Cisco Fishing and Then Some

Cisco Fishing and Then Some: Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers
Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach
Courtesy & &copy: Mary Heers

Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach
Courtesy & &copy: Mary Heers

Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers Ice Fishing at Bear Lake, Cisco Beach
Courtesy & © Mary Heers

Bonneville Cisco: Male and Female The more colorful male is larger below the tape. Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer. Bonneville Cisco: Male and Female
The more colorful male is larger below the tape.
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer.

For two weeks every January at Bear Lake, the Bonneville Cisco, averaging 6 to 8 inches in length, swim out of the deep waters to spawn in the shallow, cobbled shoreline on the eastside. They come in the thousands, broadcast their eggs and sperm into the shallow water, and leave.

In the recorded history of Bear Lake, there is a picture of a Swedish immigrant who, in the early 1900’s, took his gill nets to the Eastern shore and caught Cisco. Over the years, after gill nets were outlawed, people started using small nets on long poles to pull the Cisco out of the shallow water. Bear Lake, at close to 6,000 ft elevation, is cold in January. Anyone fishing would tend to hop from foot to foot trying to stay warm. From a distance it looked like dancing. And so the Cisco spawning run got its name: Cisco Disco. In 1980 it became part of the Bear Lake Winter Festival, including a free fish fry breakfast at Cisco Beach.

So on Jan 22 I showed up at daybreak and found a fire blazing in a firepit, and hot oil starting to boil over propane cookstoves. Out in the water, up to their waists in hip waders, people were swinging their nets through the frigid water. No one was catching fish.

The Cisco were running late.

So we ate whitefish instead, and homemade scones with raspberry jam, and agreed the Cisco would probably show up the next week.

I borrowed some hip waders and boots from a friend. As I drove back to Bear Lake, I noticed the outside temp showing up on my dashboard said -6 degrees. I wondered if I was tough enough to fish for Cisco. But when I pulled up at Cisco Beach I was surprised to find that for the first time in six years, the water had frozen. People were hammering holes in the ice with shovels and pick axes.

The Cisco were already there. Soon the air rang with happy cries of “I got some!” Everyone was counting. When they got to 30, the Cisco limit, they gathered up their takings and left. Most were going home to put the fish in the freezer. Come warmer weather, they would use the Cisco as bait when fishing for the bigger fish in the lake, the Whitefish, the Cutthroat, the Lake Trout. After all, Cisco are the main diet of these larger fish, and a very tempting bait.

I thought I was done with winter fishing until I started to notice more and more pop up tents on Bear Lake and the local reservoirs.

“Ice fishing?” I asked friends.

“We love it!” they said. I asked if I could go along.

I had always thought ice fishing meant standing over a hole in the ice, shivering and hoping against hope a fish might come along. Boy, was I wrong.

The propane heater quickly made it cozy inside the pop up tent. The auger, powered by an electric motor, drilled down through 2 feet of ice in less than 2 minutes. Then the sonar fish finder took over.

“Fish at 12 feet,” my friend said. I let out some line.

Its so much easier to catch fish when you can drop of tasty bit of bait close to them. The 3 of us caught 38 fish in three hours.

And I got hooked on ice fishing.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Audio: Shalayne Smith-Needham and technical engineers J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin
Text: Mary Heers

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings

Bingham, Lyle with Ron Goede, Voice by Linda Kervin, Bonneville Cisco, Wild About Utah, February 11, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/bonneville-cisco/

Fishes of Utah: A Natural History (Hardcover)
by William F. Sigler (Author), John W. Sigler (Author), Joseph R. Tomelleri (Illustrator),
https://www.amazon.ca/Fishes-Utah-William-F-Sigler/dp/0874804698, pp 23, 24, 194-196

Are Bear Lake’s Ciscos a Joy or Curse?, Angler Guide, https://www.anglerguide.com/articles/112.html

Winter Fishing Comes Naturally at Bear Lake, Utah Outdoors, https://www.utahoutdoors.com/pages/bear_lake_winter.htm

Bonneville Cisco (Prosopium gemmifer) [Version 2020-04-20], Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/pdf/sensitive_species/fishes_bonneville_cisco_2020.pdf
Bonneville Cisco, USGS, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?SpeciesID=922

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Bear Lake Sckulpin Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen Bear Lake Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin in Haley Glassic's hand Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen Sculpin in Haley Glassic’s hand
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen

In Bear Lake, there lives a small, bright blue eyed, bottom-dwelling fish species that may appear insignificant as it moves among the lake’s cobble areas.

