This homeport’s generational smoked fish shops carry on a delicious Great Lakes tradition.

Rich, buttery, gently smoky whitefish and lake trout are an irresistible Great Lakes delicacy. Seeking it out adds to the magic of living in and traveling the shore towns of Northern Michigan. The port town of St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula is a mecca for this coastal tradition—properly smoked whitefish and lake trout is a point of pride here, as fundamental as fishing and fire.

Here’s why: Smoked fish is a revered gift from the Great Lakes, a culinary staple of the Indigenous Anishinaabe and also a part of the Scandinavian immigrant practice of preserving fresh-caught fish, with the techniques now passed to new generations. Today, a delightful batch of family-run smoked fish shops dot the downtown of St. Ignace and pop up along U.S. 2 west of town—beckoning hungry locals and travelers with their unassuming cool vibes (and the wafting aromas of freshwater fish mingling with wood smoke!).

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

If you’ve not yet been seduced by this savory treat, may we recommend taking a dip: Most of the local smoked fish shops whip up their own cream cheese-based, horseradish-laced whitefish or lake trout spread to devour with crackers or crusty bread. Whole smoked fish fillets create a luscious picnic lunch—hunks of it forked on its own, or flaked over a green salad. Or swap smoked whitefish for the bacon on a BLT with homegrown tomatoes for the most summery sandwich in the land.

Whether you are vacationing at St. Ignace’s shoreside hotels, exploring town before ferrying to Mackinac Island, soaking up a beach day along the U.S. 2 dunes, or making a pitstop before (or after) crossing the Mighty Mac, treat yourself to a self-guided smoked fish tour of this welcoming homeport.

A couple of must-stops:

Gustafson’s Smoked Fish, Brevort

This beloved U.P. tourist oasis is a stone’s throw (about 20 miles in Yooper distance) west of St. Ignace on U.S. 2. There are many folks who never, ever drive by Gustafson’s in Brevort without stopping in…us included.

The gas pumps are the beacon—a resource few and far between on the long dune-swept and forested stretches of U.S. 2—but it’s the fresh smoked whitefish, jerky and cheese curds that really lure travelers. Tom and Joyce Gustafson started the filling station/smoked fish house in 1978, a legacy they nurtured while also raising 60 (!) foster kids through the years. Today third-generation Gustafson sisters Kristi and Morgan help their parents Mike and Lara Gustafson carry on the family business.

The smoked fish “recipe” is the same one Tom, turning 80 this year, taught his granddaughters. There is nothing to tweak,” Kristi says. “It is a natural salt water brine, water from Brevort, which is the perfect aquafer,” she says. “Grandpa Tom lives next door and builds all of our smokers right there. We smoke 100 pounds of fish at a time for five to six hours with maple wood.”

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

Kristi’s family were fishermen back in Sweden—picking up right where they left off when they came to the Straits of Mackinac in the 1870s—and that heritage is alive and well in this tiny lakeside town. “Most of Brevort is still related,” she laughs. The townspeople even partake in the ancient Swedish Midsummer celebration, where an enormous pole strung with handtied leaf garlands is raised as the centerpiece of the revelry.

Today the fishing is outsourced to local Tribal fisherman and fish markets (Kristi and Morgan’s mom, Lara, is also a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians). Morgan and her husband Tanner Sanders do all of the smoking, and Kristi, who also branched off to run other local businesses, handles the retail side. “We both grew up in the store, cleaning the windows, vacuuming the smokers, helping my dad debone the fish for the fish dip,” Kristi shares. “Morgan is more of a tomboy—she was gutting fish at a young age. My dad never pushed us to work, and we knew this business was not always easy. We watched my parents miss and sacrifice a lot. But the hard work was instilled in my sister and me. Morgan and I both went off and did our own thing, and we both came back.”

This is happy news for the loyal smoked fish fans who appreciate the Gustafson family craft: salty, smoky, satisfying road trip snacks at their finest.

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

Mackinac Straits Fish Co., St Ignace

Thomas Coveyou felt the call to be a fishmonger deep in his being: He started working at age 16 at Mackinac Straits Fish Co., intrigued by the fishery and what seemed—at first—like “an intimidating bunch of guys in the back, scaling fish.” He observed and listened, eventually joining their ranks, and after being mentored by some seriously skilled local commercial fishermen, secured his own commercial license.

All the while, he continued to work at Mackinac Straits Fish Co.—fishing, smoking the catch, delivering fish and eventually managing the store—before he decided this January to buy Mackinac Straits Fish Co. with his wife Allyson (and their 9-year-old daughter Caley) from its former owner Jill Bentgen, who took the torch from the shop’s founding fish purveyors, Ben Brown and Barry Pierson.

The Coveyous carry on a mom-and pop tradition, selling smoked whitefish sausage links, fillets, whitefish and trout spread, as well as vacuum-packed fresh or frozen fillets. That’s whitefish, trout, chubs, salmon, menominee, all from the cold, clear water of the Upper Great Lakes and processed in-house in St. Ignace.

Photo by Mackinac Straits Fish Co.

Photo by Mackinac Straits Fish Co.

Photo by Mackinac Straits Fish Co.

Thomas Coveyou takes out his own small boat from St. Ignace, and works closely with the Peterson brothers, whose fishery is at the tip of Michigan’s Garden Peninsula. He’s out, weather permitting, “typically fishing as the market needs it—just out and back and back to work.”

It’s business as usual despite the ups and downs of the fishery: “It was a gamble by me buying this. You never know the state of the fishery.” So much depends upon the fluctuating fish population in the Straits, unpredictable weather and state and federal fishing guidelines.

Yet, he is all in: “A lot fewer younger people are getting into [commercial fisheries]. I was not ready for it to fizzle out, and I like doing something that’s hard and rewarding.” Though he has wholesale and restaurant accounts, keeping the local customers supplied is paramount. “Having the business ‘grow’ doesn’t have to be the goal; it’s about still putting out a good product.” What he loves most: “Being lucky enough to catch fish. When I am out searching and find a school of fish, I know it’s going to make people really happy.

Want to be Part of that Happy-Making?

Coveyou says he (as well as his fellow St. Ignace smoked fish sellers) will pack house-smoked fish for travel or a picnic. He recommends grabbling a fillet, a nip of dip, plus Pinconning cheese, crackers and local jams for a charcuterie board to have back at your hotel, at your campsite or on the beach. Plan your St. Ignace smoked fish tour and explore more local favorites here.

Photo by Kristi Gustafson

Photo(s) by Kristi Gustafson