The glory days of smelting in Duluth

A crowd of about 400 smelters gathers for a small run at the mouth of the Lester River on April 25, 1986. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Up until the 1980s, one of the biggest gatherings in Duluth each year was the annual spring smelt run along the shore of Lake Superior and local rivers feeding into the lake.

Each spring, the call went out when smelt – a tiny fish – swarmed by the thousands to spawn. When the fish came, thousands of locals and visitors swarmed to scoop them up for smelt fries. In the 1970s, the Minnesota DNR even operated a “Smelt Information Headquarters” in the old Duluth Curling Club on London Road.

The smelt run took on a party atmosphere, and probably isn’t remembered very fondly by police and neighbors who had to put up with the rowdy crowds and litter. There are many articles in the News Tribune files from the 1970s covering meetings on what to do about smelting-related troubles.

There was at least one tragedy – in April 1981, two UMD freshmen at a smelting party were swept out into Lake Superior by the swift current of the Lester River, and drowned.

Whether loved or loathed, the smelt runs decreased over time, and largely died out through the 1980s and early 1990s. As the fish dwindled, so did the annual party on the banks of the Lester River.

Here’s a look back at some photos and articles about smelting from the News Tribune files:

Keith Buddish of Cloquet dumps a few smelt into a waiting bucket on the Lester River on April 23, 1986. Buddish was one of a growing number of people waiting with nets for the smelt run to begin. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)

May 9, 1983

Rite of spring in full swing

News-Tribune

Duluth is a city of five seasons – spring, summer, fall, winter and smelt – but it’s that fifth one which causes a lot of natives to shake in their hip boots.

Smelting is the art of catching a silvery Lake Superior fish about the size of a toothpaste tube – squeezed almost dry – with fine-mesh dip nets or minnow seines. The smelt begin spawning runs into shallow waters and up Lake Superior tributaries along the lake’s South Shore and work their way clockwise to Duluth-Superior and the North Shore.

Although all shoreline communities are invaded by fishermen during the smelt runs of late April or early May, Duluth receives the greatest number with its Park Point beaches and abundance of rivers feeding Lake Superior.

The city’s Lester River is a Mecca of the net-dipping mania and, at peak weekends of the run, hundreds of visitors and residents mingle to catch, to watch and to party while the smelt move upriver. The crowds there and at Park Point require additional police and police auxiliary personnel – and an extensive daily cleanup effort each morning after the night before.

But even residents of those neighborhoods see some good with the arrival of the smelt and smelters: It’s a seasonal harbinger that spring is here and summer isn’t far off. -END-

Dave Anderson of Sparta Location, near Eveleth, holds his “trophy” smelt at the Lester River on May 5, 1983. Anderson and four others in his party netted only a bucketful of fish in two days. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

May 2, 1980

Smelting: A mad, springtime ritual of the night

By Pam Miller Brochu, News-Tribune

“YEOOOOWWWW!!!”

The young smelter, resplendent in waist-high waders and a BUST OPEC T-shirt, split the night air with his cry, hoisting the long-handled net in which flipped a single, startled smelt.

Ecstatic with beer and moonlight, the smelter grabbed the little fish in his muddy hand and bit its head off.

The most frenzied of spring rites, which might provoke an anthropologist’s scrutiny elsewhere, is a regular midnight occurrence on the Lester River as hordes of smelters, their inhibitions left at home, celebrate the catch of their first smelt.

The combination of a full moon, full beer kegs and crowd psychology turns the Lester into a prime night spot – or trouble spot, depending on your point of view – each year at this time, when the doomed smelt fight their way through hundreds of rubber boots at the mouth of Lake Superior rivers.

There was plenty of action Wednesday and Thursday nights, but it was subdued compared to what’s expected tonight, as the peak weekend opens.

There’s something for everyone in Lester River night life – pockets of absolute mania on some rock outcrops, quiet family gatherings on others. Small children risk their lives crossing the narrow, fast-moving current rushing into the lake; senior citizens sit in lawn chairs and take it all in.

Duluth police officer James Wright stands patrol on the Lester River bridge during smelting on April 25, 1986. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)

Around 10 p.m. Wednesday, the smelt weren’t running heavily, but the smelters were. They poured into the area by car, cycle and foot. It was rush hour on the river, and Mike Ferrazi and Frank Ruby of the Lakehead Emergency Volunteers calmly directed crowds of pedestrians through the heavy traffic on the Lester River bridge.

“No problems so far,” shouted a cheerful Ferrazi over the hubbub. “Slow DOWN!” he yelled at some passing hotrodders. They ignored him. …

Down on the rocks, darker than usual because of the ban on fires, there were more partiers than smelters.

