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Demand for fresh-caught herring on North Shore remains strong

KNIFE RIVER, Minn. - When tourists flock to Minnesota's North Shore each summer and fall, they want to hike, throw rocks in Lake Superior and take in the fall colors.And eat fresh herring."It's one of the best eating fish there is," said commerci...

Commercial fisherman Stephen Dahl of Knife River does all of his herring fishing on Lake Superior in this 18-foot steel skiff. Sam Cook / Forum News Service
Commercial fisherman Stephen Dahl of Knife River does all of his herring fishing on Lake Superior in this 18-foot steel skiff. Sam Cook / Forum News Service
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KNIFE RIVER, Minn. - When tourists flock to Minnesota's North Shore each summer and fall, they want to hike, throw rocks in Lake Superior and take in the fall colors.

And eat fresh herring.

"It's one of the best eating fish there is," said commercial fisherman Mark Torgersen of Knife River.

North Shore restaurants cater to that demand, offering fresh herring specials as often as Minnesota commercial herring fishermen can supply them, which is almost daily through the summer and into the fall.

"I've got to say there's endless demand for fresh fish," said commercial fisherman Clint Maxwell of Beaver Bay. "Tourists will come up, go into a restaurant and get mad if they can't get fresh lake herring."

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Commercial fishermen are riding a tide of demand in recent years spawned by the local foods movement, said Steve Dahl of Knife River, president of the North Shore Commercial Fishermen's Association.

"We have political strength now, all because of the local food movement," Dahl said. "We're in a good place. We've mobilized the consumer. They probably didn't know they were being cheated out of a local food."

Harley Toftey of Grand Marais has been a commercial fisherman since 1980. He and his wife operate the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais.

"You can sell all the filleted fish you can catch," Toftey said. "People drive up from Duluth or the Twin Cities. They want to take 'em back with them."

He says visitors call his market "all the time" asking if fresh herring is available.

Herring move widely in Lake Superior, showing up in fishermen's nets some days and not as much on other days, fishermen say. Sometimes, so many herring are around that fishermen will tie up some gangs of nets so they don't catch too many fish.

"I have to limit my catch all summer to a box and a half (per day) so that I can get that fresh fish distributed," Maxwell said. "I can't distribute more than that. The limiting factor for me is getting the fish to people. The fish have not been the limiting factor."

Most herring caught by commercial fishermen tend to run from 12 to 17 inches long, he said. A box of fish might weigh 60 pounds.

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Most North Shore commercial fishermen work alone, checking nets in the morning, returning to shore in their small skiffs, filleting the fish, and then hopping in their trucks to distribute the ice-cooled fillets to their customers. A spiral-bound notebook lying on a workbench in Dahl's fish house near Knife River shows a log of fresh herring deliveries he made to restaurants this past November.

All of the herring served in North Shore restaurants is fresh, not frozen, Dahl said. Toward the end of the season, in the fall, restaurants might use some herring to make fish cakes, which can be frozen and sold into the winter months, Dahl said.

"The demand for herring is huge," he said. "We don't even tap the Twin Cities market. I can't do it. I can't set that much net."

It would be impossible, working alone, to tend all of those nets and distribute that much herring on a daily basis, and the vagaries of the herring fishery make it impractical for fishermen to hire staff to process and distribute their catches.

Dahl, like other North Shore commercial fishermen, takes a big-picture view of his role in meeting the demand for fresh herring.

"The resource belongs to everyone," he said. "As a commercial fisherman, I access that resource for people who can't or are unable to or don't want to. My guess is that's a very large group of people."

Related Topics: FISHINGLAKE SUPERIOR
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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