Smelt Parade returning to Duluth's Lakewalk after 2-year hiatus
The Sunday event marks the 10th anniversary of the boisterous, costumed celebration of the "proletariat" fish.
DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson had an unusual request. At the end of a March interview about a completely unrelated topic, she said: "I'm hoping you might consider telling the Smelt Parade story."
The Smelt Parade?
"When the smelt start running," she explained, "this wacky parade takes place on the Lakewalk. It's oversized puppets, and there's a Smelt King and a Smelt Queen, and there's stilts and there's music and then people parade to Zeitgeist, where they eat fried smelt."
A quintessential "only in Duluth" happening, the Smelt Parade is returning to the Lakewalk on Sunday after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Parade founder Jim Ouray is more than ready.
"I'm not a virtual person," Ouray said about the decision not to attempt a Zoom parade during lockdown. "It wouldn't translate very well."
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the inaugural Smelt Parade, which Ouray launched after moving to Duluth. "I used to work for In the Heart of the Beast," he said, referencing the Minneapolis theater company known for its larger-than-life puppetry and May Day parade. "That was my exposure to papier-mache and puppetry."
Having experienced Carnival in the West Indies, Ouray thought something in that spirit might be a fitting addition to Duluth's calendar. Instead of a pre-Lenten blowout, Ouray's vision of a Duluth celebration was tied to the annual smelt run.
"It's quite the spectacle," Ouray said about the smelt run. "There'll be hundreds of people on Park Point, be quite a crowd at the mouth of the Lester also. It's like seeing ... I don't know, the northern lights, or the sandhill crane migration. It's this phenomenon."
Timed to the spring spawning run of the small silvery fish, the smelt run is a Northland tradition dating back to the middle of the 20th century, when smelt — native to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans — were first discovered in Lake Superior after being accidentally introduced via Lake Michigan.
The smelt run isn't what it used to be at its polyester-era peak, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: The high smelt population of the past was the result of an imbalanced ecosystem. Many beer-swilling smelters struggled to keep their balance as well. "Compared to the infamous stories of raucous smelting parties in the 1970s," News Tribune outdoors reporter John Myers wrote about last year's Lester River run, today's smelters are more focused on the fishing.
"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," Myers reported. "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."
The party, now, is for the puppets. A 10-foot silver "Smelt Queen" is the centerpiece of the parade, presented under the auspices of the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe. The parade also includes a Royal Guard on stilts, and Ouray himself has appeared as King Neptune.
Music is provided by the Minneapolis-based Brass Messengers, the Gopher State's answer to a New Orleans second line band. "I thought it was a great idea, because I go back to the '60s when there was lots of smelt to be netted," said Brass Messengers trumpeter Steve Sandberg. "I have memories of coming up with my dad."
Crowd participation is essential to the spirit of the Smelt Parade. The Duluth Art Institute is hosting a series of workshops leading up to this year's parade, for families to "smelt up" with their own handcrafted costumes and parade art.
There are "probably about 25 or 30" principal performers in the parade, Ouray estimates, supplemented by "hundreds of people with their costumes on, and that's beautiful."
Ouray said he was proud to read, in 2018, of Duluth resident Dawn King telling the News Tribune: "This is a family holiday and we have a bin like you have for Christmas in the basement and it's just smelt stuff."
This year's Smelt Parade will begin at 3:30 p.m. with a gathering and performance on the lawn in front of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The second line parade will then proceed eastward along the Lakewalk. Zeitgeist Cafe will once again host a smelt fry and dance, at 5 p.m.
"They serve probably a couple hundred servings of smelt," estimated Ouray. "It's probably a third of a pound on a plate."
"It's very tasty," said Sandberg. "Just the thought of it brings a smile to everyone, commemorating the smelt with a parade."
The sheer accessibility of smelt, which don't require fancy equipment or even a boat — and can be netted with no limits provided the smelter holds a valid Minnesota fishing license — inspires Northlanders to heights of affection not typically bestowed upon aquatic species that, ecologically speaking, don't really belong here.
"Duluth needs a smelt celebration," Ouray said. "Somebody told me they felt the Smelt Parade was a proletariat friendly event. I like to think that we attract folks right across the spectrum."
When talking smelt, Ouray ultimately restrained himself. "I could wax more philosophical," he said, about how smelt are "freely offered from the earth. At the risk of sounding like a tree hugger ... but I am a tree hugger, you know."
For more information on this year's Smelt Parade, see magicsmelt.com.