ASHLAND — You know when smelting season has arrived when the shores of Chequamegon Bay are lit up by campfires at night.
Vehicles stack up in the adjacent parking lots to the beaches and lake access, along with their campers. Why are people sleeping in their campers during the day this time of year on Lake Superior? As the headlamps light the shores, there can be only one reason. Many people from miles away come to just experience this once-a-year event and you would have to experience it to just be amazed at what some people do to run with the smelt. Fishing at night trying to catch this fish has been a tradition in the Northland for centuries.
If you ice fished during the night you would know that smelt start piling in once the sun goes down. These fish are so aggressive and would likely bite on anything you put in the hole.
As the ice starts to melt away for the spring season, the smelt start running by the tons in the bay. The locals start to see a flux of smelters hit the shores for their chance to catch up to the run. Nets are used during the night to catch the fish. Smelt comes in all sizes and don’t be shocked to see how big some get. Have you eaten smelt before pan-fried with butter? You won’t be disappointed.
Smelt run for a short period of time then head back to the depths of Lake Superior, where they swim the rest of the year. A lot of people use smelt for different reasons. Some enjoy a good old-fashioned smelt fry with family and friends at home or at a restaurant. Smelt also can be used as bait to catch other fish such as lake trout. Catch the smelt and freeze them for when the time comes to get underway to fish the depths during the summer and fall seasons, or use them during the winter while ice fishing. You will find that ice anglers fish the bay during the day to catch smelt and once they have several, they will pack up then transit outside the bay within the Apostle Islands to fish for lake trout.
As the smelters pull their smelt seines at the shore in hopes to fill the buckets, you also have the dippers who use big dip nets to pull up their catch. As the buckets start to fill in the mist of midnight towards the early morning, you can hear the smelters chatter start to increase as the run picks up. This event brings people from all walks of life and from near and far. People help each other on the shores and share their stories around campfires while pulling nets. Some nights are busy, and some nights are slow but that’s fishing. Good Luck and Underway!
Estain holds his master captain’s license and operates an Ashland-based charter service that takes passengers on fishing trips, cave tours and lighthouse views. He can be reached at AshlandBoatTours.com.