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The curious history of a tasty little Great Lakes fish

Not too long ago, we reported that native fish are doing really well in Lake Huron.

The fish involved are not exactly well known species. But there is one that’s a household name in lakeshore communities. Its success is sparking some scientific debate.

A fish cocktail

The owners of The Cove in Leland have a problem. Food and travel writers who pass through seldom forget to mention the Chubby Mary®.  It’s a Bloody Mary with a smoked chub in it.

Mario Batali even put a photo of the cocktail on Bon Appetit’s website along with his endorsement.

The problem is there aren’t many chubs for sale these days because they are really hard to find in the Great Lakes.

Rick Wanroy of The Cove says the Chubby Mary® has a cult following. (Yes, he even trademarked the drink.)

"You'd be better off to fish for octopus out there. I think sometimes maybe the catch would be greater."

“You can’t get a fisherman to go out there and set nets for something that he thinks… you know, you’d be better off to fish for octopus out there.  I think sometimes maybe the catch would be greater,” says Wanroy.

He expects to be explaining to lots of people this summer why they don’t have them.

“I’m not a marine biologist but we don’t have chubs… not because I forgot to order them but because we combed the entire Great Lakes with the fisheries and asked them if they have them, if they’ll ship them, next-day air them. I pay more money for the fish than I charge for the drink. You know, it’s a loss. But it’s one of those things you have to do,” he says.

What's up with the chubs?

Something curious is happening with chubs right now in Lake Huron.

Young ones are showing up there in record numbers. They’re too small yet for the smoker.

But a decade ago there were almost none. The dramatic surge fits a pattern the fish has exhibited in the past. That is, the chub population has come in waves.

Big ones. Then the population drops off.

Chuck Madenjian is a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We’re talking about a 70-fold increase from the bottom to the top and that is rather dramatic.”

He has theorized that chubs cycle.

Meaning: there is something about the fish that causes its population to swell and shrink.

In all three of the upper Great Lakes there were lots of chubs around 1990, and there is some evidence of a peak in Lake Michigan around 1960.

So we’re talking about cycles that are three decades long, and that makes his theory a little hard to study, let alone prove.

“Somebody doing a Master’s thesis isn’t going to be able to make a lot of headway. Not if the period is about 30 years,” Madenjian says.

That fact alone makes other researchers skeptical.

Stephen Riley works down the hall from Madenjian at the USGS. He works on Lake Huron and is catching all those little chubs out there.

But Riley says he can’t imagine what would cause cycles that far apart.

“The conditions now are so different than they were when we last saw high numbers that I can’t imagine that a cycle would be driving it. But it’s possible; I could be wrong,” says Riley.

But with the number of chubs rising in Lake Huron, Chuck Madenjian wonders what you’d call it if not a cycle.

The owners of The Cove in Leland will be happy if it is. For now, they’re exploring other ideas for a signature drink but there doesn’t appear to anything that can replace the Chubby Mary®.

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