Saturday, April 3, 2021

A brief history of smelt in Duluth...

Crowd of smelters at mouth of Lester River on April 25, 1986.
 Photo by Steve Sterns for the Duluth News Tribune
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

"The nice thing about smelt is all you have to do is decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease."

About once every decade or so, give or take, I like to recall the halcyon days of smelt “fishing” each April in Duluth. The ranks of those of us who experienced the anarchy and chaos of smelt season here are thinning, even if our midsections are not.


Plus, a few generations of native Duluthians and those who have moved here in the past 40-some odd (I’ll say) years did not experience this unique aspect of our history. It needs to be recorded somewhere. So here goes.


It all started shortly after World War II, in the mid-1940s. One can only imagine the scene in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States. Smelt were still saltwater fish but getting restless.


Smelt leadership began getting concerned when their multitudinous schools of tiny, silvery subjects began complaining that things just weren’t the same anymore in the ocean. No more German submarines darting through their waters just off the coast; flotillas of U.S. surface naval ships headed for Europe came to a halt. It was getting boring for smelt.


So their leadership decided something had to be done. “I’ve got it, let’s go to Duluth,” the king smelt said.


“How can we do that? We’re saltwater fish and the Great Lakes are fresh water,” said the queen.


“We’ll adapt,” said the king Fish.


And adapt they did, swimming their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway, which didn’t formally exist at the time but the water was there. The change in smelt biology shocked ichthyologists in Duluth, although there weren’t too many to be shocked because the University of Minnesota Duluth (which was only getting started) was not yet used to big words like ichthyology, which is even harder to spell than it is to pronounce. Those fish scientists agreed, though, that to have their study of fish taken seriously in the academic world they had to have a name nobody could spell or pronounce.


But enough ichthyology. It’s too hard to type.


So those intrepid Atlantic smelt finally arrived in Duluth en masse by the mid-to-latter years of the 1940s but few people here knew what to make of it at first. The few who did realized they could get huge net seines, wade in pairs a few yards into Lake Superior off Park Point two or three times and come back with enough smelt to feed the 5,000, to respectfully employ a Biblical allusion.


Word got around fast. Word about free food always gets around fast. Soon it became common knowledge that the North Shore streams also were full of them and all you had to do to get a pail of smelt was to don hip boots, use a hand-held dip net a couple of times against the stream’s flow, and, voila, several potential meals, deep fried.


That is if the smelt were “running” up the streams to spawn. It was sporadic, but if they were running the take of fish was incredible. We are talking tons. Smelt were running along the North Shore long before people took it up.


Duluthians went nuts as those early years rolled by, ending the ‘40s and into the ‘50s and well beyond. Word spread beyond the city and soon caravans of smelt seekers from distant venues — the Dakotas, Iowa and especially the Twin Cities — descended — and I mean descended — on the Zenith City of the unsalted seas, so recently hosting the adapting smelt in their journey west. Even the staid Chamber of Commerce embraced it.


Many of the natives (that was us) and outsiders also found that dipping or seining for unlimited smelt went well with consumption of various intoxicating beverages, and smelting parties were organized around huge bonfires, many of which were fueled with old tires. This was before the environmental movement got started. Tires really burn well but create a lot of greenhouse gasses, many later observed.


It reached a point where you could stand on London Road at night and gaze across the wolf nose of Lake Superior to Park Point and see, literally, scores of bonfires lighting the darkness on the sandy beach, some even fueled with driftwood. And along the mouths of North Shore streams — the Lester, the Knife, the French, the Sucker (there’s some irony in that name) — thousands of intrepid smelters from the Upper U.S. converged en masse for free food.


The state of Minnesota was caught flat-footed. Incredibly, state officials and political bigwigs didn’t realize at first that this could be a good source of revenue for the state. It took them several years to mandate that smelt fishermen and fisherwomen (of course there were both) actually have fishing licenses. That made the food less free, but didn’t diminish the multitudes.


And the nice thing about smelt was all you had to do was decapitate them, gut them and throw them in the hot grease, tails and all if so inclined. I am not much of a fish eater — you can have your walleye or kamloops or trout or whatever — but I love smelt. I did get caught up in actual smelt fishing as a child early on and then as a smelt partier later, but I recovered.


There was a down side. Eager, sometimes inebriated, smelt seekers plying the shore streams and on the Point often lacked respect for private property near the smelting sites. Many felt, for example, that if they needed firewood somebody’s nearby picket fence would burn nicely. This was very frustrating to residents and challenging for law enforcement officials overwhelmed by, well, overwhelmed by everything. Chaos and anarchy reigned, along with King Smelt.


