Friday, November 28, 2008

Remembering Smelt Runs Of The Past


Years ago, a rallying cry would go up along Lake Huron near the old Singing Bridge when smelt began moving on-shore to spawn in the outflow of Whitney Drain during April. We’re a long time from smelt dipping but the memory of such days came to mind today..

It was always a rite of spring passage to drive to the Singing Bridge (it made a humming sound as vehicles drove across it) and go smelt drinking (oops, I meant dipping). Actually, many people used it as an excuse to go out, get drunk and be somebody.

Drunks would eat raw smelt, the eggs dripping down their face, and five minutes later would be retching their guts out. It was obvious they were having a wonderful nocturnal experience.

Those not into eating live smelt, but were blasted enough to do other stupid things, would bring several wash tubs, and put two in the truck (back in the days when big trunks existed) and a couple on the back seat (also big), and fill them to overflowing on a good smelt dipping night.

The trip home was always an adventure. Smelt would slide around, get under the spare tire or under the carpeting and seat cushions, and wouldn’t be found until the second of two warm days. Those folks didn’t have a good time at home.

Aah, the good old days. Smelt were in abundance, and usually the runs would occur in mid- to late-April on a warm, rainy night. People would gather around Coleman lanterns, stick washtubs in old tractor inner tubes so they would float, and dip until everything they had was full.

That was then and this is now. One wonders where the smelt have gone. Have they died off? Have the salmon and lake trout eaten them all? Are they running during the day? Have zebra mussels made an impact on them?

It’s questionable that they have all died off but one thing is obvious: with rare exceptions, these fish are not running into the shallows off spawning streams anymore. Oh, I’ll grant you that a few smelt are still taken at most of the old hotspots but not in any numbers.

There are smelt in many inland lakes. Crystal Lake at Beulah seems to have plenty of smelt and they often provide a winter ice fishery. Smelt are fished for and caught in Green Lake at Interlochen and Cedar Lake as well. Higgins Lake also has what seems to be a stable population.

One guess is they are spawning in mid-lake where anglers can’t dip for them or in places like the Detroit and St. Clair rivers. Others believe smelt may be spawning far offshore in the big lakes although that doesn’t seem plausible.

Have the salmon and trout eaten them all? That is doubtful. Smelt used to be available by the millions. Some people believe that alewives eat the small smelt. Certainly salmon and trout eat them, but it doesn’t explain the widespread disappearance of these tasty fish.

Honestly, although salmon and trout would eat every smelt they could find, I don’t believe that is the case.

The decline in smelt numbers began in the mid-1980s, and Ontario’s Point Pelee was a key spot. Disappearance of smelt seems to have coincided with the discovery of zebra mussels in Lake St. Clair. The smelt were all but gone by the early 1990s. and zebra mussels had spread to all the Great Lakes.

No one was dipping many smelt along the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, or the AuSable River, like they once did. The Singing Bridge smelt runs trickled down to nothing.

Which brings us to the last question. Are smelt running and spawning during the day while most dippers are programmed to dip after dark?

Smelt have always run during the day. Not in heavy numbers but when they were plentiful, some fish would run up tiny tributaries during the day. Few people knew about it, and on many occasions, me and some friends would dip during the day in order to avoid the melee found after dark.

Smelt have always been cyclic by nature, but never to this extent. Even the inland lakes where smelt are commonly caught by ice fishermen are showing some signs of a decrease in numbers. These inland lakes also are showing an upswing in zebra mussels.

Is there something more sinister at work here? Could our water quality be affected? Tiny smelt (and alewives) eat micro-organisms and plankton, and it’s very possible that with the strong and widespread invasion of our lakes by zebra mussels, these mollusks may have filtered the water to the point where baby smelt have nothing to feed on.

No one laments the absence of smelt more than me. Smelt dipping and smelt drinking always went hand in hand, and it was fun to dip some smelt. It was even more fun watching the two-legged drunken animals moving about in a stupor.

It was surprising that some of them didn’t drown. It was a period in time we may never see again. And that is something to lament.

Posted by Dave Richey on 11/28 at 05:50 PM
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