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. 

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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”

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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”

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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”

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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”

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Expedition Food: Forager’s Fish Soup

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My wife and I had a great trip to the BWCA last week. My main goal was to catch and eat fish, and the first one (my wife’s first lake trout) fit the bill perfectly. I had tentatively planned stops at other lakes to fish for brook trout and splake, but the weather forced us to make choices that prevented it. Total time spent fishing was not what I’d hoped, but that’s why we don’t count our successes until afterwards. Persisting through the rain was a triumph in its own right, and fish soup was our reward. Therefore, I considered our time on Crystal Lake a resounding success with a lunch of lake trout soup and supper of fried walleye. Continue reading “Expedition Food: Forager’s Fish Soup”

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BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake

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End of May, 2018

For my fortieth birthday, I told my wife I’d like to take the river fishing float trip I’d been thinking about for over 5 years. As spring approached, I started to think critically about this plan, and realized that bad weather could turn a good river trip really bad in a hurry. On a river, we’d have a starting point, a destination, and a finite time to reach that destination. Rain- especially of the relentless kind- would not only make that time miserable, but potentially dangerous. Shifting the trip to the Boundary Waters would not only give us flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but also a chance to get into the lake trout that had successfully eluded me over the winter. Game on.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point #64, destination: Crystal Lake”

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Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)

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There is a pathetic time of year that comes after the ice melts and before spring really gets going. Fishing is slow, and turkey hunting hasn’t yet started. It seems every year during this time I find myself itching to get outside and just do something, if only because the weather can be so seductive. This year, I came across a couple mentions of spring sucker fishing that really piqued my interest, especially when I read that suckers are supposed to be tasty when smoked. I thought about when and where I might be able to try this, but didn’t come up with much; I spent a couple hours probing a creek by my house with no results. Then it dawned on me that I’d have the opportunity to try some cold northern rivers on my way to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance (another story, another time). Perfect. Once I’d identified my chance, I couldn’t not try my hand at sucker fishing.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)”

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Minnesota Fishing 2018: Know the rules

Yesterday I was talking to someone I hadn’t seen in several months, and he told me of an encounter he had with a conservation officer. To make the story short, he ended up receiving a fine due to not following some of the rules. He has been a resident of Minnesota for a relatively short time, and wasn’t aware of all the ins and outs of our fishing regulations. I told him some of the things I knew off the top of my head, but knew I couldn’t tell him everything in our short time together. It was a good reminder to me that I hadn’t looked much at the fishing rules since the 2018-19 regulations took effect.  New regulations are added or changed every year, and over time, lots of things can change. Limits have generally lowered over the decades, and the number of lakes with special regulations has grown- a lot. Continue reading “Minnesota Fishing 2018: Know the rules”

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Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees

Mille Lacs ice walleye, tullibee

As I coasted down the hill into Garrison, the eastern sky glowed with the clean blue light of impending sunrise.  A few minutes later, a lone cloud streak in the East lit up like a hot poker.  I always enjoy a good sunrise and this one made me feel I was in the right place at the right time.  After waiting out what seemed like weeks of below-zero punishment, I was looking forward to spending the entire day on Lake Mille Lacs, in the sun and near-thawing temps.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Ice Fishing for Mille Lacs Tullibees”

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