A few words about smelt. On the Great Lakes these pint-sized fish run in schools near the shoreline in the early spring. For example, on Lake Huron, in the Tawas and Whitestone Point area the run is normally in late April and always during the night. These fish are caught by using a simple hoop net. The process is known as "smelt dippin' " and often involves camp fires and beer. Once caught they are very easy to clean. You simply lop off the head, slit down the belly and thumb down to the tail to remove the guts. Roll them in some flour and pan fry in oil until golden and crunchy. They are really yummy because all of the bones and scales as well as the tails are edible. Actually catching the little buggers is another matter.

As a little boy growing up in Saginaw, it became clear that smelt dippin' was a right of passage. From the time I was eight until I was a teenager, my dad and uncles always took me smelt dippin'. I always wondered what the deal was- ya' go out in your waders, dip yer' net in the cold lake- sometimes having to shove the ice flows back out to lake with yer' foot- then come home exhausted with wet feet, numb fingers, and one frigging smelt.

On the night of April 23, into the morning of April 24, 1969, I was again on my way up-north to the lake with my dad, my uncle Tom and our neighbor Vern for smelt dippin'. We had a large steel washtub and an inflated tractor tire innertube. That would float with us and supposedly hold whatever smelt we netted. Our destination was a spot called "Singin' Bridge" which was a two lane bridge over a creek that flowed under US-23. The bridge had a steel grating and when cars drove over it, the thing made a sound that if you were drunk enough may have sounded like singing. The beach was fairly crowded but the other dippers were spread out into the sackcloth darkness. We floated our tub and I waded out as far as my scrawny legs would take me and dutifully began dipping while the three grown ups went farther out. A half hour passed and nothing... soon it was well after midnight and I was sure I was close to hypothermia. Dip- nothin' dip, nothin' endlessly. My only justification was that no one else out there in the blackness seemed to be getting anything either.

Then I dipped, and it was like my net got caught in a sandbank. I struggled as hard as my little skinny arms could and as I lifted the net it was filled to the top with sliver squiggling smelt. Standing there a bit shocked I softly called out to my dad,


"Holy shit," dad murmured and then commanded me to not say a word.

Quickly he motioned to the other two men to get over to where I was standing still trying to hold that net that likely weighed as much as I did. They rushed over and we dumped my net. Then all of us stared pulling nets full out of the lake. We were standing in the middle of a whole school of smelt! It took only minutes for the four of us to fill that washtub. I forgot my wet feet and froze fingers- the smelt were finally runnin'. Then my uncle and our neighbor rushed the floating washtub toward the beach. My dad motioned to me to "watch this" and in his loud railroad engineer's voice he shouted.


The onrush of other dippers was almost frightening as we got the hell out of the water. It took both my uncle Tom and Vern to get that tub into the back of the station wagon. We were done for the night.

I spent the whole of the next day learning how to clean smelt, bag 'em and freeze 'em all, except for the ones to mom would cook for dinner tonight.

The smelt were indeed runnin'.


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