Of course, I still remember those wonderful and crazy days when camp fires dotted the beaches and river mouths and beer drinking partiers from near and far collided every spring to cast seines or dip nets to easily scoop up as many smelt as desired. It formed a party atmosphere with great and free eating. And it was good for the tourist economy.
I tried to capture that atmosphere in a column I wrote in the Duluth News Tribune and used it in my book, Cooler Near the Lake. I thought I'd reprint it below in honor of spring in Duluth and the smelt runs of the past and present.
My wife and I still get in our smelt dinners every spring by traveling to the Tappa Keg in West Duluth where fresh smelt are lightly battered and very delicious.
Smelt Memories: Are They Fact or Fancy?
by Jim Heffernan
Where’s the smelt?
Somebody asked me the other night when I was going to write my annual smelt column, and I had to admit that I hadn’t even thought of doing one this year. Maybe I forgot because the smelt forgot to come.
I’m getting the impression in recent years that the smelt themselves are tired of the annual ritual. They seem to be looking elsewhere for their spring kicks.
As many of us who remember the halcyon days of smelting know, it wasn’t always that way. Newcomers to Duluth would have difficulty understanding what mania the arrival of the smelt used to cause back in the early days of smelt running.
I was attempting to describe it to someone who recently moved to Duluth and I found myself doubting what I was saying. I had that eerie feeling one sometimes gets that I had dreamed it all, and then confused the dream with reality.
So I thought I’d check myself with readers who might have the same memories as mine.
Is it a fact, or is it fantasy, when I seem to recall that Park Point, and not the North Shore, was the focus of the smelt run in the early days? Didn’t thousands of people used to converge on the point during the run and fish with huge net seines? And wasn’t there a bonfire, often fueled with old tires, about every 20 feet for the length of the point?
I was pretty young, but I remember looking across the lake from a location near Leif Erikson Park and seeing so many bonfires on the beach that it looked like all of Park Point was on fire. What happened to that? I’m only asking.
And when the weather was rough on the lake side of the point, didn’t the multitudes shift over to the bay side with their seines, some substituting dip nets, and wade far out into harbor waters–almost to the ship channels–in search of smelt? I remember doing that once on a smelt excursion with my father. I think I remember it, or was it a dream?
Do I recall that you didn’t need a Minnesota fishing license, no matter what your age, to smelt fish? Didn’t that bring just about every man, woman and child in Minnesota and the four states surrounding it to Duluth? Didn’t they cause traffic jams on London Road extending from the Lester River to the Jay Cooke statue? Did that happen, or was it just that I was younger and everything seemed bigger then?
Didn’t roving bands of young people get drunked up on 3.2 beer and pillage, if not rape, everything in sight? Weren’t enough empty beer cans strewn along the shore and Park Point to provide sufficient metal to build three destroyers and a battlewagon?
Weren’t the police put on double duty to make a stab at keeping order, and the traffic moving, and didn’t they always lose the battle? Did the Chamber of Commerce hook up a statewide smelt information alert line for outstate people to call for up-to-the-minute reports on the smelt run, or did I dream that?
Didn’t the Duluth Herald and the News Tribune (there were two papers then) composing room overnight smelting party at Lester River each year turn every printer into a devil, and cause four-score worried wives to sit up all night in rocking chairs at home clutching rosaries and praying? Did I imagine all that?
Speaking of the newspaper, didn’t each edition come out with four-column pictures of the hordes at Lester River, and didn’t occasional 84-point (War Declared-size) headlines announce that some men had given up their lives in pursuit of smelt. That happened, didn’t it?
Didn’t I see a neighbor lady come home from smelting and dump huge buckets of smelt directly into her garden for fertilizer? Wasn’t the peak of the run the biggest night of the year for the liquor stores–eclipsing New Year’s?
I’m not complaining that all this appears to have come to an end, mind you. I’m only asking if it really happened the way I recall it, or was it all a dream?
Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, May 9, 1984