Smelt in Superior: ‘We’re back, baby!’

The smelt are back in Superior, Wis.

After several seasons of poor smelt runs, the tiny fish are back in Lake Superior, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today. That’s a big deal because it’s brought smelt anglers back to the Northland.

Both the smelt and those in search of them only come out at night.

Like deer hunting, it’s something to do with family and friends, a tradition that dates back decades in Wisconsin. Smelt anglers on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan either use seine nets, wading into the water to catch the fish, or drop nets from a pier or dock to catch their quarry. Seine netters will often build bonfires on the beach to provide light and to warm themselves after splashing through 40-degree water.

The tradition isn’t what it used to be because smelt fishing on Wisconsin waters is nowhere near what it was decades ago.

“I’ve heard stories of guys driving up from downstate with rerigged school buses with cattle tanks inside and spreading the fish as manure on farm fields. There were so many you didn’t know what to do with them,” said Jared Myers, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in Bayfield. “It hasn’t been the angler harvest that influenced the smelt, it was predation by other species. You don’t see a lot of big smelt any more.”

Smelt are drawn to Superior and the outlets of the Nemadji and Brule rivers to spawn.

But they’re an invasive species that can sap larvae food out of the lake, so anglers are invited to take just as many as they want.

The tradition of biting the head off of the first smelt in the haul is optional.

Related: Appetites: Smelt are a tasty small fry (Minnesota Public Radio News).

  • MrE85

    A heartsmelt story. Tried the smelt fry for the first time in college. They were awesome. Be sure to have salt and catsup handy.

  • Gary F

    I’ll have to ask my mother about this one. We found some old pictures of my mom and dad smelt fishing back in the 60’s. I know we didn’t really have them as kids, so it must have been something they did before kids.

    Another excuse to drink beer and talk big, which makes it still a worthy venture.

  • CHS

    This one is on my Lake Superior bucket list, maybe I’ll have to drive up Sunday.

    • Phil B

      I could be wrong but I think the smelt run is over already. I live along Lake Superior an hour and a half east of Duluth/Superior and people took their nets down a couple of weeks ago.

      • CHS

        Yeah, as soon as I read this I started digging into it, and most people on blogs and forums said last weekend was the last little gasp. I’ll have to plan ahead for next year…

  • Greg W

    I remember when the Juvenile Correctional Facility in Sauk Centre would have a Smelt Fry every Spring. It was fantastic. Man, I miss those little fried fish.

    Plus, it was a great way for the facility to interact with the community.