The water in Lake Superior off of Park Point is a brisk 40 degrees. The water is high and the waves are choppy, but these unfavorable conditions don’t stop Tyler Klingfus and Andy Godeen from submerging up to their waists. Equipped with waders, gloves, headlamps, and a long net called a seine, Klingfus and Godeen are fishing for smelt.
Smelt are small fish, about six inches on average, and native to the Atlantic Ocean. They came to Lake Superior in the early 20th century through the Great Lakes chain. They were abundant in Lake Superior in the 1960s and 70s, which is when the Duluth tradition of smelt fishing began. Duluth native Charmayne Randall recalled fondly on this time.
“At that time, there were so many smelt, it was really simple,” Randall said. “London Road and Superior Street would just be lined up with cars. My relatives used to come down from the Range. Lots of people would cook and eat them, but it was mostly just a good time to get together, a party time.”
The number of smelt in Lake Superior has significantly dropped in the past few decades due to an increase of their predators, but this hasn’t seemed to deter avid smelt fishers in the area.
According to Josh Blankenheim, a fisheries specialist from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are two ways to catch smelt. Fishermen can stand on the banks of a river, Lester River is often a popular choice, and try to scoop the small fish out of the water using a dip net. Otherwise, smelt can be caught using a seine, a long but narrow net, like the one Klingfus and Godeen used. The seine is dipped into the water and dragged back to shore. This method requires two people and is frequently seen in the waters of Park Point.
The smelting season is fairly short, only a few weeks long, and the conditions have to be just right in order to catch anything.
“It’s always done at night,” Blankenheim said. “They come in after dark. Water temperatures have to be appropriate for them to spawn. You need water temperatures in the 40s, mid to upper 40s.”
Blankenheim said the season usually starts in late April or early May, but arrived early this year due to the warm temperatures, and ends generally around the same time as the fishing opener in mid-May.
Depending on weather and water conditions, the beach on Park Point is often crowded with groups of smelters. People have campfires, food, and coolers -- both to put smelt into and to take beer out of. As tradition, and possibly superstition states, it is customary to bite the head off the first smelt caught in a fisherman’s career, which only adds to the social atmosphere.
While the social aspect is a large contributor to the nearly 50-year-old Duluth tradition of smelt fishing, it falls second to the sustenance aspect.
“Aside from people catching and eating [smelt], businesses would sell them,” Randall said. “Boy Scouts, church groups, restaurants, they’d all have smelt fries.”
Al Terwey, owner of Mr. D’s Bar and Grill in West Duluth, knows this side of the smelting tradition first-hand.
“We have been hosting a smelt fry for 30 years,” Terwey said. “We get a lot of calls for it in this business.”
The smelt fry at Mr. D’s lasts about a month and is served all day, every day. The restaurant gets its smelt, already commercially cleaned and processed, from Lake Superior Fish Company.
“[The smelt business] comes from your typical Northeastern Minnesota person,” Terwey said. “It’s kind of tradition being from Duluth, Minnesota and Lake Superior, everyone seems to enjoy them once a year. It’s not something you can eat year round, it’s a once a year deal. You get your fix and then you wait till next year.”
Stricter police enforcement on the beach and fewer smelt in the water are two factors that have led to a decline in smelt fishing. But as long as there are fish to be caught, heads to bite off, and memories to be made, the Duluth tradition of smelting is one that will continue to be shared.
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