Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River. 

The steelhead fishermen were finishing up as I arrived; as my car passed over the bridge, several of them could be seen standing in or near the river. My heart skipped, as I thought they could be smelters getting set up. Each left in turn and pretty soon I was the only one with a smelt net within miles. Perhaps this should have been a sign. This did not deter me, however, because I knew full well the smelt run was in its infant stage and at best I was in the vanguard of the netting assault (at worst I’d get as many smelt as if I’d stayed home). After almost an hour and a half of struggling to maintain resolute footing in the butterscotch-colored deluge, my total catch was a white sucker, some kind of stickleback, and what appeared to be a small shiner- all under three inches in length. It was time to move on. 

I hoped to to find a waterway between there and Duluth to check for the transient horde. Some are closed to smelting, and all the rest seemed a bit short on water flow to be a plausible alternative to the Lester River, a known popular smelting spot. So a little before 10:30 I rolled up to the Lester and began unpacking my gear again. Two men from St. Paul were throwing their things in their trunk; they said they’d caught nothing. Another guy willingly showed me his two smelt, about 8 and 9 inches long. They looked good-sized to me, and he agreed, explaining how it is typical to catch the smaller smelt (more like 3 inches) at the beginning of the run. He said he was happy to have caught one for himself and one for his wife, and I said I’d be happy to do even that well. 

There were at that time about seven or eight other people in or near the river when I ambled down and waited for my eyes to readjust to the dark. The current was swift, but the depth was much more manageable than up at the Knife. The noise made by the water as it licked and tumbled over the rocks seemed near-deafening at first. I began to sweep my net downstream, clacking the hoop over the rocky bottom. As I did, I kept a keen eye on other netters, both to see whether they picked any fish from their nets and to examine their technique. It seemed my own technique was sound, so I sustained my tedious routine while slowly plodding around in the river delta: plunge, sweep, lift, repeat. 

The night was completely clear and the stars shone brilliantly. The inky sky transitioned seamlessly into the great ungraspable lake. It was irresistibly unique and beautiful…almost. If I had been doing just about anything else, I would have loved to marvel at the sky while at my work. I reluctantly put it out of my mind because I could not afford to lose my balance in the least; a great many have perished by getting swept out into the lake. Equilibrium was difficult enough to maintain with the water pushing on my legs in fits and starts, so I kept my visual focus on things more or less at eye level. 

Nobody seemed to be catching much, if anything. A couple times somebody would reach into his net, but it was usually to take out a rock or some unidentifiable detritus. After a while, most of them had retreated to the bank to rest or leave entirely. I eventually did the same, and a spectator from West St. Paul chatted me up. I got an earful about the glory days of smelting. We decided to cross over the bridge and see what it was like on the north side of the river. 

The other side was completely different due to the contour of the bank and the trajectory of the river’s flow. There was a much more gradual entry, with a large area of slower-flowing water between the bank and the rocky rapids. Having rested, I attacked that new territory with a renewed enthusiasm. I could, however, feel a soreness creeping into the muscles of every part of my torso. 

Minnesota smeltAs I lifted my net on what felt like the eleven-thousandth repetition, a silvery torpedo of a fish flapped wildly in the bottom of the metal mesh. It was 12:25. I sloshed my way to the bank to toss my prize- a smelt of 6 and a half inches- into what then seemed to be a ridiculously oversized bucket. As I turned to wade back into the all-encompassing darkness, I found myself stumbling childishly over the rocks. It then dawned on me that I felt only a sliver of triumph in the wake of my catch. Fatigue and the late hour had begun to overtake me; there wasn’t much time left. 

It was only about 15 minutes more until another, slightly shorter smelt graced the bottom of my net. It too found its final resting place in the white plastic tomb. I made a few more mechanical sweeps with my net, but knew it was over for me. I stuck it out until 1:00 and headed back over the bridge. 

