The Suitcase Lady


April 8, 2008, 8:49 pm

A few evenings ago I spotted a bunch of guys standing on a bridge near my house. They were staring morosely into the river water below. Beerless beer coolers were at their sides.

Twelve years ago I saw a similar phenomenon on numerous bridges all around my new country house. I came home and reported to my husband what I suspected was a mass male suicide in progress.

My spouse just laughed and said one word, “Smelt.”

Now I’m a bit wiser about this spring occurrence. Smelt (pronounce that SHmelt) are a cigar sized or smaller fish that closely resemble members of the trout/salmon family. Native to North America’s Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Labrador, smelt are also found in some land-locked lakes in New England and eastern Canada. They were planted in Crystal Lake, Michigan, in 1912 and from there found their way to Lake Michigan and beyond.

Like salmon, lake-dwelling smelt go into tributary streams to spawn in early Spring. The fish spawn at night, and the lucky ones return to the lake by morning. According to the Michigan DNR, “Smelt, known best as a tasty batter-dipped, French fried morsel, is a seasonally sought after fish by anyone willing to wade a river and scoop them up with a large net… usually occurring during darkened evenings in early Spring in Great Lake Tributaries.”

Smelt have diminished since their heydays in the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s. Smelt fishermen, however, optimistically forecast a return to the glory days.

A smelting fishing ritual is to bite off the head of the first smelt caught. Although I applaud eating low on the food chain, I think I’ll pass on this tradition. (Click here and then scroll way down to view the ritual.)

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