By Leon Archer
I have many fond memories of smelt fishing with my father and additional memories of doing the same with some of my children.
I am confident many of my readers remember the great spring smelt runs with the same relish that I do, their thoughts very likely mixed with the same despondency that comes to me as I mourn the collapse of the smelt population.
There are still rainbow smelt in Lake Ontario, but their numbers have fallen to a level where very few hardy souls still search for them on cold spring nights, at least in the streams of the Eastern Ontario basin.
In the 1950s and 60s, when the lake’s water temperature hit 42 degrees, the smelt would move onshore for their annual spawning run. Fishermen by the hundreds would be waiting for them dressed in warm clothes and waders, holding their long handled nets.
The catching was easy, the cleaning arduous the next day. The delicious aroma of frying smelt could be detected escaping from homes on every block. The smelt was a fish for the common man, but all good things come to an end.
The decline of smelt populations has occurred over much of their range, not just in Lake Ontario, and there is no one reason that fisheries biologists have been able to single out as the culprit. It appears smelt have been negatively affected by a combination of factors. Among them are: the huge increase of major predators due to stocking of trout and salmon, the invasion of the zebra mussel, alewives and overfishing.
Probably the greatest factor at work in their decline in Ontario has been the decrease in the food they eat, both as fry and as young adults. A high percentage of the microorganisms needed for smelt fry survival are filtered out of the water by zebra mussels, and alewives, causing a great loss of baby smelt due to starvation.
Alewives (mooneyes to some) prey on the slightly larger organisms that the tiny surviving smelt need to continue growing, plus they also consume large numbers of smelt fry. It is a tough life for smelt right from the beginning, and the survival rate is extremely low during the first year of their lives.
As soon as the remaining smelt are large enough to migrate to the open lake away from the near shore (one to two years depending on growth rate), they join whatever smelt school they encounter and spend the rest of their life searching for food and trying to avoid trout and salmon.
Overfishing was not a significant factor on smelt while there were huge shoals of them throughout Ontario. They could absorb man’s overenthusiastic harvests and still grow their numbers back in the 50s and 60s. There was no creel limit on Ontario’s smelt in those days.
Things began changing in the 1970s and 80s, and smelt runs began their decline, almost unnoticed at first. Catches of washtubs full of smelt slowly gave way to a few five gallon buckets full of smelt and then to small buckets partly full.
The day finally came when men no longer swarmed onto the beach in the night at Selkirk State Park and Port Ontario in April and May in search of smelt. The runs had become only a memory.
As I said, there are still smelt in Lake Ontario. They are smaller and far less numerous, but they are there. I’ve heard rumors that a few are still caught in Oswego Harbor each spring, but it’s been at least 25 years since I’ve taken my Coleman lantern and gone smelting.
I do miss it, but I’m not sure I would go again even if they made a comeback here in the Oswego County area. I miss the excitement and camaraderie, but I’m not crazy about late nights and cold, plus the occasional dunking.
Should you have a hankering to try to regain a bit of those smelt fishing days of yesteryear, you could give it a try on the western end of the lake. They still get a pretty good run on the Niagara River.
It’s sort of a long drive for little fish, and the daily limit is eight quarts of smelt. The place to go, if you are so inclined, is Lewiston. There is plenty of parking by the dock area, and it’s open to dipping for smelt. The run can be as early as late March, but usually comes in April.
Lewiston is a little too far to run to just take a chance or to see if they are running, but you can find out when the run is on if you would like to take the trip.
It’s possible to stay abreast of the smelt run by checking www.outdoorsniagara.com. There is a regular fishing update on the site all year long, and it will make it easy for you to zero in on the best time to go.
Could be fun to get some of your fishing buddies together to share the expenses and catch some smelt once more in memory of the old days. If you go, let me know.