Fried Smelt

Smelt have a reputation for being great table fare, especially when eaten fresh. This should come as no surprise, considering the intense fan base that exists for these invasive little buggers. It seems frying one’s smelt is almost obligatory, so that’s what happened to mine. The next night, I whipped up a basic beer batter, dipped them, and tossed them into a generous portion of hot oil. I can now attest that their flavor is mild and pleasant. Simply beheaded and gutted, they fried quickly and their fins were nearly indiscernible from the breading. I can also now see why smelt fry events are so popular and how a person can tear through a great number of them in one sitting.

Cost of This Activity:

$10-65 for Dip Net

Equipment required for smelt netting is minimal, especially considering most people interested in trying this probably already have waders of some kind and something to haul fish in. There is no special license required in Minnesota beyond a basic fishing license, but a person should find and understand the rules regarding smelt harvesting. Besides dip netting, smelt can also be harvested using a seine; a different net and location are required, as well as a netting partner. Seines and dip nets can be obtained from Duluth Nets anytime, but they also pop up elsewhere, like at garage and estate sales. 

With the exception of the late-hour nature of smelting, this activity is great for sharing with the whole family. Little equipment or physical effort are required, and a person wouldn’t even need to be in the water in some places to dip a net. What’s more, the atmosphere is inherently relaxed and social, especially with food and a campfire. Combining friends, family, food, and fire on a beautiful spring night will ensure a good time no matter the final fish tally, and prove once more it’s never a goose chase. 

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

Do Something New: Build a Quinzee

Read More quinzee, quinzhee, snow shelter

When I came across the word “quinzee” repeatedly within a short span of time this winter, it got my attention. I first had to do an internet search to determine exactly what it was, but knew right away I not only wanted to learn how to build a quinzee, I also needed to try sleeping in it. This seemed fun, but carried out in my own yard at home, it was an easy way to try something I might like to use in lieu of a tent on a future wilderness trip. 
Continue reading “Do Something New: Build a Quinzee”

What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes

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Believe me, I’ve been there too. You find yourself in the presence of an abundance of some kind of foraged treasure- perhaps for the first time– and you collect more than you know what to do with. Most of the time these things can be preserved, and we can decide to do with it all later. For some reason I always seem to envision this taking place on a January day that’s so nasty I can’t even go ice fishing. 

Anyway, the time to decide what to do with all those chokecherries has come. If you’re like me, you’ve made a couple batches of pancake syrup and/or jelly, but there are still several bags of berries waiting down in the basement freezer. The good news is, chokecherry syrup and jelly are unique and tireless, at least in our house (I believe every forager owes it to themselves to at least try the pancake syrup). The better news is, you don’t have to restrict yourself to syrup and jelly; if you use your imagination a bit and have the patience to endure a little trial and error, there are lots of uses for your purple tree caviar.  Continue reading “What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019

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Easy victories, camaraderie in the outdoors, a warm place to lay my head at night. These are all things I like as much as the next guy. When I pried myself out of bed last Thursday morning, however, I knew none of these things awaited me on Lake Mille Lacs. The lack of all three things, however, pointed toward a high probability of good fishing, which was more than I could resist. 

The latest buzz hinted that the west side of the main lake was just becoming accessible, and some folks had gotten out to the mud flats on ATVs and snowmobiles and found great fishing. The ice wasn’t reliably thick yet, it was said to be wet around cracks, and roads and bridges had not yet been extended past the bays. I don’t have a snowmobile or ATV, and I have no interest in being that guy who ends up needing a towing hookup at the bottom of the lake. My plan, if you could call it that, was to drive to the lake and see if it looked reasonable to walk out to the nearest mud flat. If it seemed foolhardy, I knew there was some fishing activity happening near some resorts, which I could fall back on. What I found when I arrived exceeded expectations; there was a well-worn road coming off the public access already, which immediately split off in three directions. I quickly packed up and started hightailing it for my destination, some 2 miles distant.  Continue reading “Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga

Read More Drying chaga

If there was a beauty contest for fungus, I know one that would probably come in last: chaga. Resembling a black scaly scab on the wound of a birch tree, there is really nothing attractive about it. But for every point it loses for its ugliness, it makes up for in medicinal qualities. Well, that’s the reputation it has, anyway. It has quite a following among select foragers. However, that could possibly be chalked up to a lack of other things available to gather through the cold months. 

