Spring bounty: Nets in hand, smelters wade into the waters of Lake SuperiorCrews of smelters working the Park Point beach Monday night were squealing and shrieking as they waded ashore with another net full of writhing silver fish.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
Toy Carson was resplendent in camouflage waders, a leopard-print scarf and a furry bomber hat, ear flaps down. Duluth’s Carson and her crew of smelters working the Park Point beach Monday night were squealing and shrieking as they waded ashore with another net full of writhing silver fish.
The smelt were running.
“This is my first year. It’s crazy,” said Mark Syvoraphane, up from Shakopee, Minn., to help Carson. “This will not be my last time!”
After a series of so-so nights on Park Point, netters on Monday hauled in nets with hundreds of the squirming rainbow smelt. A single net full often would fill three 5-gallon pails.
The sheer abundance and availability of all that wriggling biomass was something to behold. It isn’t often that nature offers up a tasty bounty in such heaping quantities. It was all available for the price of a fishing license, a pair of waders and a decent net.
Whoops and hollers rang out up and down the beach, where lantern light and small fires illuminated the night.
This was the night smelters had been waiting for.
“Oh, god, that was heavy,” said Trung Nguyen, 26, as he let a seine full of smelt drop on the sand. “We’ve done 20 pulls. This is by far the best.”
He and his buddies, Chu Her, 29, and Xang Her, 28, both of St. Paul, began scooping handfuls of the 5-inch fish from the net into waiting pails. They knew how they would prepare the smelt when it came time to eat them.
“Beer batter and Guinness,” Nguyen said.
When warm weather came early to the North, many thought the smelt run might start early, too. But when colder nights cooled waters, the smelt seemed content to wait. A few good reports came in, but mostly the action had remained slow. Monday night, at least on Park Point, all of that seemed to change.
Today’s smelt runs are still a mere shadow of those in the 1970s and 1980s, when dipnetters in North Shore streams could fill a bucket with three or four scoops and seines were almost too heavy to lift. Lake Superior’s ecology has changed. A recovering lake trout population and lots of planted salmon have held the smelt population in check. Smelt runs are more modest now.
In the heyday of smelting, the phenomenon took on a party atmosphere and often got out of hand. Monday night, most smelters seemed to be there for the fish, not the frivolity. But a Park Point resident three or four years ago said an inebriated smelter walked right into her home looking for the bathroom.
Meanwhile, earlier on Monday evening at the Lester River, 15 or 20 smelters used dipnets, not seines, in hopes of scooping up a few dinners. Through at least 10:30 p.m., no significant run had materialized. Smelters were getting one or two smelt every now and then, and nobody had more than a couple dozen.
The atmosphere was subdued and peaceful. One fire on the cobblestones. The soft patter of conversation. Shloop went a net as it entered the dark current. Tick, tick went the hoop of the net as it clicked along the river bottom. Up it would come. Nothing again. Or maybe one lonesome smelt flopping at the bottom.
Shloop. Tick. Tick.
Shloop. Tick. Tick.
Other smelters sat on their pails along the river, content to wait until a whoop from the water indicated a better run.
But across the muzzle of Lake Superior at Park Point, it was the land of plenty. The amber lights of the Aerial Lift Bridge cast their mellow glow on the scene below.
Orange lights illuminated the south pier of the Duluth ship canal, where a 1,000-footer had recently departed.
Pheng Lee of Cottage Grove, Minn., along with David Vang of Minneapolis and Long Lee of Cottage Grove, worked quickly to unload a net and top off a 150-quart cooler with lively smelt.
“The other night, we had three coolers and didn’t fill one,” said Pheng Lee, 29. “Tonight we only brought one. Just our luck.”
And they waded out into the darkness of Lake Superior to make another pull.