The fish grows up to three inches in length and is endemic to Utah’s northern most lake, hence its name – the Bear Lake sculpin.

The sculpin is a scale-free, tadpole-like fish with a broad flat head, a slender body and eyes placed high on its head. It has elaborate pectoral fins that stretch out like decorative fans from both sides of its body and two dorsal fins along its back that sometimes connect at the base.

Although the sculpin is small, its worth is significant. One of the main sportfish of Bear Lake, the Bonneville Cutthroat trout, rely heavily on the sculpin to be a source of food as its main forage fish, the sculpin makes up more than 70% of the diet for juvenile trout.

Interestingly, Bear Lake is the only place the sculpin is natively found and it is one of only two sculpins in the West that live in deep-water lake habitats.

It stays exclusively in the lake. While other fish in Bear Lake migrate up the tributaries to spawn, the sculpin seek out the lakes cobble areas where it can find cavities under and between the rocks to lay its eggs.

The best cobble habitat in Bear Lake is along the eastern shore at Cisco Beach where the shallow water covers the rounded rocks that range from 2-12 inches in size. Only 0.1% of Bear Lake is cobble habitat.

The shallow location of the cobble is important for the successful nest since the wave turbulence begins the hatching process. Waves and currents also help with the dispersal of the sculpin embryos throughout the 282 square kilometer lake.

Once hatched the young-of-the year have a feeding ritual quite different from their juvenile and adult counterparts. While the older sculpin stay on the bottom of the lake foraging for food, the young float up during the day to where the sun easily penetrates the water. The sunlight makes it easier for the young sculpin to find their food and it warms their bodies so they can digest their food more rapidly– which stimulates growth. The young sculpin can feed up to nine times faster during the day than they would at night. Once they have grown, it is difficult for sculpin to rise up the water column because they do not have swim bladders as trout do.

An essential component to have a large population of new sculpin each year is to ensure there is sufficient cobble habitat in Bear Lake.

When drought years hit, large portions of the cobble are exposed due to both that drought and human use. While the lake has never dropped to the level where all cobble habitat is exposed, a USU research team has documented more than 96% of cobble reductions during extreme multi-year drought events. This raises major concerns and questions about how a decrease in cobble would impact the sculpin population.

To investigate this question, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources awarded a research grant to Jereme Gaeta, assistant professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and the Ecology Center in the Quinney College of Natural Resources to improve our understanding of the potential effects of drought on cobble habitats and fish communities.

Hayley Glassic, a graduate student in Gaeta’s lab has worked on this project since 2015. In the coming months their findings will be published and made available to the public.

This may be important reading for any agency or person making decisions about the Bear Lake water levels, which would impact the cobble habitat of the Bear Lake sculpin.

According to Glassic, “Sculpin appear to be one of the essential parts of the entire (Bear Lake) ecosystem.” Ensuring their cobble habitat is preserved during drought years is necessary for the overall health of the lake’s ecosystem.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Theme: Courtesy & Copyright Don Anderson Leaping Lulu
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Text: Shauna Leavitt
Voice: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, USGS, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=503

Clyde Lay, Wayne A Wurtsbaugh, and James R Ruzycki, Reproductive ecology and early life history of a lacustrine sculpin, Cottus extensus (Teleostei, Cottidae)

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Fishbase Consortium, https://fishbase.org/summary/Cottus-extensus.html

