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OUTDOORS: Smoked chubs are gold standard

10-20-09 Hagen's Fish Market 5635 W. Montrose ave.....Chubs hang racks waiting be put smoker........This is family-owned run business that's been

10-20-09 Hagen's Fish Market, 5635 W. Montrose ave.....Chubs hang on racks, waiting to be put in the smoker........This is a family-owned and run business that's been around for decades and still draws a devoted clientele. Story is a profile of the shop and the people behind it........Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: March 2, 2013 7:08AM

Fresh-smoked chubs are back at Hagen’s Fish Market for the first time in 18 months.

‘‘It was like looking at a tray of ancient gold bars stacked in a refrigerated fish case!’’ a friend emailed last weekend.

The mysteries of Lake Michigan never cease. Take chubs and whitefish, the two great fish for smoking.

Hagen’s manager Chris Stone said the market received a call from a fisherman about finding chubs in Wisconsin. They weren’t cheap, but the market is there. Even without the usual-sized retail mark-up, smoked chubs are selling at $14.99 a pound. Gold bars, indeed.

There are multiple reasons for the decline or collapse of bloater chubs. Like many species, chubs are cyclical. But the arrival of invasive mussels, such as zebra and quagga, and overfishing also factor in.

Bill Horn, a Great Lakes fisheries specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, was skeptical about an improving big picture.

‘‘The lakewide trawl surveys have not shown any serious signs of a recovering chub population, but some commercial fishermen assert that there are encouraging numbers of sublegal chubs out there,’’ he emailed. ‘‘At this point, I would bet on the trawl survey as an indicator of trends, but we can hope they are missing something.’’

The last chubs to come from Lake Michigan were small and thin — not very appealing, frankly.

‘‘These are not a whole lot bigger, but they are healthy and a lot thicker,’’ Stone said.

He said they plan on having them at Hagen’s, the great smoking spot for fishermen on West Montrose, through Lent.

Once the chubs arrive, they soak in a salt brine overnight, then go into the smoker from around 8 a.m. until noon or 1 p.m., when they come out gold bars of goodness.

Mussels factor into the reason the bottom-feeding whitefish, which have shifted to eating more mussels, are spreading on southern Lake Michigan. For years, there was a run of whitefish in the spring and fall around the piers of places such as St. Joseph, Mich., and Michigan City, Ind.

Brian Breidert, Indiana’s Lake Michigan fisheries biologist, said they arrive near shore when the water temperature reaches the mid-40, then hang around for spawning until it becomes too cold (about 36 degrees). The reverse is true in the spring.

In the last few years, whitefish numbers and catches have been increasing toward the west in Indiana (Gary and East Chicago).

Illinois and Indiana established their first state records for lake whitefish in 2012. The Indiana record already has been broken once.

Vic Santucci, the Lake Michigan program head for Illinois, said Illinois will start a 12-fish daily limit on round and lake whitefish beginning April 1. Breidert said Indiana is expected to do the same.

The basic fishing technique for whitefish — a salmon egg or piece of night crawler on a hook on light line with enough weight to hold the bottom — takes advantage of their bottom-feeding.

D.J. Hans, who was using a 4-pound leader when he caught the Indiana record for lake whitefish
(4 pounds, 6 ounces) on Thanksgiving in Michigan City, explained their human appeal.

‘‘They are very tasty on the smoker,’’ he said.

Stray cast

Media day at the Super Bowl and a bottom trawl just sample different species.

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