From Days Of Old by James L. Bruner
Spring has always been that time of year when nature seems to replenish herself with a new year of vegetation, game animals, and fish. Growing up, spring meant several things right off the bat. Those were perch fishing, smelting and steelhead fishing as listed in order. We’ve filled many buckets with perch right after the ice would leave the bay. At times we even pushed our way through the ice to fish in the smaller openings and limit-out on jumbo perch. Those days have certainly seen their better years but all has not been lost as you can still get catch some good limits of decent perch during the spring. Steelhead fishing was always fast and furious when you’d hook into one of those silver rockets. Chances were that you would be crowded by many other fishermen if you tried to fish the most noted riverbanks. Today isn’t much different except that the steelhead fishery has continued to thrive and produce through the years which, as expected, has drawn more fishermen to the species and the rivers. The one that has all but been lost in this list is the smelt. And thats what we’ll review this issue.
For those who may be unaware, a smelt is a small silver fish ranging anywhere from 4 to 7 inches long. They spend their time in the deeper waters throughout the year and in spring, like many other fish species, make their annual run up the river to spawn. The big difference between the smelt and other species is their numbers when spawning. Actually, I should say it ‘used’ to be their numbers. Back when I was a kid it wasnt uncommon for smelt to swim upriver by the thousands. Literally speaking the river would turn black from the sheer presence of their abundant numbers and the call, “They’re running” would begin at the mouth of the river and travel upward. You knew it wouldnt be long until the smelt made it to your little piece of waterfront and you could begin dipping into the river for your breif shot at smelting.
In those days smelting was a family affair. A single river with easy access would produce hundreds of people. All that was needed was a smelting net, which is nothing more than a tightly woven landing with smaller openings and a long handle, a bucket, and a flashlight. The flashlight could be considered optional when the smelt were running thick but it’s a helpful tool for traveling back and forth to your vehicle since all the smelting is done at night. Of course there were those who took it to the next level. If you want a nice fire you may need to bring some wood. If you’re going to have a fire you might as well bring some hotdogs and marshmallows to cook especially if you have children. You’re going to need something to wash all those goodies down so some sodas will probably be a good idea. Getting the picture? You’re going to need a cooler to haul all of the extras. And of course some brought the acoustic guitars, harmonicas, and whatever they could make music with and those particular fire-sites usually drew the biggest crowds. Lawn chairs, radios, barrels of beer, and whiskey bottles being passed were the norm in some areas of which in later years the alcohol would be outlawed along the river. That being said you could still fill a half gallon of orange juice up with vodka and walk along peacefully and if the Fish Cops – DNR, stopped and asked to smell what appeared to be orange juice you were safe since the vodka had no noticeable odor. Trust me.
The big draw of the entire smelting scene had different meanings for everyone. For some it was strictly to meet others and party. For others it was a traditional family event. Hey, when you’re a kid and find out you’re going smelting it’s a big deal especially if you lived in town. You get to stay up late for starters. Smelt never ran upstream at a certain time. It could be very early in the evening or 3 a.m. And it usually lasted a few hours at the most before they made their way back into the bay. During a night of a good run you could fill an entire smelting net with a single dip which, coincidentally, would fill a 5 gallon bucket. If that doesnt sound like a lot of smelt wait until you start cleaning them. Cleaning is done in a very simple fashion with a pair of scissors. Off with the head, cut a slit up it’s stomach, and rake the guts out with your thumb. Wash it, bag it, and freeze. But dont forget to save a dozen or so to freeze before cleaning them. They make great bait for bigger fish like northern pike especially during the icefishing season.
Cooking the smelt is a simple process which we call a “smelt fry” around here. You coat the smelt with a light batter and deep fry them to a golden brown. You eat the entire smelt down to the tail and if you like, the tail also. The backbone is so small that it isn’t noticeable after cooking and the fish itself is a delectable taste of flaky white happiness. Many businesses and charities have annual smelt fry’s to raise money for their own clubs or benefit dinners for those in need. These events are usually packed wall to wall with people especially during these days when most of the smelt are only found by the commercial fishermen deeper in the bays. Which brings us somewhat full circle.
Long gone are the days of straining smelt nets being hoisted to the riverbank. So to have the majority of fires burned out along the rivers where stories and conversation would flow like the river itself. These have been replaced by a few die-hards looking to gather enough smelt for a meal or two. I know, I’m one of them. The majority of those left seeking these little silver morsels share stories of these olden days to a generation that stares back with their head cocked sideways like a puppy in disbelief. It would be practically any day now that the smelt would run traditionally in early or mid April depending on the weather. If nothing else it’s still a good reason to wander the mouth of the rivers and creeks at night with a flashlight. It’s quite common to see steelhead and northern pike beginning to make their annual trek up the river and at times they mix right in with the smelt. Why not? It’s a quick meal! Which reminds me, before I close this article. It’s a tradition to bite the head off the first smelt you catch of the year. It’s not a pretty sight but it’s supposed to be good luck, and, if you look at it from a positive perspective, that smelt is already half cleaned when you get it home!