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Paul A. Smith: Smelt fishing enjoys revival on Lake Michigan [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

MILWAUKEE - It's a Saturday night in early April in Milwaukee, with mild temperatures and a light south wind.

As Lake Michigan laps gently against the sea wall on Jones Island, jetliners pass overhead on approach to Mitchell International Airport.

And down below, a crowd of people clusters around lights under the Hoan Bridge.

The beacons mark a temporary, seasonal encampment that is a living link to a generations-old Wisconsin outdoors tradition: smelt fishing.

"This is the best time of the year," said Gary Kolanowski, 47, of Milwaukee. "Spring is in the air and the smelt are running."

Kolanowski is among 120 people who gathered April 8 on a publicly accessible stretch of Jones Island to partake in a spring ritual that is enjoying a slight revival.

Catches of the small, silvery fish have increased in Milwaukee waters over the last two years. Some fishermen have reportedly caught as many as 1,000 smelt a night this year.

The relatively large crowd that Saturday was due in part to the improved smelt runs, but also to "Smeltfest 2017," a gathering organized by Glen Lecus, 53, of Greenfield.

Lecus is as passionate about smelt fishing as he is about music. For the last several years, he has volunteered his services as a DJ and set up a sound system and tent on the lakefront. He issues an open invitation to the event via Lake-Link.com.

"Smelting to me has always been very social," Lecus said, adjusting a soundtrack. "This is my way of helping share the love of it."

As darkness envelops the lakefront, Lecus announces over a loudspeaker that the next song will be "Smeltin' U.S.A." by Da Yoopers.

Some call the Milwaukee gathering "Smeltapalooza" or "Smeltstock."

Whatever the name, this year's attendance was an unofficial record in the modern era. The crowd included dozens of teenagers and at least two family groups of a dozen each.

"It's a throwback," said Rich Graczyk, 51, of Oak Creek. "Great to see a nice group of people out here."

Indeed, to veteran smelt fishermen, it was a sight for sore eyes.

Smelt fishing was a cultural force for much of the 20th century in Wisconsin communities on the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shores but has declined over the last two decades.

Rainbow smelt are small but tasty fish that, after finding their way into the Great Lakes in the early 1900s, created a large cultural happening in lakeshore communities.

The fish spend most of the year in deep water but make inshore spawning migrations in spring.

During the 1900s smelt congregated in enormous numbers along shorelines and near river mouths in spring, providing seasonal recreation and sustenance for area residents.

Social gatherings like the one last Saturday in Milwaukee were common all along the lake.

In the 1940s, the smelting phenomena was called "smeltmania," according to an April 28, 1977, article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal.

"People came from hundreds of miles to celebrate (the smelts) arrival, and grown men, fully clothed, jumped into the water to catch them with their bare hands," stated the article.

In later years, "sportsmen lined the shores, armed with everything from bedsprings to bird cages" to "scoop up the (fish)."

Smelt were so abundant that "some old-timers say that on a quiet night you can actually hear them coming in with a soft, wooshing sound."

Smelting arguably reached its zenith in the 1930s when Oconto and Marinette attracted 20,000 to 30,000 visitors to dances, banquets and parades that stretched three miles, wrote George C. Becker in "Fishes of Wisconsin."

There was even a "smestling" match held in a ring covered with 2 tons of smelt; the wrestlers fought to see who could stuff the most smelt into his opponent's trunks.

The impact of the small, exotic fish was significant at a time when the U.S. was clawing its way out of the Depression.

Commercial fishermen have targeted smelt, too, with cyclical highs in harvest occurring around 1940, 1960 and 1990.

With a commercial supply of the fish, "smelt fries" became popular offerings at restaurants around the region.

Several Milwaukee smelters last Saturday were intent on a feed of fresh fish.

"We're either going to have smelt and eggs for breakfast," said Brad Jancarik, 33, of Franklin, as he lifted his net. "Or just eggs."

Jancarik was fishing with Brad Keller, 41, of Milwaukee and Mike Lucas, 33, of Cudahy.

Smelt are native to the Atlantic Ocean and were introduced to the inland waters of the Midwest. Attempts to bring smelt to the upper Great Lakes date to 1906, but it is generally accepted the present strain spread from the 1912 stocking of 16.4 million smelt in Crystal Lake, Mich., according to Becker.

The smelt was first taken in Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Mich., in 1923 and a year later had crossed the lake to Big Bay de Noc. In 1928 smelt were reported caught in gill nets near Little Sturgeon Bay in Door County. By 1930, the fish had reached Manitowoc, Port Washington and Racine, according to Becker.

Smelt spawning starts when the water temperature reaches 40 degrees or higher.

The spawning season normally lasts about two weeks, according to Becker, but climatic conditions such as cold rains and cold nights may extend it to a month.

The run started in Milwaukee this year in late March.

Word began spreading and more and more rigs began showing up along the lake.

"This is my first time out in 30 years," said Dennis Strachota, 66, of Milwaukee. "Boy, it feels good."

Strachota retrieved his old smelting rig from the rafters of his garage. It was missing one part but still worked.

He brought 12 people with him on Saturday, including four teenagers. None of the teens had ever been smelting before.

About 9 p.m., Owen Wallace, 14, of Milwaukee used Strachota's rig to catch eight smelt in one lift.

"Pretty cool," Wallace said as the fish are scooped ashore.

Smelt biomass in Lake Michigan peaked in the early 1980s and then generally declined, according to U.S. Geological Survey bottom trawl studies, which have been conducted since 1973.

However, in recent years smelt numbers have shown an increase, including a biomass estimate of 0.28 kilotonnes in 2016, up from a record low in 2014.

The recent uptick in smelt numbers has been noticeable among local fishermen.

Six years ago, the same outing in early April attracted six smelt rigs and a catch of zero smelt. Last year, catches increased substantially.

And this year, Kolanowski says he has been catching twice as many smelt as he did last year.

It's not at the level of prior decades - in the 1980s, the crowd was big enough to attract a snack wagon that sold cotton candy, ice cream, hot dogs and popcorn to the smelting crowds - but there's enough fish around to make it worth people's effort.

On this night, 23 smelt rigs are set up under the Hoan Bridge. Each net lift carries a sense of optimism.

At 9:30 p.m., a shout of "Arriba!" rings through the air as smelt come ashore.

As the night wears on, some of the groups accumulate several dozen smelt in their buckets.

Tonette Peppey of Oak Creek wins an informal contest for the biggest smelt of the night. She registers an 8.5-inch specimen caught on Graczyk's rig. Kolanowski is second with an 8-incher.

Like smelting outings of old, the gathering is a vibrant, shared social experience that also provided a critical connection to the natural world.

Smelting also has a strong generational link. On this mild Milwaukee night, both Graczyk and Kolanowski use rigs made by their fathers.

"Family heirlooms," Kolanowki said, turning the crank on a custom-made shaft with ball bearings.

With yellow perch fishing now a faded memory, smelting is arguably the last surviving group angling activity along our Lake Michigan shore. And even though smelt is not a native fish, it has value for the faithful.

The 2017 smelt run was dwindling last Saturday and catches were lower than many hoped. But still, most groups left with enough fish for a meal. And many people were able to experience the fun for the first time.

"We'll never quit," Kolanowski said. "We'll never let this tradition die."

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