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Wild About Utah: Cisco fishing and then some

Mary Heers holding a net and fishing for Cisco.
Mary Heers

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 east side. 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.

It’s 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’m wild about Utah

Sound credit: Shalayne Smith Needham, J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin.

Mary got hooked on oral histories while visiting Ellis Island and hearing the recorded voices of immigrants that had passed through. StoryCorps drew her to UPR. After she retired from teaching at Preston High, she walked into the station and said she wanted to help. Kerry put her to work taking the best 3 minutes out of the 30 minute interviews recorded in Vernal. Passion kicked in. Mary went on to collect more and more stories and return them to the community on UPR's radio waves. Major credits to date: Utah Works, One Small Step, and the award winning documentary Ride the Rails.