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.

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