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=cottus%20extensus

Bear Lake Blue Ribbon Fishery, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://dwrapps.utah.gov/fishing/fStart?NA=Bear%20Lake%20(Blue%20Ribbon) [Link updated January 2024]

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Idaho Fish & Game, https://idfg.idaho.gov/species/taxa/20071 [Link updated January 2024]

Bonneville Cisco

Bonneville Cisco: Female and Male. The more colorful male is on the bottom. Size of samples not indicative of gender.  Photo Copyright Ron Goede
Bonneville Cisco: Female and Male
The more colorful male is on the bottom.
Size of samples not indicative of gender.
Click to view a larger image.
Photo Courtesy &
Copyright © 1979, 2009 Ron Goede

In mid-January you can witness frenetic fishing along the south-eastern shore of Bear Lake. The Bonneville Cisco are spawning.

These small whitefish are numerically the most abundant fish species in Utah, even though, Cisco are endemic to Bear Lake. And although attempts have been made to transplant them to other waters, they continue to thrive only in Bear Lake.
There are in fact, more endemic fish in Bear Lake than in any other north-American lake: the Bonneville Cisco, the Bear Lake Whitefish, the Bonneville Whitefish and the Bear Lake Sculpin. These deep water salmoniform fish also inhabited Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, the great freshwater sea that covered vast portions of Utah and surrounding states.

The Bonneville Cisco is differentiated from other whitefish by its pointed mouth and smaller size. Growing no larger than 9 inches, it is pale moss green on top with silver sides. Cisco don’t have the spots found on other whitefish.

Cisco eat only small aquatic invertebrates or zooplankton. They are eaten by larger fish in the lake including cutthroat, lake trout, and whitefish. When caught, they are most often breaded whole and deep-fat fried or smoked. Sometimes they are frozen and used as bait to catch cutthroat and lake trout later in the year.

Cisco mature at 3 years and, for a two-week period, prefer spawning on the south-eastern, rocky beach known appropriately as Cisco Beach. The males move first to the area where they wait for the females to arrive. Low water levels in the lake sometimes keep Cisco from the beach; but using fish finders, anglers have found that Cisco spawn in other places throughout the lake. However, they still prefer rocky locations, even if they are in deeper water.

Schools swim parallel, but 3-8 feet from the shore. During ice-on conditions, fishermen drill up to 18-inch holes and fish with nets or lines through the holes. With ice-off, they wade into the water, using smelt nets. Out in the lake, Cisco are caught with lures such as spoons and jigs instead of nets. The current limit is 30.
So if you are near Bear Lake in mid-January, dress warmly and enjoy this unique fishing phenomenon found nowhere else in the world.

Credits:

Picture: Courtesy & Copyright © 1979, 2009 Ron Goede, https://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org
Voice: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society https://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org
Text: Lyle Bingham and Ron Goede, Bridgerland Audubon Society https://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

Fishes of Utah: A Natural History (Hardcover)
by William F. Sigler (Author), John W. Sigler (Author), Joseph R. Tomelleri (Illustrator),
https://www.amazon.ca/Fishes-Utah-William-F-Sigler/dp/0874804698, pp 23, 24, 194-196

Are Bear Lake’s Ciscos a Joy or Curse?, Angler Guide, https://www.anglerguide.com/articles/112.html

Fishing, Bear Lake Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, https://bearlake.org/fishing/

Prosopium gemmifer, Bonneville cisco, FishBase, https://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?id=2683

Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Natural Resources, State of Utah, 2015-2025, https://wildlife.utah.gov/discover/wildlife-action-plan.html

Winter Fishing Comes Naturally at Bear Lake, Utah Outdoors, https://www.utahoutdoors.com/pages/bear_lake_winter.htm

Bonneville Cisco Prosopium gemmifer, Fieldguide, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=prosopium%20gemmifer

Bonneville Cisco Prosopium gemmifer, Species Status Statement, [Version 2020-04-20], Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/pdf/sensitive_species/fishes_bonneville_cisco_2020.pdf