Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smelt Runs

His Royal Highness, “Kingfish Long of Smeltiana.” Annual Smelt Run Jamboree, Escanaba, Mich. Mar. 29, 1935

Dear George,
When we were kids, my parents would take us out one night each April to watch the smelt fishing at the Hattie St. bridge. Smelt are little silvery fish which are a U.P. delicacy when deep fried. For a week or so each spring huge hordes of them would make their night-time runs from Green Bay into the Menominee River and other streams in the area. Local fisherman congregated by the hundreds on the Interstate and Hattie St. bridges and would lower nets or seines into the water, hoisting big batches of fish up to the bridge on pullies. In 1934 just two fishermen gathered in 4,200 pounds of smelt in under five hours. In the 1938 season local fisherman caught over 1,000 tons of smelt. By the late 1930’s the Green Bay smelt catch reached 6 million pounds per year, and hundreds of tons of smelt were shipped from Menominee and Marinette all over the United States. Portions of the catch that weren't eaten or shipped out were recycled into family gardens or sent to the Whitey Cat Food canning factory in Gladstone.

Smelt fishing from the Interstate Bridge, Menominee-Marinette

Smelt are originally an ocean fish and are found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. According to an article in the Marinette-Menominee Eagle-Herald, smelt first came into Lake Michigan and Green Bay in 1926. The species expanded rapidly, and annual Smelt Festivals were inaugurated in the mid-1930's in Marinette, Menominee, and Oconto. In the Twin Cities the Interstate Bridge was closed to traffic, and thrones were erected for the Smelt King and Queen who were crowned each year. Tough guys staged wrestling matches in a big ring filled with smelt, and there was dancing, singing, music, and fireworks. The 1941 carnival (which my parents probably brought my baby brother Steve and me to) featured a lumberjack band, professional acrobats, sports shows, Charlie Chaplin movies, a wood-chopping competition, and a crowd of 25,000. At night the smelt carnival was lit up by burning automobile tires which had been gathered at children's "tire matinees" at local movie theaters (at which children exchanged old tires for movie tickets). Newspapers in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Indianapolis, and other Midwestern cities sent reporters to cover the event, and chartered passenger trains brought in tourists from Chicago.

Smelt fishermen and fisherwomen

Smelt swimming free

The Smelt Parade at Sheridan Rd. & Ogden Ave. (Menominee, 1941)

A smelt wrestling match in Marinette

Lake Michigan smelt normally reach a maximum length of 6 inches. The flesh of the smelt is lean and sweet. They’re not only delicious to eat, but they can reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. The little fish are rolled in flour or cracker crumbs and fried in deep fat. Though you can cut their heads off and remove their fins and entrails, smelt connoisseurs eat the whole fish – head, tail, bones, guts, and all. The bones give a soft crunch which is reportedly pleasing, and they don’t stick in your throat.

An order of fried smelt

The last big Menominee River smelt run occurred in 1983, and numbers have dropped off ever since. Some commercial fisherman speculate that Zebra mussels have greatly improved the clearness of the water in Green Bay, but, because that allows predators like trout and salmon to gobble up smelt more readily, the smelt are spawning out in deep water rather than coming into shallow areas. Philip Moy, a UW fisheries specialist, suggests the smelt population may rebound: "It's like the perch. they could come back and they could become really abundant again." We hope he's right. Steven and I used to bring pails down to the river at the bridge, put on my grandfather’s hip waders, and scoop up hundreds of smelt. I can’t remember whether my mother cooked them up or not, but I do know that those little smelt, when breaded and fried, are really tasty. You can still get them in season in Menominee (and I even saw them at our Cincinnati Krogers the other day).

http://news.google.com, "Gala Time at Smelt Carnival" ( Milwaukee Sentinel, Apr. 19, 1941)
www.amazon.com (Federal Writers' Program. Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, 1941; pp. 579-80)
www.EHExtra.com ("Smelt fishing", 6-8-00)
www.menomineecountyjournal.com (“1941 Smelt Parade”)
www.viewsofthepast.com (“fishing”)
Google Images

G-mail Comments

-Ann B. (4-20):  Tonight I was catching up on your blog…   Ralph used to march in the smelt parade and he played the tuba. He was the tallest guy in the band and when they marched over the bridge people would throw smelt in his horn. I guess they had to dry clean his band uniform after that parade! Glad you survived your 3 weeks of bachelorhood. We had a inch of snow last night which was better than the 12 inches we got last year at this time. I wish it would warm up and I could wear something different than winter clothes.    Ann
-Phyllis S-S(4-3):  Dave,   This was such fun to read.  I have such happy memories of smelt too.   Phyllis


  1. The annual smelt run in Turtle Creek was occasion for those of us living on Edgewood Beach to scoop our smelt from the creek and cook them over an open beach fire. I don't think we breaded them - I think we just fried them, probably in Crisco, until crisp and then ate them whole.

  2. We probably did that with you. I'd forgotten.

  3. My mother was the very first "Queen of Smeltiana" in the early 1930's. It was a "big deal" with people voting into the Escanaba Daily Press. Her name was Maryan Fisher.

  4. Tom, That's great to hear. Thanks for adding such a personally significant note to this account. Dave L.