DULUTH -- It was just after 8 p.m. on a mild mid-April evening and there was only a solitary, wader-clad fisherman at the mouth of Duluth’s Lester River.
He was standing thigh-deep in cold water, where the river’s current slowly fades into Lake Superior, dipping his long-handled, fine-mesh net and checking to see what each dip produced. He was dipping and checking, dipping and checking, but coming up empty on every dip.
On shore there were bonfires on the rock beach and small groups of people huddled around plastic buckets and coolers big and small. Kids ran about laughing and eating snacks. Some people brought their dogs. Others watched from the highway bridge. The glow from cellphone cameras was everywhere as darkness slowly encroached from over the big lake.
People drank Gatorade, coffee, Red Bull or beer as they talked, but most were also keeping one eye on the lone netter. Finally, at about 8:20, he lifted his net high after yet another dip, brought it close to his body, plucked out a single 7-inch smelt and dropped it into a small bucket hanging around his neck.
Game on. The nightly smelt run had begun.
Quickly now dozens, and then 100, and then maybe 200 or more people were moving about with more purpose, most of them wading into the water carrying dip nets, others watching from shore.
Eventually those in the water formed two long lines, facing each other, along the river’s current out into the lake for maybe 150 yards, as far as anyone could go out and not have water top their waders.
It was a gauntlet for any smelt to brave.
“This is my second time smelting,” said Claire Cho of Duluth. “Wednesday was my first time. I hope I do better tonight.”
Cho had netted only a single smelt on that first outing. But she became a full-fledged member of the Minnesota smelting fraternity when she proceeded to bite the head off it and proclaim her undying love of the little fish.
“That’s what you do, right? That’s what they told me you had to do, bite the head off your first smelt,’’ Cho said, half asking and half telling.
Cho’s friend Jeff Sahlani of Duluth has only been smelting for three years, but it’s become part of his spring routine. Now he wouldn’t miss it.
“Primarily for the culture. It’s just a beautiful night to be out here and see all this. … This is about as Duluth as it gets,’’ Sahlani said as he plucked his first smelt of the evening out of his net and tossed it into a cooler. “But also for the food.”
His first year of smelting, 2019, saw a great run. Last year, not so much. This year he hopes to get enough not just for a human meal, but also to supplement some treats for his dog.
“I don’t know if it was a bad year last year or if we just didn’t hit it right,’’ he said of the smelt run. “Timing is everything with this.”
Indeed, last weekend seemed to bring out not just throngs of netters, but also throngs of smelt in what may have been an early peak to the annual spring spawning run. Not only was the mouth of the Lester River busy with dip-netters, but Park Point’s sand beaches also were alive with groups of seiners, pulling their nets out into the big lake and then back to shore, hoping for a big payload of smelt.
Some people brought home 5-gallon pails full of smelt. Others, not so much.
Angie Senske of Princeton was back for her sixth-straight night of smelting at the Lester. She and her husband, Glen, were making the daily, two-hour drives from their home to Duluth to catch as many smelt as they could for a huge summer party they host each year. On this night her brother and cousin joined them, dipping and checking, dipping and checking, dumping their catch into the buckets.
"Last night was really good from about 10 to 12," she said, noting they then drove back to Princeton so her husband could be at work that morning. Meanwhile she cleaned smelt for nearly five hours before they got back in the truck to head north to do it all over again.
- Wisconsin, Minnesota share advisory on eating Lake Superior smelt
- Read more fishing coverage in Northland Outdoors
"This is our tired week," she said of the annual smelt run.
"We used to go to a local bar that had a smelt fry every spring, and that was great. But then we decided we should just do it ourselves," Senske said. “It’s a lot of work. But it’s fun. … We’ll probably feed 30 people at our party.”
