It is 7:47 am on October 1 and the sun is just starting to peek over the horizon onto the Tartan Rapids. As the light begins to glint off of the water, you can see there are two lines of people at the top of the rapids. On the southern side, people use their fishing rods cast out for the whitefish that lurk at the bottom of water. This has been going on all summer. It is the line of people on the northern edge that are new. These fishers have no rods, no lures, no bait, and no hooks. All they have is a good pair of waders and a sturdy dip net. They are often standing waist deep in the freezing water, staring down intently, searching for any sign of movement below the surface which might suggest their prey is near. It is these intrepid few who are on the hunt for cisco.
The cisco, also known as lake herring or, in the local Indigenous language of Wı̀lı̀ı̀deh Yatı̀, łıwe nechà-lea, only make their journey from Great Slave Lake up the rapids to Prosperous Lake over a short period of time each year: roughly two weeks. The mystery of the cisco hunt is when they will make this two-week run. Science tells us that the cisco are a fickle fish and prefer to make their spawning run when the combination of temperature, conductivity, and acidity level of the water are at optimum levels. If they ever had a perfect year to travel up Tartan, it would be when the water is at 7.9℃, the conductivity is at 55 µmhos, and the pH level is 8.2. The tricky thing for a cisco hunter is to try and predict when this optimal combination will be.
Local elders have a simpler, perhaps more elegant, timeline: the cisco will start to run when the ice forms at the edges of the water. Others will tell you to watch the seagulls. If the gulls are at the rapids, they are doing their own version of a cisco hunt. The more birds, the more likely the run is happening. This year, the run happened in the first ten days of October. In 2022, the spawn didn’t start until the very end of October when Prosperous Lake already had a skim of ice across the top. Apparently the lower temperatures were deemed fine by the cisco as long as the other conditions met their approval. Again, they are fickle fish.
The great uncertainty of when the cisco will run is part of the allure. Indeed, the anticipation almost meets the excitement of the actual hunt. After all, you never quite know what days they will run and, even when they are running, what time of day they will choose for their exodus. It could be at the start of the day or at any other time up until the sun drops below the horizon.
There will be times when you will see groups of two or three cisco swimming along the edge. However, even experienced dip netters have a difficult time pulling in any when they are in such small groups. This is not the run that people are waiting for. Then there are times when it seems like the heavens are smiling down on you and the cisco will arrive in groups by the hundred. When they are in groups this large, the cisco have a more difficult time evading the net and a good pull of the net might reap 20, 30, 40 or even more. It is moments like this where all the waiting, standing, staring, and dipping become worth it. One dip, at the right time, in the right place, using the right techniques can make your whole year. This is not an exaggeration. While cisco are sometimes eaten right away — freshly fried on the shore with butter, garlic salt and lemon is a favourite — for most people their real value is to be used as bait for the rest of the year. They are used when trolling during summer or as the most popular bait while ice fishing in the North. One good scoop of tiny cisco can actually help feed you for a year.
To help counteract the uncertainty of when the cisco will run in large schools, cisco hunters have become a unified group. As October nears it is not unusual to hear water-cooler conversation turn away from office politics, gossip, or sports to whether the run has begun. Every day, for those that are passionate about it, the first question to others is, “Are the cisco running?” More often than not, this will lead to a story about a person who was at Tartan just the other day and what they had seen and heard. On the electric day when the cisco have started to move in larger numbers, the talk becomes about what time people can get off work to race out to the rapids or if they can start a bit later the next day to make an early morning run.
Now, knowing when they are running is only the first step to pulling in this fish. The next thing you need to know is how to catch them. Many fishing enthusiasts would suggest that trolling from a boat doesn't require great skill. Casting from shore is more difficult than trolling but often the lure or hook is doing the lion’s share of the work. To someone that didn’t know better, they might think that dip netting would be the easiest of them all. All you have to do is put the net into the water and pull it out: easy. However, the cisco are a crafty creature.
There is no one technique that works from every spot. Sometimes you need to drive your net deep into the water downstream and scoop towards the top of the rapids. Sometimes, the net is put upstream and pulled toward the bottom. Other times you will get the best results by having your net in the water already and swirl slowly back and forth until you can quickly scoop them out of the water. In some areas, you hide behind rocks and allow them to swim up to you in schools and, in other areas, you allow them to congregate in an area of slow-moving water before attacking from the rocks above. For each area of the rapids, there is a technique that will be more effective on any given day and every fisher has their favourite. This is where the community of hunters comes in again. For other fish, people are generally loath to share their favourite fishing holes or techniques, but cisco hunters will share anything with you. They will even invite you to stand beside them and net with them.
The only thing they won’t share will be the spoils of their hunt; that you will have to put on some waders, jump in, and get some for yourself.