Lake Whitefish

Coregonus clupeaformis

  • Lake Whitefish usually grow to 17-22 inches, and range from 1.5-4 lbs.
  • They are silvery with a pale green-brown back.
  • Related to salmon, trout and char, as they are part of the Salmonidae family.
  • Popular commercial fish as well as an occasional sport fish.
  • Native to the Great Lakes.

Lake whitefish are a benthic, cool water fish that feed primarily on Diporeia, some small fish and fish eggs. Whitefish spawn in November and December usually in the shallows. As the water temperatures rise, lake whitefish school up and swim in the company of fellow whitefish in the dark, cool depths of the Great Lakes, sometimes retreating as deep as 200 feet.

14-4xx Whitefish Life Cycle
Lake Whitefish Life Cycle graphic
(PDF)

Whitefish could be considered the unsung hero of the Great Lakes fishery. Not as flashy or revered as their salmon and trout cousins, whitefish are characterized by a small head with a blunt snout overhanging the lower jaw. Older fish often develop a fleshy bump at the shoulders, which makes the small head look even smaller.

History

The humble, silvery-brown fish has quietly sustained people in the Great Lakes for thousands of years — and continues to. Early Native Americans would make a powder of smoked Great Lakes Whitefish for use in stew, soups and fish pies; they would also mix the powder with fresh blueberries. The Ojibwe word for Great Lakes Whitefish is Atikamig.

Early Explorers were introduced to the whitefish and lauded it as a great food source. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac wrote (circa 1695): “Moreover, better fish can not be eaten, and they are bathed and nourished in the purest water, the clearest and the most pellucid you could see anywhere. That is the most delicate fish of the lake.” — The Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615-1760 by Vernon Kinietz (University of Michigan Press, 1940)

Commercial and Sport Fishing

Whitefish generate the greatest income for Great Lakes commercial fisheries in United States and Canada. Commercial fishing, for the most part, is carried out by means of trapnets and gillnets set during the open water season.

The average-sized whitefish in the commercial catch measure 17 to 22 inches in length and weigh 1.5 to 4 lbs. The largest individual on record was more than 42 pounds and was harvested from Lake Superior in 1918.

While not typically noted as a game fish, in recent years the lake whitefish has been the object of an active sport fishery in many parts of its range. Anglers catch it on a small hook usually baited with a fish egg.

Michigan Sea Grant has worked with the commercial whitefish fisheries throughout the Great Lakes to help promote the native species. To learn more, see the Marketing Great Lakes Whitefish (PDF) article.

Table Fare

Just as it was in the early days, lake whitefish is excellent to eat. It has a sweet, light flavor that many who “don’t like fish” can appreciate. Its mildness suits a variety of dishes, while it also adapts to almost any method of cooking. Great Lakes Whitefish contains more omega-3 fatty acids than pink and sockeye salmon.

Check out the Michigan Sea Grant Whitefish Cookbook Wild Caught and Close to Home: Selecting and Preparing Great Lakes Whitefish available through the bookstore.

Restoration

While whitefish stocks remain plentiful in certain parts of the Great Lakes, they have disappeared from other areas within their native range. However, habitat restoration initiatives seem to have encouraged spawning. For example, in 2006 researchers discovered spawning lake whitefish and fertilized whitefish eggs in the Detroit River, following the installation of several fish spawning reefs and decades of pollution prevention and remediation. The eggs they found were the first documented evidence of a lake whitefish spawn in the Detroit River since 1916.

Learn more about ongoing restoration projects.

Climate Change and Whitefish

How will climate change impact lake whitefish? Can a coldwater fish do well in warmer water? Check out the Climate Change and Great Lakes Whitefish Project for more information.