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The Smelt
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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