Ark of Taste
Lake Michigan Whitefish
Lake Michigan Whitefish, a sub-member of the salmon family, is silvery white to blue in color, with a greenish-brown hue on its back, clear or lightly pigmented fins and large scales (slightly smaller than a dime) with thick slime protecting them. It can range from two to fourteen pounds (the largest on record), but averages two to four pounds in weight and 17 to 24 inches in length. The fish has a sweet and delicate flavor and texture, with a subtle richness.
This fish has been the centerpiece of the commercial fishing industry, and therefore the economy, on the Door Peninsula and Washington Island, WI for the past century. The Potawatomi and other Native Americans have been fishing whitefish for centuries and as early as 1840 there were commercial fishermen on the Door Peninsula shipping barrel and salted whitefish to Chicago and Milwaukee. At one point, Washington Island had 43 boats and over 600 people directly employed by the fishing industry. Today, there are just two families, two boats, and three commercial fishermen on Washington Island involved in fishing whitefish, all of whom have second jobs. The Lake Michigan whitefish on Wisconsin restaurants menus has been replaced by farmed salmon, Icelandic cod, and other imported “exotic” fish, despite the availability of this local and delicious protein source.
To catch whitefish, fishermen use grill nets, which are weighted with lead on the bottom and cork on the top, The annual catch has varied greatly since the mid-1800s and appears to be cyclical in nature. One of the largest harvests on record was 1,806,281 pounds in 1974.
More than just a source of economic prosperity, the whitefish is a cultural icon. In Door County the fish is traditionally served smoked or featured in the fish boil. The boil began on Washington Island in the 1940s and is now a popular tourist activity, as well as the focal point of many social events and fundraisers. A cauldron is filled with seasoned water and set over an open wood fire. Potatoes, carrots and onions are simmered and then the whitefish is added. When it is done cooking, kerosene is thrown on the fire, creating a “boil over.” This gets rid of the fish oil that has floated to the top and fish and vegetables can be lifted out of the liquid and eaten immediately. Whitefish livers, which most closely resemble the delicate flavor of chicken as opposed to cod liver, can be sautéed, deep-fried, or made into pâté. The roe makes excellent caviar.
The loss of this fish would be a loss of cultural as well as economic significance. It represents the way of life and the economy upon which the Door Peninsula and Washington Island were built.
Fishing is year-round (even once the lake is frozen) with the exception of November when the fish are spawning. December is the most abundant time of year as the fish are done spawning but remain in the shallower waters closer to shore. Lake Michigan whitefish is available for purchase smoked or frozen year-round.
Photos courtesy of Kraig Kraft