Anderson: When the smelt run, the buckets come out

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2012 - 12:37 AM

For some, gathering along Lake Superior and other North Shore rivers to net the tasty fish is a family tradition.

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With Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge in the background, a group of smelters and others who had come to watch smelters gathered around a “Swedish Handwarmer,’’ a log that had been lacerated with a chain saw and stuffed with steel wool to burn slowly from the inside out.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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DULUTH - The "Swedish Handwarmer" that George Adams Sr. toted with him to a beach here Wednesday evening would provide light and warmth, and might also, if the smelt were running, heat a frying pan. This was about 9:30, and that portion of the beach Adams chose to park his fiery log in the sand was cast in the warm glow of Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge, a real nighttime spectacle.

Smelting wouldn't be great on this night, not like the old days when bunches of seiners gathered along the beach leading to Duluth's Park Point, and also at the mouth of the Lester and other rivers up the North Shore. Back then when smelt ran, seines and dip nets filled quickly, also buckets and even garbage cans.

Nowadays, everyone worries about aquatic invasive species. But smelt -- provider of untold springtime revelry in the '60s and '70s -- are exotics, and first escaped into the Great Lakes in 1912. Decades later, in 1946, they began to flourish in Lake Superior, thanks to declining lake trout numbers, themselves victims of sea lampreys.

"It's a family tradition for us, smelting," Adams was saying. "I was just a kid when my grandfather first brought me down here to smelt in spring. We do it every year, bringing our own fire and a skillet. We take turns dragging the net, and hanging around the fire."

Up and down the North Shore on Wednesday, afternoon had folded beautifully into evening. Rainstorms had swept through Duluth the night before, stirring up the lake bottom just off the beach. But the portion of Lake Superior that Adams and a few others seined near the Aerial Lift Bridge had settled down, and the first sweep with a 25-foot net yielded a few handfuls of smelt, a promising sign.

"Look, look!" said Toy Carson, whose husband, Bob, had dragged one end of the seine, with friend Steve Sutherland on the other.

Quickly, on shore, the little fish were descended upon, picked from the net and deposited into a 5-gallon bucket.

"When I was a kid, we'd all head to the Lester River, just north of Duluth, and we'd only dip twice to fill a 5-gallon bucket," Sutherland said. "It's not like that anymore. But I still like it. I've had a pretty good spring. Last week we were filling three-quarters of a 5-gallon bucket with one pull of a seine."

Smelters such as Adams, Sutherland and the Carsons, who ply their sport along beaches, pull their long seines either parallel to shore, or back to shore from, say, 40 yards out.

This differs from river smelters, particularly when smelting was at its peak, who, standing from stream banks, employed long-handled dip nets. Commonly, these rivers were swift and even perilous, and long-handled nets allowed smelters to remain safely on shore, while still getting their fish. This presumed, of course, the relative sobriety of those taking part, in whose absence innocent recreation sometimes morphed into danger, and even death.

"I'll tell you how you make a Swedish Handwarmer,'' Adams said, speaking of the burning log on the beach that measured perhaps 18 inches both in diameter and length.

Remarkably, the log, standing on one end, seemed to burn from the inside out, without visible prompting -- a self-contained campfire.

"Get yourself a dried log about that size," Adams said. "Then, using a chain saw, cut it from the top down, as you would cut a pie. But stop cutting just before you get to the bottom, so the log holds together. Then stuff some steel wool down the middle, light it, and the log will burn from the inside out, slowly."

As Adams spoke, the big lake washed gently onto the beach. The air was warm and someone opened a beer. A couple of kids performed pirouettes in the sand, while in the water not far away, on the edge of Lake Superior's great beyond, wading up to their chests, Carson and Sutherland seined for more smelt.

"Myself, I like them deep-fried," Sutherland said. "Mix a bottle of oatmeal stout with a box of Shore Lunch beer batter, and it's pretty tough to beat. I can eat about 75 in one sitting.

"The smaller ones are best. The bigger ones have too many bones."

For now, Lake Superior seems unready to return smelt to prominence. Lampreys have been controlled, lake trout have recovered, and Pacific salmon numbers have increased, a trifecta of problems for the lake's smaller fish, which now, increasingly, are eaten by bigger fish.

Still, in spring, on beaches throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and along tributaries to the Great Lakes, fires burn, and with them the desire by smelters, long held, to pull a seine or dip a net.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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