I Smelled Like Smelt
Today (January 16, 2016) would have been Dad’s 77th birthday. After he passed away last August, I posted this remembrance on the blog. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to take a few minutes and catch up on Dad’s life and a few of my favorite memories of the man. In honor of his birthday, here are a few more experiences we shared during my childhood and teen years…
Dad seemed to always be making new friends from all different walks of life. While he certainly was no expert at self-promotion, there was just something about him that drew other people in – his business, interests, and sense of humor certainly helped. He was a good conversationalist that was genuinely curious about others and interested in what they had to say.
Owning a cement construction business put Dad in the path of many other people who potentially could become new friends – builders, remodelers, electricians, plumbers, cement truck drivers, and other cement workers and business owners. At some point he became friends with the owner of a house remodeling business – a guy named Greg Foss. Greg was a big fellow with a larger than life personality, and a quick wit just like Dad. They got along well and shared a love of the outdoors. Greg so happened to co-own a cottage and surrounding property south of Lake Superior in the Chequamegon National Forest. Each owner took turns using the cottage throughout the year, and one of Greg’s turns was in the spring for an annual smelt fishing trip.
If you are unfamiliar with smelt, they are found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Great Lakes. In the spring as temperatures warm up, schools of smelt begin to migrate toward inland streams where they can spawn. In my childhood smelt would make the journey along the coast of Lake Michigan all the way to Lake Superior, and spawn in areas close to the cities of Ashland and Washburn. Smelt can grow up to about 8 inches long and are very tasty – not just to humans. Other fish such as lake trout, salmon and striped bass also like to make a dinner out of smelt. Initially smelt were introduced into the Great Lakes as food for native lake trout. You can fry a smelt whole or clean them up a bit first, but I’ll come back to that later.
If memory serves correctly, my first smelt fishing trip happened in the spring of 6th grade. Greg invited my Dad and whoever he wanted to bring along to join his group on the trip north. In those pre-internet days a daily phone call to an Ashland bait shop gave us a status update whether or not the smelt were running. Usually this happened when the water temperature was in the 40’s and the ice started to break up on Lake Superior. It was helpful if the ice was off in the lake’s bays so we had an easier time pursuing the fish. A few times over the years we wound up in streams with scoop nets trying to catch smelt, mainly due to remaining ice cover on Lake Superior.
We would go out in the water as far as we could with wader boots on (see photo after the story for what these look like) and drag a seining net back toward shore. Seining nets are also called dragnets, and their bottom edge is held down with small weights while the top edge has floats. These types of nets and fishing techniques have been around for centuries. For us, this was our first experience using such a net to catch fish. We were rod and reel guys!
Smelt are generally spooked by light, so our timeline for fishing fell between roughly 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. Most of our favorite spots were in the aforementioned bays found along Ashland and Washburn. A bit more to the north and up Hwy 13 was Bayfield and occasionally we’d go there, but it was kind of a last resort. Ashland’s Chequamegon Bay was our first place to go. If we went up Hwy 13 there would usually be a round of bad jokes about being unlucky catching smelt. A few streams came off the lake and crossed Hwy 13, so on years with ice in the bays, we’d wind up with scoop nets trying our best to catch what we could under bridges and so on.
The best memories were times when we had at least a day notice to get our gear together and for me to get pulled from school. A couple times the trip actually fell over Easter break so I was good to go without any issues. Usually Greg had room in his van for everyone, but unless you were riding shotgun you wound up sitting on the floor in the back, since the seats had been removed so he could use it as a work vehicle. Riding in the van helped us all to learn the true meaning of “hold on tight.”
When I was 17 I drove Dad and myself in my car to Greg’s cottage for the first time. Dad fell asleep shortly after we left. When he woke he was astounded that we were only about an hour south of the cottage. Meanwhile I was astounded that my old used car made it that far without falling apart! The following year was our last trip together and I’ll never forget that we rode with Greg in his new full-sized pickup truck. On the way home he didn’t feel like driving, so he let me take over. It was my first experience driving a truck that size on the highway, plus I had never used cruise control. Needless to say, my knuckles where white and pretty sore from gripping the wheel by the time we got Greg back home.
