Thanks to Happy Hooker Charters for these great photos of smelters ceremoniously biting off the heads of their first smelt.
Ecologically speaking, the smelt run is a fascinating story. Whoever dumped some smelt into the Great Lakes back in the 1910s didn’t know they’d create a whole culture, or fill such a hole in the ecosystem. As the lamprey and commercial fishermen killed off the lake trout, smelt had few predators and their population soared. Lake Superior is a huge, cold, sterile place, and even at the peak of the smelt population, the little buggers spent most of their year scattered all across the lake straining the water for zooplankton like little humpback whales.
Dip a net in a North Shore stream in July and you’ll get nothing. For a few evenings in spring, though, the lake seems ripe and abundant and teeming with life.
As the smelt jammed the rivers and beaches, so did the people. The mouth of the Lester River was a crazy party scene. At least five men died there smelting in the 1960s-1970s, carried out by raging frigid water into even more frigid water in the dark.
I’m old enough to remember the good old days of smelting, though as a 12 year old on the Cross River or Caribou River, I did not partake to the level of serious adults. Like our Governor Ventura, who remembers coming to Duluth to smelt at the Lester River, but not much after that. A sure sign of spring was when the Holiday stores would put those smelting nets out in front for sale, the round nets on the 8-foot poles.
Smelting was the most sensory experience I had on the North Shore as a child. It was dark, I could smell the cold water rushing by and smell the fish as they piled up in the bucket. I could feel the cold from the water and the warmth of spring air. And the excitement was palpable. It was amazing to dip a net into these rivers and pull up, in one swipe, dozens of squirmy fish.
Now I live right at another smelting hotbed, Park Point. The Sivertsons have had their smelt net out in the bay for a week or so now, just two blocks from our house:
According to the Minnesota DNR, they are catching almost a ton of smelt each day.
Last night, the real action moved to the beach, in our backyard. The seiners are out. Yesterday evening, as dusk set in, they arrived on our street and came through to the beach. They light a driftwood fire, pull on their waders, and working in pairs drag a large net through the water. There are so many fewer smelt nowadays that this is the only way to get decent numbers.
They are still a little slobby. Someone left a shoe and a fire that was still smoldering this morning:
It used to be a lot worse. Guys would bring worn-out car tires to the beach and set those on fire. Aachk!
For a few days in spring, the waters of the North Shore come alive.
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