“This is the highlight of my year,” said one exuberant young man, sloshing his beer for emphasis. “You can really get crazy, you know? But don’t use my name. By day I’m real respectable … can’t blow my cover.” …

Rick LeBlanc of Hermantown surpassed tradition by biting the head off not just his first smelt, but about two dozen others, too, at the Lester River on May 5, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

There were many serious folks, too – those who came primarily to net smelt.

Don Uhlhorn, 27, and his wife, Mary Burmeister, 28, had come from Sandstone with three large buckets.

“I’ll spend all day tomorrow cleaning them, then divide them up in meal-size portions,” Uhlhorn said. “We give them to my folks, Mary’s folks, friends, neighbors and our cat.” …

“Smelting’s a tradition for us,” said Al Heins, who comes annually from Grand Rapids with his wife Linda and their children Jan, 17, and Lyndy, 16, to stay with Heins’ sister, Connie Merrill, 2525 E. Fourth St.

Oblivious of the icy water, Lyndy plunged into the river without waders. Jan was less enthusiastic. “It’s a heck of a long way to come for a few fish,” she said.

Elizabeth Rios of Newport, Minn., watches out for potential customers to her Marina’s Lunch Wagon during smelting at the Lester River on April 25, 1990. Rios, her husband and two daughters planned to stay as long as the season lasted. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)

From the river, a smelter let loose a string of profanities. Pained, one mother covered her small daughter’s ears. The partiers and the families keep their distance from each other, and around midnight, the partiers take over.

But smelting, like television networks, has its family hour – before the sun goes down and before the smelt get thick. In the warm glow of Wednesday and Thursday evenings, the beach was crowded with children skipping stones and learning how to swish the nets.

Rick and Gayle Frenzen, 1017 N. Seventh Ave. E, were on their first-ever outing with Shawn, 2, and Ricky, 4, Wednesday.

“It’s a big thrill for the kids to get out here,” Gayle Frenzen said.

Ricky Jr. cast a line in the fashion of a four-year-old, almost hooking his father, who readied the smelting nets and buckets.

“I’m gonna catch a smelt,” he said solemnly. “A smelt four feet long.”

Hours later, around 3 a.m., the crowd thinned out, but the hardcore smelters left were pulling in nets heavy with fish – just as if the smelt had waited for the darkest, quietest hour to make their final run, unhampered by nets – and human teeth.

Bags of bottles, cups and cans give visitors Lucille and Ed Sobania of Little Falls, Minn., a good idea of what happened the night before on the Lester River on May 5, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)

Share your smelting memories by posting a comment. If you have photos to share, e-mail them to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.

15 thoughts on “The glory days of smelting in Duluth

  1. Yum! Smelt. In the early 70′s I could catch enough in one night (in upper Michigan) to put away lots of one pound packages in the freezer by noon the next day. It was an 18 hour push to catch and process the fish to insure it being the primary source of protein for my family of four for the year!

  2. What memories! Growing up in Lakeside during the 60s and 70s, Lester River was a Springtime tradition. Me and my pals would be down there every night during the run – risking our lives by crossing the endless stream of traffic on London Road to get to the mouth of the River. What a carnival it was. And frigging cold – every year it was absolutely freezing. But what fun!!!

  3. This brings back some good memories. Brining home pails full of smelt and watching my mother and grandmother standing over the sink cleaning our catch!
    Went down on the creek behind the curling club one evening around 2 a.m. and the smelt ran so thick you could catch them with your hands!
    Of course we had to go to Joe Huie’s cafe on the way home for a chinese meal or breakfast!
    Minimum charge was 10cents or 25 cents if you sat in a booth and didn’t order food!
    I remember they had a smelter’s hotline that announced when the “run” was on.
    People came from all over to party and maybe catch some smelt.
    Too bad this just doesn’t happen anymore!

  4. I did my smelting on the Wisconsin side. When I was quite small, my dad would take us to my mother’s cousin’s house which was at about 46th and Itasca St. — on the creek that was the dividing line between Allouez and Itasca — on the Itasca side. We could walk to the creek with dip nets and get all we needed.

    As I got into my teens we would head out to “Moccasin Mike’s” and seine either the bay or the lake, depending on where the smelts were.

    And yes, it was tradition, at least among my friends and family, to bite the head off the first smelts we caught.

    Sometimes it was just crazy. I can still remember a group from somewhere in the Dakotas. They removed the back seats from their Hudsons and DeSotos so they could fill them with smelts.

    Smelts are absolutely wonderful when fried up fresh. They sure lose their flavor after they’ve been frozen a bit.

