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Cisco or Lake Herring? What’s the Difference?

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Cisco or Lake Herring? What’s the Difference?

Conundrum: You are in a northern Wisconsin market and you see two smoked fish products. One is labeled “Ciscoes.” There are three fish looking as good as a smoked fish can look. The other is labeled “Herring” and the two fish in that package also look pretty good something that’s been through a smoker. How do you choose which package to buy for your to-die-for smoked fish spread?

Solution: You buy both! And then, you conduct a taste test. The fish in the package labeled “Herring” are next-of-kin to those in the “Cisco” package. Lake herring are only commercially harvested from Lake Superior (Fun fact: a small recreational fishery targets them off of Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan). The package labeled “Cisco” contains fish you might also know as bloater chub. These deeper-colder-living fish could be from Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. However, the Lake Michigan fishery for ciscoes (bloater chubs) has become limited because of changes in the food web. Smoked chub (cisco) from Lake Michigan can sell for $15 per pound! Ciscoes (bloater chubs) tend to run smaller in size but boast modestly higher levels of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. If you can taste a difference, let us know!

Name calling: Sorry for any confusion. We didn’t name the fish! Common names and shelf names often reflect deep cultural heritages.

  • Herring — also known as cisco, lake herring, tullibee, bluefin, bluefin herring and adikamig in Ojibwe.
  • Cisco — also known as chub (near the shores of Lake Michigan), bloater, deepwater chub, deepwater cisco and giigoohnzehns in Ojibwe.


Technically: Cisco, chubs, and lake herring are all in the whitefish family. Lake herring are not closely related to ocean herring.

Photo credit: Marie Zhuikov, WISG