Most of the activities occurred after dark. Nighttime traffic on London Road in Duluth was — oh, how should I put it? — bumper to bumper (there’s no other way to put it) from near downtown to Lester River and beyond. (This was back in the days when cars actually had bumpers.)


And, yes, there were casualties. Sadly, in many years, there were one or two drownings.


The smelt themselves largely brought it to a close after a strong 40 years or so of offering themselves up for food and frolic in Duluth. Suddenly it tapered off. Now only professional fisher persons net them way off shore and sell them commercially.


It’s enough to make an ichthyologist cry.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

NOTE: Today's column in the Duluth News Tribune was printed for the last time in Duluth. As a 43 year employee of the DNT, I find it noteworthy that my column appears today. Read that story HERE.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Not so great a day for the Irish...

Heffernan Bar in Wexford, Ireland
Photo was taken by a friend about 20+ years ago
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shure and begorrah (oh-oh, careful Jim), we just celebrated the day for the wearin’ o’ the green (calm down, kid). St. Patrick’s Day came and went on Wednesday, apparently without incident. No observance that I know of inspires so many clichés.


St. Patrick’s day was always big around my house as I was growing up. The name Heffernan is Irish. My father was very proud of that heritage and often said that in the Emerald Isle (oops, there I go again) back in the days of the clans, our family name was O’Heffernan. Like O’Hara or O’Connell or O’Connor, the last name of a cousin of mine who had a few more pints of Irish blood than me.


It wasn’t mentioned as much that my father was half German as well. His father, my Irish grandfather and namesake, came to Duluth from Canada about 140 years ago where he met and married a German woman, thereby diluting the Irish bloodline. But the Irish name remains with me and my kids and some of their kids, who are mostly other nationalities and very little Irish. I’m actually one half Swedish.


Growing up, I took my Irish heritage more seriously than I do these days. I didn’t know diddly about what St. Patrick was being honored for. Something about driving snakes from Ireland is all I knew. Good for him. I hate snakes. And what is more, we weren’t even Catholic.


But we always wore something green on St. Patrick’s Day, even if it was only a furry little shamrock.


I never knew my Irish grandfather. He died in his 80s when I was just two years old. He had been a bricklayer by trade, and family lore had it that he was acquainted with Duluth pioneer entrepreneur Chester Congdon who, it was said, hired him to build the brick standards that hold up the metal fence along London Road at Glensheen, the Congdon mansion. I don’t know if that’s true, but I always think of him when I drive by.


Over the years I have come to know a few of the descendants of Chester Congdon and I’ve told them about my grandfather’s alleged role in building the Glensheen fence. They always seemed unimpressed. Can’t blame them. Their ancestor built an imposing mansion and mine built a fence?


The arrival of my Irish grandfather in Duluth around 1880 coincided with the burgeoning of Duluth as a city, when tycoons like Chester Congdon and many others — whose names are still recognizable and portraits of whom are on the walls of the Kitchi Gammi Club — were building the city. Many of these businessmen acquired great wealth, but my Irish grandfather just became a bricklayer. I wish he would have joined them in their enterprises. I could have used the money.


I did inherit a song from the old grandsire, sung lustily to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman”:


“Ooooooo, I wish I was back in my Irishman’s shanty, / Where money was scarce and whiskey was plenty, /A three-legged stool and a table to match, /And a door in the middle without any latch.” This did not fit in well with my family’s strong Swedish Lutheran associations.


Still, well into early adulthood, when I stumbled into a career in journalism, I took my one-quarter Irish heritage quite seriously. In the early days of my career as a reporter for this newspaper it was obligatory for the paper to run a local St. Patrick’s Day story on the front page each March 17.


Whoever was chosen to write it always got a byline with an O’ in front of their name no matter what ethnicity their name might imply. Names like O’Olson or O’Johnson or O’Leone or O’Pearson or O’Lhutala or O’Cohen or O’Konski (how’d he get in there?) might show up atop these St. Patrick’s Day ruminations. Tee-hee.


How I longed to be chosen to write the St. Patrick’s Day story so O’Heffernan could appear in the byline. At least it would be a genuine article. Finally I got the chance.


I have no recollection of what I wrote, save for a stirring final paragraph when I stole a line or two from that old Irish ballad “Galway Bay” by writing something like “if you ever go across the sea to Ireland, you watch the sun come up on Galway Bay.”


I was quite impressed. And I got my O’Heffernan byline for my father to see. The following day, when I showed up in the newsroom, I was met by one of the old guard working there, a man I didn’t know well at that point. He happened to be of Irish extraction himself.


“Watched the sun come up on Galway Bay, did you?” he growled. “Galway Bay is on the west coast of Ireland. The sun goes down on Galway Bay.”


Ooooooo, I wished I was back in my Irishman’s shanty…


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at