Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Morning Coffee- Smelt Run Edition

Yawawwwwnnn, stretch, scratch repeat. After ten hours of much needed sleep I'd say I'm ready to face another Monday, hope you are too.

I didn't do MMC last week because nothing notable had happened. The winter weather has continued right up until last Friday (we had snow Thursday), and the fishing has continued to stink. Friday it warmed a bit, but Saturday it got close to 70 degrees. Suddenly everything was sunshine, birdsong, flowers and love. It is finally spring.

And I had to work Saturday.

You would think this would be the end of my weekend, but no, I called Alex Cerveniak and Ethan Winchester to see if they would like to go on a little adventure. I wrapped up work at around 5 and went home and packed my camping and fishing gear. Alex and Ethan picked me up at around 9 and we headed north after the required stop for gas, jerky, donuts, coffee, trail mix, and gas station subs. We were going smelt dipping.

For those of you who have never heard of this- rainbow smelt (osmerous mordax) are an invasive species introduced to the Great Lakes from the West Coast. When they were introduced here their numbers exploded until they began to crowd out native species. Their spring spawning runs clogged every river and stream, often to the point of actually raising the water level, and after a few years this over-population led to the spread of a fungus that caused them to die off en-masse, fouling the beaches with tons of rotting fish, hundreds of miles of stinking unusable shoreline.

Smelt are actually quite tasty, so Michigan put its faltering commercial fishery to work to help contain the smelt, and worked to promote smelt dipping among outdoors people. It quickly became a popular springtime activity, one of the first fun things you could do here once the snow melted and the weather broke. All you needed was a dip net and a bucket to put them in. Because smelt typically run at night people built bonfires on the shore while they waited for the run to start and to warm themselves between stints spent standing in the icy water. Whole families would turn out for this- moms, kids, grandparents and a whole lot of people who don't normally fish. Some people barbecue or cook hot dogs, and some people clean and cook their catch right there ala fresca. A lot of alcohol gets consumed, and there's often the faint smell of weed on the air if the law enforcement presence is sparse. Communities hosted smelt festivals with competitions for largest smelt caught, pot-luck dinners and so on. Smelt Queens were crowned. In the late 80's the runs began to falter, and in most places they are just a lingering memory. There's still smelt in the lakes, but the DNR has told me that most of those spawn on offshore reefs instead of running the rivers. There's now a two gallon limit on smelt.

Two years ago I heard that some smelt were being taken at Carp river just across the Mackinaw bridge. I went and dipped my limit before 11 pm a couple nights. Last years crazy warm weather messed up the run timing and most people missed it, though some locals in the know got fish. This last week I heard a couple of rumors about fish being taken, and with the burgeoning spring weather I knew that Saturday would be prime, and a good excuse to relive some good memories.

We got there around 11. There's a giant parking lot at the mouth of the Carp built back in the heyday of the smelt runs. I expected people to be there. If you think I'm giving away your secret smelt dipping spot think again- the secret is out. There were over 200 vehicles there and well over 500 people. A small city had sprang up overnight. Campfires lined the riverbanks, generators hummed, and everywhere people in waders carrying dip nets. There was so much smoke from the campfires that it hung like fog over the river. The murmur of the river was drowned by the constant swish of hundreds of nets through water, raucous laughter, Roman candles going off with a whistle and bang, and the myriad sounds of happy people who have converged on a river to observe a rite of spring, a great impromptu party on the banks.

Alex and Ethan just stood on the shore by a fire while I dipped. It was slow going, and I only got about a gallon of fish. We called it a night around 3 a.m. and drove to a backwoods campsite I know about. The road was covered in snow still, and just before we reached the site the car bottomed out, hopelessly stuck. We piled out of the car and howled at the moon, wild men in a wild place. We were immediately answered by a pack of coyotes on the banks of the river not 200 yards distant. We howled them down.

As for the rest- how we packed our gear in, cooked our smelt, dug our car out with sticks, picked ticks, and otherwise put the "grrrrrhhhggghh" in "Michigan Man" I'll never tell, but suffice it to say that it was a perfect, perfect weekend.


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