Recalling the joy of smelt-dipping

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It doesn’t take much of a nudge to make the DVR in my brain slip into triple-rewind and bring back some amazingly clear pictures of stuff that happened when I was a kid. For example, in the process of looking for some information about something (I can’t even remember now what it was; how’s that for a memory problem?), I saw a church ad for a spring “smelt fry” somewhere in the Upper Peninsula.

Wow! A smelt fry! Have you ever been to a smelt fry? Or have you ever gone dipping smelt?

Before I get too far into this topic, does everyone know what smelt are? (Some people say “schmelt.”) Smelt are small, edible, silver-colored, minnow-like fish that can grow up to 12 inches in length (but typically the ones we caught were about 4 or 5 inches long). Smelt were originally salt-water fish from the Atlantic Ocean and a few inland lakes in Maine. But I found out that back in the early 1900s, smelt from a Maine lake were stocked in Lake Michigan to provide food for salmon that had also been planted by the government as an experiment to introduce another desirable species of fish in waters that were gradually yielding less fish each year. The salmon didn’t fare as well as the smelt, which seemed to be taking over Green Bay (the water, not the city). Smelt numbers in the Great Lakes quickly exploded, leading to commercial fishing in the 1930s.

When I was pretty young, we’d have smelt fries, usually at my Uncle George’s house, but sometimes at our house or some other neighbor’s, too. Back in those days, the Oconto River and the various little tributaries, creeks and ditches connected to it would have these tremendous “smelt runs” when the silvery smelt would enter and swim upstream in unbelievably large schools to spawn.

On early spring nights, when the word was out that the smelt were running, a couple of carloads of people from our neighborhood would head for the little Pensaukee River and the ditches nearby to “dip” for smelt. Practically all smelt fishing was done at night. Lots of kerosene lanterns would line the banks of the river and the ditches. The reflection of the lighted lanterns and the bonfires with the fishermen hovering around was truly picturesque. I’m sure thousands of pounds of smelt were taken from the Pensaukee River some springs.

Smelt-fishing was not an art; all you had to do was dip a net or a 5-gallon bucket into the stream and you’d come up with a wiggling mass of the little fish. It didn’t take any skill. And although I could never quite get over the idea that they were somebody’s bait (I know that some people used them for that), I could hardly wait for the “fries” that followed the fishing.

Cleaning the smelt was easy – just one knife cut and a run of the thumb through the body cavity does the trick. My dad and my Uncle George could clean hundreds of them in no time at all. A quick rinse under the faucet or hose, and they were ready for the frying pan. That was Mom’s and Aunt Rene’s job.

One rule of smelt-cooking etiquette was to leave the head, fins and tail on and to cook the smelt whole, including the bones. Smelt were the perfect finger food. All you had to do was simply pull gently on the head, removing the entire backbone and leaving the tender little filets for dipping into mayonnaise, mustard or tartar sauce. Some people ate them head, bones and all. Not me. I didn’t eat the heads; I didn’t like that extra crunch!

Man, that was a long time ago. I wonder if people still go smelt-dipping like the good old days!

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at at rjmavh@gmail.com.