There’s a phenomenon each spring that I suspect is quite regional in interest, yet to serious outdoorsmen it is but another event that heralds in the spring season. It’s the annual “smelt run” where this widely used bait fish makes the trek up rivers and tributaries of the various Great Lakes for the purpose of spawning.
But why such interest in a lowly bait fish? Well, this is no ordinary bait fish, no sir! The smelt, is considered a delicacy to folks from North America to Japan. Most commonly they are consumed dipped in a beer batter and then deep fried. In fact, for many VFWs and volunteer fire departments in these parts…the annual smelt feed is a big money maker drawing people from hundreds of miles away.
According to reports the annual smelt run is now beginning north of Duluth on the numerous rivers (and I’m sure in many other areas, as well). The equipment needed for the smelt angler is quite simple: A large fine-mesh dip net, several 5 gallon plastic buckets, and ample coolers to chill the fish with ice and bring them home.
There was a time 20 – 25 years ago when the smelt population was so high that anglers who waded into the streams could feel the critters literally bouncing off their legs. A good dip of the net would yield many smelt so that in short order the fishing would be done, and the celebrating would continue on the shores. Campfires, lots of beer and a party atmosphere were typically associated with the annual rite of spring known as “smelt fishing.”
But times have certainly changed. The heyday of smelt fishing appears to be several decades past, but for die-hard anglers there’s still enough smelt “running” in many areas to make the trip worthwhile.
To be honest, the only smelt fishing I have done was living vicariously through my older brother who enjoyed the activity a time or two. He was, however, kind enough to share in his bounty by bringing the smelt home and allowing me to clean the loot. Certainly the fun about smelt fishing is in the waters with the net or on the shores afterwards – and not with the cleaning and preparation.
Essentially, however, the process goes pretty smoothly. A few quick cuts with the knife…an old teaspoon to scrape out the innards, and the fish are ready for rinsing and quick freezing. For more information on handling smelt click here.
Now, for the die hard anglers there is one tradition that lives on with this fish. It is traditional to bite the head off of the first smelt you catch. It’s sort of a good luck act that you surely wouldn’t want to pass up. I might suggest that before you get to this stage of the fishing you have a few beers under your belt, so to speak…and maybe another one handy to cleanse the palate afterwards. I don’t normally encourage drinking mixed with outdoorsman activities…but with smelt fishing it often goes along hand in hand with the celebration.
Still, outdoorsman who go smelting need to be careful and wear PFDs. In some rivers the waters can be swift, the depths can be unpredictable in the dark, and often the footing can be treacherous when walking. Unfortunately, alcohol and smelt fishing when mixed with any of these potential dangers can spell trouble. There have been many deaths from people who gain a little courage to go out into the waters when their swimming skills were a little suspect, at best. Drownings, unfortunately, do occur so the smelt angler must be careful at all times.
Yes, indeed, I started out by calling the lowly smelt a bait fish…which it most certainly is for many species of game fish. Yet smelt, much like the morel mushroom, is also a timely treat that has tickled the taste buds of sportsmen for over a half century. Makes you wonder how a fish so revered among many folks could have evolved with such an unflattering name.
© 2005 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.
Filed under: Fishing