Like most fishing adventures, when we caught smelt, we really caught smelt! I’m talking the net was so heavy when we dragged it back to shore that we needed a spotter on shore to help us get it out of the water. We always brought several metal 30 gallon garbage cans in hopes of a big catch. On occasion, Dad and I would pull in a net that would fill over half a garbage can. On one magical night we had filled all the cans within a couple hours, making it the shortest night of fishing on record. Of course on the flipside we had years where we worked hard to get what we could, and joked about holes in the net and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such is the life of a fisherman. One time I heard Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” on a faraway radio while were smelting – a fitting soundtrack behind our late night exploits.
I cannot tell these fishy tales without mentioning the cleaning of the smelt! This, my friends, is where the fish tale really begins – and ends. We’d get back to the cottage after 4:00 a.m. and sleep until noon if we were lucky. Then we’d have breakfast or lunch – or whatever we called it at that point. We’d go out on the lawn in front of the cottage a form a circle of chairs, and decide who was a “cutter” and who was a “gutter.” I’m thinking you can probably guess what those jobs entailed, but if you can’t, someone cut off the smelt’s heads and cut a slit up the full length of the underbelly. Next they handed it off to the person “lucky enough” to slide their thumb up the underbelly to remove the smelt’s guts. Greg also had a son named Chris that was my age, and in our younger years we always were gutters, but eventually were allowed to use knives and got a well-deserved promotion to cutters. We did all our work on upside-down garbage can lids, and if we were lucky we finished all the cleaning by sundown. The smell of smelt, however, would linger for days on our fingers. The bad jokes told by the fishermen also seemed to linger in the air for days.
Fortunately we had the use of a trout stream to wash up everything afterward. The stream ran the perimeter of the property, which was mostly wooded. We crossed over the stream on a bridge as we drove to the cottage. A couple times I brought my fishing pole and tried to catch trout to no avail. I’d prefer to think it was just too early and the water temperature was too cold. Either that or I was just a lousy trout fisherman, which is altogether possible given my poor track record at catching trout. I probably have caught more colds than trout in my lifetime, but that’s another story.
The best parts of these trips boiled down to spending time with Dad. We weren’t in a hurry to cast a line and catch a fish, then repeat the process. It wasn’t like we could run into the water with waders on and quickly drag the net back to shore. Smelt fishing forced us to slow down, but also allowed us to loosen up and have fun. There was just something special about being out on a lake in the overnight, fish or no fish. Dad could tell more than one story about a mishap in a stream where water went up over his waders and he was lucky to get up on shore without capsizing. To his credit, it never happened to him on these trips – but my boots did leak one year. Dad made me go sit in the van to warm my feet up, and said we’d worry about patching or replacing the boots another day.
Greg and the cottage co-owners sold the property after I finished high school. The next year Dad went without me as I was off in early adulthood la-la land. The group rented a hotel room to crash in and brought the smelt back home to clean. The experience paled in comparison to previous years, and that put an end to the trips for good. Dad didn’t have as much fun as the year I went without him. I don’t think he could get around some other commitment that time, so I went along with Greg and the crew. I was about 13 and remember drinking my first beer ever on that trip. It was probably more like a couple sips until I decided beer tasted awful (although that might have been the smell of smelt on my fingers), and I dumped the rest out behind the cottage. As an adult I grew to regret this horrific and wasteful action.
I mentioned earlier that smelt are tasty. This is no fish tale exaggeration. We’d put about a dozen in a Ziploc bag and load our freezer after getting home, plus give several bags out to friends and relatives. Dad had a tremendous knack for frying fish, and I suspect if there is such a thing as a past life, that he was probably a camp cook in the old west. He had a special recipe of mixing a few saltine crackers to his beer batter, and took pride in frying everything to perfection. We would eat Dad’s fried smelt once every couple of weeks for as long as they would last. In a good year with a huge catch we would almost make the smelt last until the following spring trip. Dad and Mom would also mix up their own brand of tartar sauce for dipping – essentially just mayo and some relish – but it went well with the smelt.
I haven’t gone smelt fishing since, nor have I eaten any smelt. Sometimes I’ll momentarily pick up a pack in the grocery store and put it back down, knowing I probably can’t fry fish like Dad. One of these days I may give it a whirl, just in an attempt to bring back some wonderful childhood memories. Back then I smelled like smelt!