Nature Bulletin No. 105 March 1, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
The astonishing history of the Atlantic smelt in Lake Michigan
illustrates what may happen when any kind of animal is transplanted
into a new location The smelt, a small slender silver-and-green fish
related to the salmon, normally lives in the ocean and travels up streams
to spawn. Centuries ago, perhaps, some of them became trapped in
inland lakes along our North Atlantic coast and developed a race
adapted to year-round life in fresh water becoming the most important
item of food for the land-locked salmon.
In 1906, as part of an unsuccessful attempt to establish this salmon in
some of its inland lakes, the Michigan State Fish Commission began
importing smelt eggs from a federal hatchery at Green Lake, Maine.
From a planting of 16,400,000 eggs in Crystal Lake in 1912, smelt later
escaped into Lake Michigan where they multiplied enormously. First
seen there in 1918, by 1936 they were appearing in fishermen's nets in
Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie.
Smelt prefer cold clear water from 48 to 210 feet deep. In winter,
however, they are most abundant at less than 50 feet under the ice and
were taken in great numbers from Green Bay and other locations by
commercial fishermen. Between March 17 and April 28 they began
traveling up certain streams in able numbers, mostly at night, to spawn.
Smelt festivals were annual events in which many thousands of people
took part, dipping out millions of the fish by the light of bonfires, using
nets, tubs, buckets, and even their hats. The total catch rose to 20
million pounds per year, largely from Lake Michigan, 6 million pounds
of it from Green Bay. Smelt were shipped in carload lots to Chicago,
New York and other cities.
Suddenly the smelt disappeared A mysterious epidemic spread from
southern Lake Michigan through the other lakes. In the winter of 1942-
43, dead smelt washed ashore in windrows a foot or more deep in many
places. No spawning runs were seen. Now apparently, they are staging a
comeback. Last winter (1945-46) and this winter, several hundred
pounds per day were received in Chicago.
The flesh is lean and sweet. The gourmet prefers the whole smelt rolled
in flour or cracker crumbs and fried in deep fat. He eats head, tail,
bones and all.
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Update: June 2012