Published September 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Lake Superior netters finally catch elusive bluefin herring

Lake Superior bluefin herring is finally back on the menu at the Bluefin Grille. “We hadn’t had it all summer until last week,” said Ed Douglass, executive chef for the fine-dining restaurant at the Bluefin Bay resort in Tofte, Minn., on Lake Superior’s North Shore. The Bluefin Grille had to make do without its namesake fish because commercial fishermen’s nets on the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) kept coming up empty of herring this summer.

By: Steve Karnowski, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Lake Superior bluefin herring is finally back on the menu at the Bluefin Grille.

“We hadn’t had it all summer until last week,” said Ed Douglass, executive chef for the fine-dining restaurant at the Bluefin Bay resort in Tofte, Minn., on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

The Bluefin Grille had to make do without its namesake fish because commercial fishermen’s nets on the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) kept coming up empty of herring this summer. The culprit, fisheries experts said, was an unusually cold summer that kept water temperatures even lower than usual.

Despite the poor fishing, the Lake Superior fishery is in good shape, said Don Schreiner, Lake Superior fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Herring stocks are good, if not quite as high as a few years ago. Lake trout numbers continue to rise. And commercial and sport fishing have bounced back, thanks to the unusually warm weather of the past few weeks.

Harley Toftey, one of the few commercial fishermen left on Lake Superior, explained that when the water is really cold, the herring remain dispersed in the lake. They don’t concentrate and become easier to catch until the lake temperature rises to a certain point.

“Right now, we’re getting all the herring we can sell,” Toftey said. “We’ve had a surplus of herring for a couple of weeks. But it’s just timing. When the tourists are here, the fish are never here, but when the fish are here, the tourists are long gone.”

Douglass said the herring supply dried up about a week after he printed his summer menus. Bluefin Grille was able to offer its guests Lake Superior lake trout and whitefish instead, but he said customers missed the herring, which the restaurant serves breaded and fried, lemon-pepper broiled, or pan-roasted with a cucumber and tomato relish. It’s also the Grille’s standard smoked fish — when it’s available.

“It’s one of the standards we run with all summer. ... It’s one of the freshest local fish we can get,” he said.

Toftey, co-owner of Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, Minn., said he’s gotten used to ups and downs in the 30 years or so he’s fished Lake Superior. In fact, he said, he doesn’t

count on summer herring. He just considers it a plus when they’re available.

A more important part of his business comes this fall, when the herring come in close to shore to spawn. Among Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, he said, commercial fishermen bring in 600,000 to 800,000 pounds of herring each fall. That will yield 65,000 to 70,000 pounds of herring roe that’s processed locally into caviar, most of which is exported to Europe, particularly Scandinavia. The fish flesh is shipped to New Jersey, where it’s made into the Jewish standby gefilte fish.

While the Minnesota DNR licenses 25 people to fish Lake Superior commercially, Toftey estimated only four or five actively try to make a living at it during the summer. The numbers rise to maybe 10 for the fall herring fisheryfrom late October to early December.

George Wilkes, co-owner of the Angry Trout Cafe, next to Toftey’s fishing operations on the Grand Marais waterfront, said his restaurant made up for the North Shore fish shortfall by offering more whitefish from Wisconsin’s South Shore. He said lake trout availability was sporadic, as it often is, because the Angry Trout gets its lake trout from a few American Indian fishermen from the Grand Portage reservation who fish in small open boats and can’t go out in rough weather.

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