Content on Demand for Special Sections and Niche Publications
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
"This is the best time of the year," said
Kolanowski is among 120 people who gathered
Catches of the small, silvery fish have increased in
The relatively large crowd that Saturday was due in part to the improved smelt runs, but also to "Smeltfest 2017," a gathering organized by
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 "
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
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
Rainbow smelt are small but tasty fish that, after finding their way into the
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
In the 1940s, the smelting phenomena was called "smeltmania," according to an
"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
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
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
Jancarik was fishing with
Smelt are native to the
The smelt was first taken in
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
Word began spreading and more and more rigs began showing up along the lake.
"This is my first time out in 30 years," said
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.
"Pretty cool," Wallace said as the fish are scooped ashore.
Smelt biomass in
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.
As the night wears on, some of the groups accumulate several dozen smelt in their buckets.
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
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."
(c)2017 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
You have 0 items in your Shopping Cart