Compared to the infamous stories of raucous smelting parties in the 1970s, the heyday of smelt populations in Lake Superior and the heyday of drunken debauchery at the river mouths, last weekend’s crowds were low-key. There was no loud music, no yelling, no swearing, no broken glass, no one defecating or fornicating on lawns (that we saw) or burning fences for firewood. There was just a low-key buzz of chatter and the staccato sound of dozens of aluminum-handled nets clanging across the rocks on the lake bottom as folks dipped and checked, dipped and checked, in what seemed like choreographed unison.
"This is everything my wife told me it would be, but quieter," said LeRoy Willis, of Stacy.
Willis’ wife had grown up in Minnesota and witnessed some of those 70s smelting debacles. The couple retired back to Minnesota from Alaska in 2018 and LeRoy was ready to give smelting a try after hearing the tales.
"The first time I ever did it was last night," Willis said, noting it didn’t go so well. Not only was his smelt catch subpar but his waders sprang a leak. Pretty soon he was soaked with 40-degree Lake Superior water up to his knee.
But he drove home, fetched a different pair of waders, and drove back the two hours from Stacy to do it again the next night. And this time he was getting a few. Like others, it wasn’t a net-full of smelt on every dip. But one or two, or maybe three or four smelt, on a good dip.
“It’s fun,’’ Willis said, mulling a question of whether it was worth the long drive, the cold water and the effort. “I’ll tell you after I eat a few.”
Hardcore smelters say the smelt run will likely taper off by the end of April.
About those smelt
Rainbow smelt, silver-colored fish about 6-9 inches long, are an exotic species to Lake Superior. Native to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, smelt entered the Great Lakes accidentally in 1912 when they escaped from an inland lake in Michigan where they had been stocked as forage fish.
Smelt quickly spread throughout Lake Michigan and were discovered in Lake Superior in 1946. By the time smelt arrived in Lake Superior, sea lamprey (another invasive species) had begun reducing the number of native lake trout. With far fewer lake trout to eat them, smelt numbers exploded, peaking in the 1970s. Over the last 40 years, effective sea lamprey control has allowed lake trout to recover, which, along with salmon stocking, has dramatically increased predation on smelt, reducing smelt numbers.
With Lake Superior restored to a more natural state — with lake trout and herring reclaiming their traditional roles in the food chain — the big lake is unlikely to experience a resurgence of smelt to the levels seen in the 1960s and 70s. There’s still a smelt run in most years, but it is minor compared to those smelt runs of the past.
Smelt generally enter streams in mid to late April when the water in the tributaries warms into the upper 40-degree range. Smelt are light sensitive and run in shallow water at night, so most smelting takes place at night. Smelt can’t make it over falls or large rapids so most smelting is done near river mouths. The equipment is simple: A pair of hip boots or waders, a long-handled net and a bucket for the netted fish. Some people also pull a seine net for smelt along the beach at Park Point in Duluth.
There's no limit on smelt, but you do need a valid Minnesota fishing license. In addition to the Lester River in Duluth other North Shore smelting streams include the Knife, Stewart, Gooseberry, Split Rock, Beaver, Baptism, Cross, Temperance, Poplar and Cascade. The French, Sucker, Little Sucker, Silver, Encampment and Crow rivers are all closed to smelting.
For more information go to dnr.state.mn.us/areas/fisheries/lakesuperior/lake-superior-fishing-report.html or check out the Minnesota Smelting Reports page at facebook.com/groups/624030751126623.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Word of warning: One meal of smelt per month
The Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan state health departments in recent months have all issued fish consumption advisories for all people to limit their meals of Lake Superior smelt to just one meal per month due to the discovery of high levels of PFAS chemicals.
While it’s unclear where the so-called forever chemicals are coming from, tests by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on fish netted in 2019 found high levels of PFAS in smelt caught in several locations along the South Shore. While all fish tested had some PFAS in them — the chemicals have been used in multiple products including nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam — no other species had high enough levels to warrant consumption warnings.
PFAS are known carcinogens and may cause other adverse health effects. They’re called forever chemicals because they don’t break down and can bioaccumulate, or build up, in fish, animals and people.