    For anyone who hasn’t done it, they are great. Size doesn’t matter. My mother taught us to clean them with scissors. Cut the head off. Cut the belly from there to the “vent.” Scrape out whatever is left with the scissors. It took about 30 seconds per fish.

    Rinse them. Dip them in flour. Dip them in beer batter. Fry till golden brown. The bones almost dissolve. If not, just zip them out. The scales are like trout scales, and just don’t cause a problem. Ummmm! Nothing else tastes like a fresh fried smelt.

    Gimme a Fitgers or a Northern! I’m ready.

    I’d say it is unfortunate that we don’t have many smelts anymore. They were one of the first invasive species we had. Then we got the lamprey. The lamprey were not quite as welcome, nor as delicious. The zebra muscles, and all the others that have come in since the salties started arriving (except for Mr. McGoo) , have kind of dampened my love of exotics.

    Crazy Arvo

  5. In the 50s and 60s, my dad was among those guys lined up with nets and tall metal garbage pails. To this day I can still remember how to clean a smelt, though I haven’t seen one in ages. The guys at dad’s lumber yard would roll them in a flour and beer batter and then deep fry them. Delicious!

  6. This is something I’ve always wanted to do…in fact, it’s on my Bucket List. Are there no smelt running anymore or is it just a lost tradition? I really had hoped to this sometime in my life.

  7. It was a yearly tradition for us – we drove down from the Range. It was a great time, a party atmosphere, but it was a fun party, never one where anyone was hurt or hurt someone else. I still remember my cousin Kaye from Grand Marais living up to the dares and biting the head off of her first smelt. Lots of good memories from smelting time!

  8. In the late 70′s or early 80′s I had the best smelt I have ever eaten…at the big old tent by Lester River. I forget the organization, was it DAHA or the scouts, but it was cold (terribly under-served by the minature wood stove in the middle of the tent), rugged (beat-up wood tables and benches) and the cold wind blew in unmercifully under the tent wall bottoms and yet the atmosphere added immensely to the appeal and taste of the smelt. Besides you were helping a worthy organization. Sure miss those wonderful smelt days!!!!

  9. I remember being on ambulance standby at the Lester River in the early 70′s. On nights off I’d go smelting. One thing I’ll always remember is trying to walk without stepping on those fish. They were so plentiful that you couldn’t find the bottom of the river at times. You’d be there for a couple of hours and have garbage pails full.

  10. Oh and who can forget the UWS Smelt Fry each year at Dutchmans out by Wisconsin Point. The mother of all Northland parties. Our area hasn’t seen anything like it since.

  11. Yes, Thank you for the DNT Attic and the great times to be recalled from before leaving Duluth in 1969. We left Morgan Park jammed with enough juvenile delinquients to stage our own “Dead End Kids” revival, in my 1959 Ford, fully loaded for smelting with buckets, dip net, seigne net and stopped at the Milk House in Gary to Gas up and hopefully obtain enough Grain Belt to drown the Duluth 1366 Longshoremans Union. Stopping at Needham’s for smokes and Nick N. or maybe it was Bobby C. and then down to the landing where we quickly organized the search for enough fuel from the old paint factory for the Bonfire to light the night until the SMELT showed up. Oh man I wish remembering was easier but having consumed massive quantities of “Properly sterilized–Does not cause biliousness” Golden’s, time and too much liquid grain, protects now the guilty. The SMELT were pretty much secure in their watery home as we couldn’t have caught enough for even one smeltwich due to our harmless fun and “Handsome Harley Race/ Pretty Boy Larry Hennings” impersonations. Lets see, Jerry P. and Deany V. and Steve D. as well as Dan C. and Nibs, maybe Johnny L., Jimmy G, Larry S. and Tommy H and Ron S. from Fond Du Lac and I think even Ty, might have dropped by. Got our first SMELT sometime late while seigneing along the bank just up from where now is that dock and bit the head off in order to insure at least one unforgettable St. Louis River Smelt Run memory. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

  12. From a young teens perspective….it was the best of times….it was the worst of times. We would all jump in someone’s car and pile out to completely different weather than in the western end of the city. Cold wind off the lake and of course we were never dressed for it. So we shivered and shook if we walked away from a fire pit. The guys of course were oblivious to the cold in their party hearty goal to con a beer off of someone. And although we weren’t Supposed to be At The River….Mom always knew from our clothes smelling like smoke. Grounded Again. Oh to be thirteen, fourteen again with an older brother who didn’t mind his younger sister tagging along.

  13. It was a festival back in the 50′s and 60′s. Every river had smelters. Fond du lac was full, but the fish tasted bad because of the steel plant.

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