Inonotus obliquus

Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Chaga”

Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage

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“It’s a work truck. You’re a smaht guy.” Those were the last words spoken to me by salesman Sean, through the truck window, as I drove my F-150 Heritage off the lot in April of 2004. After I rolled the window up, my wife and I looked at each other and wondered aloud what that was supposed to mean. It seemed nonsensical. We laughed and shrugged it off, but never forgot that moment. I’m not sure what made those words so immortal, whether it be their cryptic nature or because it was fun to say “smaht” in our best manufactured Massachusetts accents. Either way, they stuck with us. After fourteen and a half years, however, Sean’s absurd adieu now seems strangely prophetic.  Continue reading “Product Review: 2004 Ford F-150 Heritage”


Read More Minnesota deer hunting

The Deer Hunt

It was the third day of deer season. My dad, my brother, and I were done hunting and were standing around by the new blind I’d been sitting in. I glanced westward and noticed somebody in blaze orange walking straight toward us across a neighboring soybean field. Having no idea who it was and what they might want, we went to meet him at the property line. When we got close enough to each other, I could see he was wearing a badge that identified him as a state conservation officer. He introduced himself as Jeremy, we shook hands, and I invited him across the fence so we could talk properly. He asked us about the hunt and checked our licenses.  Continue reading “Compliance”

Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting

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As many times as I’ve suffered from bitingly cold hands and fingers, there is only one time in my entire life that could possibly eclipse the way my fingers felt recently. When I was pretty young, my dad took my brother and me out in the boat to do some last-minute fishing before heading home from the cabin. All I remember was learning how to set the hook, the big juicy bluegills we boated, and my hands being so cold that I probably cried. Late last month, as I gripped my canoe paddle without actually feeling it, my old record for cold hands seemed almost certainly broken. Unlike that memorable day from my childhood, however, I definitely did not shed any tears. This was the last morning of my inaugural whitefish netting trip to northern Minnesota. The air that day was stuck in the low 30s, pushed around by a light wind, and punctuated by intermittent drizzle. The previous four days, unfortunately, were pretty much the same.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting”

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries

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The fourth Thursday of November is still more than a month away, but now is the right time to go out and find that Thanksgiving staple: the cranberry. Didn’t know cranberries are growing wild in Minnesota? You’re definitely not alone. Yes, wild cranberries are fairly widespread in our great state, and with a little patience, a person can harvest enough to get a good taste.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Cranberries”

Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting

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It all started on an October morning, almost a year ago: I was cruising up highway 65 with my dog Johann for an overnight grouse hunting outing in the McGregor/McGrath area. I’d had too much coffee and, well, had to go. How bad? Well, I knew I wouldn’t make it to my destination, only about 5 miles distant. So I stopped at the first opportunity, a small area to pull off the highway next to a drainage ditch. As I hurried down the berm next to the ditch, a pair of wood ducks made my heart stop when they flushed from under the bank next to me. This of course hastened the inevitable; luckily, I didn’t end up needing a change of clothes. But the combination of surprise, discovery, and frantic zipper work cemented that moment in my memory and sparked an idea.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting”

NAGC News: DNR Photo Award & More

Never A Goose Chase News Flash

Minnesota DNR’s Public Lands Photo Contest Minnesota State Fair

NAGC’s own Roy Heilman was recognized as one of three winners of the Minnesota DNR’s 2018 Public Lands Photo Contest. There were reportedly over 200 entries, which were collected through Twitter and Instagram. Roy’s winning photograph, submitted via Twitter, was taken in August of 2017 at Blue Mounds State Park, and features his two children pulling carts toward the tipis in preparation for a night of camping. Continue reading “NAGC News: DNR Photo Award & More”