For many who grew up in Northern Michigan, late March and early April meant the annual smelt runs – a late night fishing experience that brought out many in the community for a carnival-like atmosphere that often ended with much-needed full freezers of the tasty fish.
The Traverse City area was ground zero for smelt, a fish native to the Atlantic coast that was first planted in Benzie County’s Crystal Lake in 1912. As often happens, some of the fish made their way from Crystal Lake to Lake Michigan where they were first caught in 1926. Like salmon, smelt make their way to tributary streams to spawn over gravel beds in “runs” that begin in the early spring when the water temperature reaches 40 degrees. Smelt spawn at night, returning to the big lake in the morning and the run usually lasts for about three weeks. In addition to being a delicious bite-sized treat for us, smelt are important food source for coho salmon, burbot, trout, walleye, yellow perch and other smelt!
While Northern Michigan rivers used to run nearly black with smelt, smelt runs have become a pale shadow in recent years. The reason, according to the Michigan DNR, is that more smelt are now breeding in lake waters and influences on the food chain like zebra mussels.
The Blue Bird Restaurant in Leland has had smelt on the menu for 40 or 50 years. Like many in Leland, owner Skip Telgard remembers the heyday of smelt dipping and when it ended. “About 15 years ago or so smelt declined and outright disappeared from Fishtown where we could legally fish them. I still went down there and to other spots every year to check,” he says. “Four years ago I went on my usual rounds and lo and behold there were some smelt! I got my son Derek and my net that was dutifully waiting for me, got my license at Dick’s and we had a blast. I caught a half a five-gallon bucket just like in the old days. It was exciting and I hoped so much fun, and there’s nothing like frying up smelt fresh from the river.”
While Skip hasn’t seen any the last couple of years, he’s still checking there and Leelanau’s other legal site to smelt dip: Shalda Creek in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You can learn more about smelt fishing in Michigan from the Michigan DNR’s page on smelt, and we hope you enjoy these great smelt photos from Don Harrison of UpNorth Memories.