On Schmelting - a longform journalism piece I wrote about the Chicago subculture of smelt fishing, exclusive for Steemit

in #writing3 years ago

On Schmelting: The Culture of a Chicago Spring Tradition

Smelt fishing in Chicago is a tradition that goes back generations. Today the fish are almost all gone, but people still throw their nets in the water every April. Here's why.


image credit: Andrea Pokrzywinski (Flickr: Kuskokwim Smelt) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Early April


The fire in the small metal container flickers as the wind blows over it, the blue tarp strung up behind us doing little to halt it. The last traces of blue are gone from the evening sky, and in front of us the skyline rises up and is reflected in the black lake. In the dark, the cold gets into your bones more quickly.

Around the fire with me are Donnie Blunk and Gary Teeter. So far, their smelt nets have been coming up empty. Earlier, they fared much better with their reels. Gary pulls up a line from the lake with three big brown trout strung on it. He takes one off and holds it up admiringly in the dim light. It’s six or seven pounds, and about sixteen inches long. “Do it, go on.” Donny says to Gary.

Gary puckers his lips up to the slimy fish and plants a kiss right on the gills. “You should put lipstick on it there, it’s kinda cute” Donny tells him, laughing. It’s a short distraction from the smelt, or lack thereof, but they’re both happy that they’d caught something that day.

It is for the smelt, or lack thereof, that I huddle around the fire with them, in the cold and the wind. We sit on a short pier that juts out from the inland side of the mouth of Montrose Harbor. The two smelt nets they have set up are fifteen feet apart. Donny’s is closer in to shore, just thirty feet out.

Gary restrings his trout and drops them back the lake. Donny pulls up his net to check for smelt and the mesh emerges dripping wet, and in the glow of the propane light it is plain to see that the net is empty. Like cheap bleacher seats at a Cubs game, smelting seems to be becoming a thing of the past for Chicago. Schmelting, as it is known to die-hards, is a Chicago tradition ingrained in the minds of its followers, and in the lore of the lakefront. But, as less of the small fish come up in the nets each year, fewer people come out to brave the April nights.

“We’re a dying breed.” Is how one fisherman put it. And sure enough, on that cold night in early April, the small propane light at Donny and Gary’s camp is the only light along the entire harbor. Gary pulls in his net and there are two fish in it. He hauls the net up onto the pier. Neither fish is a smelt. He caught a rock bass the size of my middle and index fingers together, and a golden roach, maybe a half inch bigger. Donny’s net is empty again.

Smelting season runs through the month of April only. Illinois guidelines specify that nets may not go into the water before 7 pm and must be out by 1 am. The Chicago Park District changes their usual 11 pm closing time for parks, to 1 am for April only, to accommodate smelters.

It is generally during April that the smelt “run”—come in near the shore to spawn. They come in at night, some say not until after midnight although this seems a convenient excuse since that’s the time to start packing up to leave the park in time. Wisconsin doesn’t impose the 1 am time limit, but the smelters aren’t hauling them in by the pound there either.

In the past, fishermen during these smelt runs could haul in nets full of the fish every ten to fifteen minutes. Then, about fifteen years ago, it stopped. People still caught the fish, but in nowhere near the numbers they used to catch them in.
“Fifteen, twenty years ago,” Gary tells me, “We had no problem filling a five gallon bucket in a night, now you’re happy if you fill a baggy.” Nobody is exactly sure where all the smelt have gone.

The theory that Donny and Gary believe, has to do with zebra mussels, the invasive barnacle that arrived in the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ocean liners and has thrived since. The zebra mussels clean the lake, so much that visibility is now at its highest documented level. This high visibility allows the smelt’s predators to see them better, and thus hunt them better.

Gary throws more wood on the fire, Donny gets three more cans of beer from the case, and I get up to check Donny’s net. I pull it up slowly from the water, and there, dead center in the net is a silvery fish. This one is slightly longer and thinner than the other two we caught. As the rest of the net emerges from the water, I see another fish trapped in the mesh. Donny gets up to see, and takes the two from the net. “This, is a smelt” he tells me, barely able to contain his excitement over the sardine-sized fish. He sets it down on the concrete pier. “This one’s just a chub.” He says, his excitement only slightly tempered, “you know the difference between a chub and a smelt?” he asks me. I shrug.

Donny lays the two fish down side by side on the pier. They look a lot alike. Both are about the same shape and size. They are slender, and no longer than from my wrist to my fingertips, with one being slightly taller, top to bottom as the fish swims. They both have the same rainbow hue, like mother of pearl, or soap bubbles. “This one’s the chub,” Donny tells me, “Feel it, see how it’s smooth and slimy like that?” Taking off my gloves on a cold night to feel a wet fish isn’t what I most want to do, but I relent. Sure enough, the chub is smooth and slippery, like the flat top of a bowl of Jell-o. The smelt is scalier, and textured like snakeskin but slick like it’s been oiled.

