them, but if I can catch them with little to no experience or understanding, I'm confident anyone can, no matter their skill level when it comes to fishing on hard water.
Once again, I want to thank Erik from The Outdoor Report for showing us the ropes and getting us out on the ice. I also want to thank Randin from Lock Jaw Guide Service for graciously letting us use one of his Ice Castles to stay warm and out of the bone-chilling wind. It was an outstanding experience and I already know I'll be coming back to do it all again in the future.
Have you ever fished for tullibees? If so, tell me about your experiences. I'd love to hear your stories!