Smelt are the great equalizer. It doesn’t rightly matter if you’re rich or redneck or a combination of the two, when they’re running, folks from all walks of life gather streamside in the dark of night in hip boots or chest waders or knee-high wellingtons, holding Coleman lanterns, dip-nets and dreams of a mess of fish filling their buckets and, eventually, their frying pans and/or ziplock bait bags.

As people show up, they ask each other questions like “they up yet?” and “getting into ’em at all?” and “been anyplace else?” Between walks upstream, they talk about the days when they, or their fathers, were young men and how they used to fill a five-gallon bucket in one pass. They invoke the names of Canandaigua Lake tributaries like they’re talking about mutual old friends. Names like Menteth Point, Seneca Point, Naples Creek, Vine Valley, Tichenor Point, Deep Run. Water that is 15 feet across at its widest. Storied water. They lament the South wind and the waves that pound the shore at the mouth of the stream and keep the fish from hustling up into its clear cold current. But the old-timers commit to one more pass before they retreat to warm their bones in the truck and then head home. The father and son in their normally-we-chase-trout waders and foul weather gear are far from packing it in. The college guys with their girlfriends say they’re gonna stick it out too. Their girlfriends’ looks say otherwise. Teachers, CEOs, farmers, politicians, contractors, firemen, attorneys, photographers, tradesmen, techies. They’re all called the same when the smelt are running. So it goes.

And so it goes

Jason and I stand on the shale beach of Seneca Point, lanterns illuminating each a small universe, wind and lake to our backs. It’s 11:45 p.m. and we’re contemplating the nine fish we managed on our first run. As we snip the heads from our catch and turn their insides loose on the water, we reassure each other, and justify the relative insanity of our spending four more hours in a 20-something degree gale, by offering hopeful excuses.
“Those damn things are tough to see when they’re onesie-twosie,” I offer.
“Hell yea they are. I bet by 12:30 they’ll be in thick though…maybe 1:00.”
“Yea, it is early still…”
(short pause while I put up my hood)
“Pass me another beer will ya?”
Sometimes distraction works better than hope.

There’s something to be said for a fish that can keep a man at bay on the shore of an upstate NY lake in mid-April at midnight. Especially when that fish is a whopping 7 1/2″ on average and is destined for a bait hook or frying pan. These are not the quarry of which books are written and movies are made. These are not the leviathans that haunt our big-river or deep-lake dreams. These are not even the fish of our classic childhood standing-on-the-dock-with-our-zebco-and-first-bluegill photos. But these fish do represent tradition. These fish are stories that usually wind up with someone spitting out a mouthful of beer in laughter. These fish are camaraderie and the common ground of an unpredictable Spring. These fish are an easy beer-batter fry away from happy snacking kids and they make a nasty lake trout bait when salted and fished on a slip sinker in 30 feet of water.

And for the record…they started running really well at 1:30.


Filed under On the water

8 responses to “IN PRAISE OF SMELT

  1. Matt DaRin


    Another great piece!! My friend Brian and I had the pleasure of working the bank and bottom of a cold April tributary on Owasco Lake last night. We were buffoons, completely oblivious to the culture and traditions of smelting that you so eloquently captured in this piece. But we learn-ed, we learn-ed good and may not another season pass by where I dont burn midnight oil for the sake of old stories, cold beer, and a 7 1/2″ trophy fish.

    • Fishingpoet

      I still remember you, Tom and me meeting Matt Barnes on some no-name Keuka Lake trib on private property. Swept four gallons-worth in one run. We spent hours cleaning those damn things on the deck of your cottage and then fried them up at Bill’s Tavern. Marie took good care of us…smelt in the fryer and Milwaukee’s Best longnecks for a buck and a quarter. Good times.

  2. Rob

    I used to go smelting in upstate NY when I was a kid…Good stuff there….

  3. Did the midnight wadding myself, back in the day in Lake Superior. Well started out empyting nets. Had to grow first to fit into waders.

    As a kid, it was always the greatest adventure, breaking the monotony of north country winter. Driving up from central Wisconsin to stand by fires on the bank of some calm water, hearing the waves lap in the night, then checking each returning net to see what each would hold.

    Our job, as kids, was to empty nets into milk cans storage, for the return trip home. Then eat like crazy at the church fish frys!

    I think the smelt got cleaned in a wash machine spin cycle.

    • Fishingpoet

      Thanks for the note John! There is something special about chasing fish in the middle of the night. Almost like you’re getting away with something. I sure wish we were on some calm water that night…

  4. This is a great story.

    My Dad tells me that Grandpa loved smelt dipping. I never got a chance to hunt or fish with Grandpa Pete. He died when my Dad was a young man.

    But I know he loved deer and pheasant hunting. When I’m knocking down roosters, I think he’s there in the field with me. I love that feeling.

    I need to put together a smelt dipping trip. He’d be proud. Thanks for the motivation.

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