“The chub is a bottom feeder,” Donny tells me. It doesn’t look like the type of suckerfish you see in an aquarium though. It’s mouth looks nearly identical to the smelt’s. “Go on stick your finger into it’s mouth,” Donny says. It’s not an appealing invitation. Gary pinches what I guess are the fish’s cheeks, forcing its mouth open. I put the tip of my pinky in, but I don’t feel much. Its mouth is soft and slippery around my finger. “Try the smelt” Gary says. Now he pinches its mouth open and inside I can see rows of small teeth coming in from all directions. They are thin and white, and look like the tips of toothbrush bristles. I put the end of my pinky in, not sure what to expect. It crosses my mind that the teeth could be sharp, but what they feel like is rather like the hooks of Velcro, but not quite so stiff.

Smelt are a member of the Osmeridae family, named for the Greek Osme, or bad smelling. Whatever their smell, they certainly taste good. They are best breaded and deep-fried. They have no fishy taste; they’re more like chips than anything. Their tiny bones become soft once cooked, and the smelt are eaten whole. They are easily cleaned if that is desired. An incision along the underside and the guts are easily scooped out with a finger. Some people fry them whole, but the head is easily removed with a knife, or by one of the traditional practices of the smelting culture—biting off the head.

Donny offers me the head of the one smelt he had caught that night, but I respectfully decline. He offers to demonstrate the procedure, ("really, I don’t mind") but that I also decline.

Lake Michigan's disappearing smelt

Rainbow smelt are a saltwater fish, native to the cool waters of the North Atlantic. Similar to their relative, salmon, smelt swim up fresh water streams and rivers to spawn. Smelt are easily adapted to fresh water. Fish have an uncanny ability to portage themselves over land, and into other bodies of water. They can do this in many ways, often hitchhiking on the talons of birds of prey, or at least shipping their eggs on this airmail express. Smelt have lived for centuries in landlocked lakes of the Northeastern United States, where they are an important food source for larger predator fish.

In 1912, in an effort to boost salmon populations, 16,400,000 eggs were brought into Crystal Lake, Michigan (Smelt roe is bright orange, and often used to garnish sushi). From there, it was a short hop to Lake Michigan and a swim into all the Great Lakes. People quickly developed a taste for the succulent fish that came up in such plentitude in their nets
Smelt eat insects, insect larvae and various invertebrates. They will also dine on other small fish including sculpins and whitefish, as well as other smelt! They are preyed on by salmon, burbot, trout, walleye, perch, and of course, smelt.
The cannibalistic fish whose mouth I violated was the eighth smelt Donny has caught in the first eight nights of the season. The two men are not discouraged by the shortage of the fish. “If they come, we’re going to greet them.” Donny says, “If they’re not here tonight, we’ll be here tomorrow.” Gary has caught only two smelt so far.

I begin to wonder if they have given up hope on catching smelt in large numbers again. Maybe they are content with their skyline view, and late nights warming themselves around a fire. Maybe they’re happy as long as they have their beer, their cigarettes and the company of friends. Donny takes three weeks vacation each April from his job as a building painter at North Park University to dedicate to smelting.

“Some people say there’s no more smelt,” Gary tells me, “There’s smelt, you just gotta know how to catch them.” Despite the large declines in spawning smelt in the past 15 years, the previous seasons haven’t all been unproductive. “Three years ago,” Donny tells me, “The smelt were really running. Three years ago, we were killin’ ‘em.”

The United States Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) performs a yearly check-up on the Lake. They do this by trawling the Lake at various depths in seven representative locations, then emptying their nets and sorting by species, weight and length. The results are ordered accordingly, and reported as numeric—fish per hectare, and biomass density—kilograms per hectare. Biomass may sound slimy and fun, but really it’s just the total weight of the living things that come out of the net (Ok, it probably is pretty slimy).

The GLSC reports these figures every year in the not so interesting report, Status and Trends of Prey Fish Populations in Lake Michigan. The word-density of this report shows a healthy vocabulary of the scientists who wrote it, unfortunately this makes it quite boring. Luckily, there are charts and graphs that clearly show an overall decline in smelt populations since 1992.

Charles P. Madenjian, one of the report’s authors gives various possible explanations. These include “numerous holes on the food web in the Great Lakes; predation by chinook [salmon] and lake trout; low lake levels; the sudden increase in water clarity over the last decade; and short term weather changes with recent milder winters.” He adds, “Or some combination of reasons.” Nobody really knows though.

