Fishing for some good smelt
'Tis the season of dip nets and lanterns, garbage cans and jetties.
At least, it used to be.
No one will confuse me with John Gillespie or any of Wisconsin's other great outdoorsman. I don't know a trout from a bass, a spinner from a fly. The complete extent of my fishing experience is summed up by a few teenage trips to the mighty Sheboygan River where my cousin Randy and I would go after the elusive northern but most often settle for suckers. There have been a few salmon excursions on Lake Michigan, one with my brother in law that was a serious expedition with most of the others being charter appointments that turned into, well, floating taverns. I've also done a few ocean charters during vacations but again, all you really end up doing is reeling in a fish on a rod that's already been baited for you, hauling in a catch someone else will be gutting. That's way too sanitized for a true fisher-person.
Then there were smelt.
They once filled Lake Michigan, going on runs each spring night after a warm rain. When they did, guys like my cousin and others so inclined headed to Sheboygan's lakefront in droves, finding a spot on the nearest jetty where they could spark their lanterns and dip their nets. It would be nothing for them to fill an good-sized garbage pail with scads of tiny fish, most of them no more than six to eight inches long. i went along a few times, taking turns dipping nets and helping myself to the cooler of beer that helped pass time between lifts. The suds also helped kill the taste after we'd ceremoniously bite the heads off the first smelt we'd haul in each night. It's a tradition. Honest.
The other part of this outdoor ritual involved my parents who, unbeknownst to them, would be on the receiving end of said garbage can. If I remember correctly, cousin Randy's family didn't care for smelt. My parents did. Trouble is, smelt ran at night and the can often wouldn't be filled until the wee smalls of the next morning. Cleaning wasn't a task that could be put off to a time more in tune with the body clock. They had to be cleaned NOW, even if now was 2:30 a.m. It didn't happen a lot, but enough to leave a memory:: my parents in the basement of our duplex in the middle of the night, each armed with a household scissors with which they'd snap off heads and tails before running the blade up the belly of the condemned fish to remove what passed for its entrails. Glamorous work, indeed.
Guess what we had for dinner the next night?
Fresh smelt are delicious--my mom would roll them in flour and pan-fry them in a cast iron skillet. They went down like french fries and are best-served fresh out of the water.
Sure, they're small but our family of four couldn't come close to downing an entire night's catch in a single sitting. so whole bunches of leftover smelt would be dispatched to the family freezer, which took up the upper part of our very small 1940's era Frigidaire. Space was at a premium, so smelt became a dietary staple--sure, they were free and good but mom also didn't want what little freezer space she had taken hostage by spring's bounty.
The glory days of the Lake Michigan smelt pretty much ended in the 80's. They still exist, but the numbers are nowhere near what they were when I was growing up in the 60's. I guess the smelt is another victim to our changing lake waters where invasive species and other factors are changing the makeup of its denizens.
I'm going to make a point to drive along the Milwaukee lakeshore on my way to work some morning after a warm spring rain. I'll look for smelters, but I got a hunch I wouldn't need change for a five if I were to give you a dollar for every lantern I see.
I wish I were wrong.