Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lake Superior's Declining Smelt Run

Why do so many articles begin with the words "When I was young"? Maybe its just an updated version of the famous phrase "Once upon a time," but despite being labeled as trite, I will begin this offering with those very words. When I was young, the Lake Superior smelt run was something to behold. These smelt--an invasive species in the parlance of Lake Superior fisheries biologists--would invade the local streams along Lake Superior's north shore in surreal numbers in an effort to spawn. On the Lester River in Duluth, they would be so thick you could fill any number of five-gallon tubs in a matter of minutes just using hand-dip nets. Huge bonfires would hold vats filled with oil. The five or six inch long smelt would be dropped in whole (guts and all), fried in the oil for a few minutes, and eaten as soon as fast as they were fried. There was a festival atmosphere, especially when the smelt ran at night.

Then the smelt stopped running, at least in the huge numbers that people had been accustomed to. Jim Heffernan, a local writer for the Duluth News-Tribune (home to the award-winning outdoor writer Sam Cook), offers his thoughts on the demise of the Smelt Run:

"Smelt Were Once King of Spring," Duluth New-Tribune (13 May 2007)

It is hard for those who have never experienced the smelt run to understand how magical it was. Where did all the smelt go? According to the Minnesota DNR:

Many Minnesotans remember the heyday of the smelt in the 1960s and 70s, when Lake Superior’s smelt population peaked and thousands of netters could haul home buckets of fish. Although still popular among a few avid folks, this spring activity is no longer the big carnival-like event it once was. Smelt numbers have declined significantly from peak abundance in the 1970s because of predation by an increasing lake trout population and the establishment of Pacific salmon, interactions with lake herring, and the usual decline that is typical after the initial boom of an invading exotic species. With Lake Superior restored to a more natural state, we are unlikely to experience a resurgence of smelt to the levels that anglers recall from the 1960s and 70s. There is still a smelt run in most years, but it is minor compared to the smelt runs of the past.

So the smelt run is passing into history. A few stalwarts, as seen in this Fish Duluth Report, still smelt the rivers in the spring, but their haul is meager and the party atmosphere is long gone.

The smelt may be disappearing, but the memories remain.

--Dr. Todd

For more information on the smelt run:

Minnesota Public Radio on the Smelt Run

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

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