Late April

It’s already dark when I arrive at the party. I can hear everybody from far away, and I can see the fires flickering in the garbage cans. A van parked on the street nearby has a neon pink posterboard sign in the back that says ‘Smelts 4 Life’. Smoke pours out from four different grills, and a full buffet is spread out across a table underneath a tent. An American flag and a POW MIA flag fly over the party.

There are coolers of cold beer around everywhere and I’m told by a few different people to help myself. Garry Novak, the grill master and one of the party’s organizers welcomes me with a bear hug. We stand near the water’s edge on the harbor wall, surrounded by the grills and the smoldering garbage cans. Garry is a truck driver for a North Side retail store, and a passionate Harley Davidson enthusiast. It’s easy to see that he’s pretty into the party too. He likes the cooking, but as he put it to me, “It’s about good times, and good people.”

“Get yourself some food man,” he tells me, “we’ve got plenty here.” What does he mean by plenty? He means 180 burgers, twenty-four steaks, forty pounds of chicken, fifteen pounds of beef short ribs, fifteen pounds of deep fried cod and two massive roasts on a spit, each one weighing 12 pounds.

The number of smelt nets at the party—a grand total of zero. “They didn’t bring one out this year,” Garry tells me. The garbage cans have fish designs carved into their sides. One says ‘Smelts R Us’. People have signs in their car windows. I was invited to a smelting party, and it turns out that there’s no net? “Back in the old days,” Garry tells me, “the guys here were heavy into smelting. Now we don’t catch them anymore. You know why we do this at the end of the month? Best chance of good weather. We don’t care about the smelt.”

That may not be the consensus around the harbor, although the smelt certainly do not make or break the party. I asked two men finishing their last drinks on the tailgate of their truck, how the smelting was. “Beer was cold, food was good” was the reply. But still, there was a longing beneath their festive tone. “I wish it could be like it used to be” the younger man confessed.

Away from the grills and the food tent, in a grassy area set back from the water, Roman Hewak slouches in a foldable camp chair. He has already eaten, and now he slowly nurses a can of beer and puffs on a cigarette. Roman was the man in charge of bringing the net, but he didn’t even bother getting his state fishing license this year. “It’s not even worth it,” he says, “schlepping the whole rig out here and not catching anything. Besides, there’s still a party isn’t there?”

Roman’s brother Wally is there too, leaning back in his own chair. Their father used to take them smelting when they were young. When we got bored,” Roman tells me, “or if it got too hot at home, we’d take the Milwaukee bus right down to Navy Pier and there’d be people everywhere catching the smelt.” I ask them if they bite the heads off. “That’s stupid” Roman says, “why would you bite the head off?” Wally adds, “That’s like Ozzy Osbourne, or, who was it? Alice Cooper.”

Just up the way from the party, I ask another group along the harbor how they’re making out. “We’ve caught jack-crap,” one man tells me, “There’s no more smelt out there.” I ask why he’s still at it, what’s in it for him. “It’s tradition,” he says, his voice trailing slightly, “maybe they’ll come back. We’re hoping, and wishing.”

The last group along the harbor that night are faring the best of all. They’ve hauled in twelve total smelt. And what are they doing with them? They’re initiating their newcomer friends to the rite of passage that is biting off the head. Empty beer cans are scattered around everywhere. Hip hop blasts from a black SUV parked next to them. The moment that I’d been waiting for, and dreading, had come. They offered a smelt to me.

The small fish stared up at me from my grasp. I decided to go straight in with my front teeth, to slice it off clean instead of getting it all stuck in my molars. That was the idea, but it didn’t sever off clean. What felt like a small chicken bone stuck in right between my top front teeth. I quickly spit the head into the black water, and then spit again, and again. I gagged a little bit. I washed some Busch Light beer around my mouth and spit that out too, but I could still taste it. I worked the bone free from my teeth, and rinsed out with some more Busch, but the sensation stayed. I can’t even recall it tasting bad, just strange. My reaction was probably more psychological than anything, but I’m going to stay in the Roman Hewak camp on this one from now on, (“That’s stupid, why would you bite the head off?”)

On my way out of the harbor, at the end of that night, I meet a family of four, with their two sons, packing away their net for the night. It’s their second time out this season and they’ve brought in two smelt tonight. The boys tell me they like smelting, even if they don’t catch much. The older of the two boys looks to be about twelve. His dad points to the him and tells me that he bit the head off of one fish. The boy looks very proud of himself, and his younger brother looks at him admiringly. In their father’s eyes, a glimmer of pride shines through. If for nothing more than the tradition and the parties, Chicago's smelting season seems to have a future, with or without the fish.

I wrote this about ten years ago, but never tried to get it published. The Smelting tradition continues, but the smelt still haven't come back.

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