By Stephen King

            As the winter’s snows quickly melt, the thoughts of sportsmen and sports women are turning to more spring like activities.  One of the favorite springtime past-times over the years has been smelt fishing.  For many decades, hundreds of men, women, and children have taken to the streams after dark in search of smelt in what has become a rite of spring.

            However, what many people don’t realize is that smelt are not native to the Great Lakes.  Smelt are native to the northeast coast, namely the east coast of Canada and Maine. They were introduced to the Great Lakes in the early 1900’s, with the first planting generally thought to have occurred in Crystal Lake in downstate Michigan.  However, other plantings followed with one documented planting being in the St. Mary’s River in 1906.  Within ten years, the smelt had not just survived, they had flourished. By the 1930’s they had spread throughout the entire Great Lakes system.  Within a few years, residents took notice of their annual spawning run and smelt fishing was born.

            For many decades afterward, the smelt population seemed endless.  At rivers such as the Black River, east of Naubinway, people were literally hauling them away by the dump truck full.  It was not uncommon to be able to dip a net into the river and have it literally overflowing with smelt.

            However, as years passed, the smelt runs began to get smaller and smaller and now have diminished to virtual non-existence in many areas.  These days, a good catch is considered 3 or 4 gallons. Roughly the amount that was in one or two scoops from years gone by.  Many of the streams that were once overflowing with smelt are lucky to see a few lone fish trickle in.  This has led to the question, “Where have all the Smelt gone”.

            That question was recently posed to DNR Fisheries Biologists Jim Waybrant, of the Newberry District Headquarters and Jim Johnson, out of Alpena.  Concerning this year’s potential run, Jim stated, “This has the potential to be a good year for smelt.”  He reasoning behind this is that there are some good year classes of fish out there.  2003, 2004, and 2005 all saw evidence of good reproduction. The question then was if he though this run would be as good as the golden years of smelt fishing.  To that he replied, “No.” Waybrant explained, “Today smelt have a lot more pressure on them than in years past.” 

For example, as explained by DNR Fisheries Biologist Jim Johnson, of the Alpena Station, “You have to remember that back in the earlier days of the 60’s and 70’s there were very few predators out there. Today, on the upper end of the food chain, just about every big fish in the Great Lakes eat smelt.”  What this means is that everything from trout and salmon to burbot and just about everything in between, look upon smelt as food. Also, cormorants, about which so much has been said, also see smelt as an easy meal.  This increased pressure makes just sustaining a population hard.  It also makes having a population explosion such as was witnessed for many decades just about impossible.

Another thing that must be mentioned is that smelt are actually an “invasive species.”  Although this species was actually intentionally planted by humans, they are still a species that is non-native.  And, as we have recently seen with other implants, upon introduction, non-native species tend to experience a population boom.  As we witnessed with smelt for a few decades.  Now, the smelt population has significantly declined from their early “boom” period.  

One reason is the introduction of other exotics. Waybrant  explained how unstable the other exotics such as Zebra Mussels and species such as the spiny water flea have made fish populations.  He stated, “I know of no biologist who will make any prediction as to what the future holds for the Great Lakes.  With over 150 new species, what is going to happen is totally unpredictable.” 

Most notable of the introduced species are the salmon.  Now, just about everybody who fishes the big waters of the Great Lakes loves salmon.  However, they too were introduced.  As a matter of fact, the introduction of salmon coincides fairly well with the start of the decline of the smelt populations.  Namely, big fish eat little fish, and eventually, there aren’t so many little fish.

If only it were that simple.  Problem is, the bottom end of the food chain has also presented problems for smelt.  Exotics such as the Zebra Mussel and the Spiny Water Flea have probably contributed to the decline of the smelt population.  Zebra Mussels are filter feeders.  That is, they filter their food from the water.  This filtering removes floating plankton from the water, which is also what small smelt eat.  The effect of the zebra mussels filtering is evident in the increased water clarity where they are found.  And, although the water appears cleaner, which many people see as a good thing, this means there is also less food in the water.  In essence, that brown goo that you used to see suspended in the water was actually a good thing if you were a fish.  The absence of this means it is much harder for fish to make a living. 

Spiny water fleas were thought to be another source of problems for smelt.  Spiny’s out compete other small water dwellers.  The problem here is that as their name suggests, spiny water fleas have a spine that most fish find indigestible.  Waybrant stated that perch have been found with spines imbedded in their stomachs, which can cause serious problems. (For comparison, envision eating a porcupine, whole and tail first. What you end up with is a case of indigestion Tums wouldn’t even touch.) Because spiny water fleas are basically indigestible, they are replacing things such as the “fresh water shrimp”, which used to be the basic food source of many plankton eaters, such as smelt.  However, on a more positive note, recently, it is being found that smelt actually do eat the fleas and seem to be able to digest them.

Then, there are the gobies.  Gobies are another recently arrived exotic. Like the Zebra Mussels and most other exotics, they arrived in the ballast water of ocean going freighters.  And, like many other new arrivals, with no natural predators, quickly spread.  Just a bit smaller than smelt on the average, gobies have one distinct advantage over smelt.  While smelt spawn once a year, gobies can reproduce as many as six times a year, which is one reason they have spread so quickly.  Another is that gobies prefer fish eggs as their choice of food.  This also impedes the reproduction of fish such as smelt.

However, all is not lost as far as the smelt run is concerned.  As mentioned, Waybrant predicted a good year for smelt.  The reason he predicted this is that according to his information, the numbers of smelt showing up in test netting done in the Great Lakes is considerably up. 

But, this does not mean “for sure” that this will be a banner year for smelt.  One reason is that many smelt have “evolved”.  That is, instead of running up the rivers to spawn, smelt are now spawning to some unknown extent out in the big lakes on reefs and in the shallows.  The idea behind this is that for many years the smelt that came into the streams and rivers in vast numbers also died in vast numbers, while those smelt that chose to spawn out in the lakes ended up with a better survival rate.  Now, we are seeing a larger smelt population in the lakes (although still down from fifteen or twenty years ago).  However, not all of them are coming up the streams to spawn.

Johnson too agreed that smelt are spawning out in the open water.  He stated that back in 1992 (approx.) they were doing some test netting and smelt were turning up in fairly good numbers on off-shore reefs.  This was in May and June and the smelt were still spawning.  On the reefs!

Which lead to another bit of info.  Johnson stated that if he was going to be fishing in the waters of Grindstone City (On the northern tip of the Thumb) in May or June he would be fishing a silver Rap at about 60’.  Seems they were doing some test netting in that area recently and noticed all the trout they were picking up were filled with smelt. Some of which were still spawning. Me, if I had a nice big boat and wanted some big fish action on the big water of Lake Huron, I think I would take him up on that.

However, as Johnson stated, “Smelt spawning off-shore does little for dip netters.”  What I got from both Waybrant and Johnson was that chances are slim of ever seeing smelt in the numbers that we saw in the sixties or seventies.  There are just to many things either eating them  or out-competing them or ruining their lunch.  However, there is still a good chance that smelt fishermen this year will be able to find enough smelt to fill a few frying pans.  One area suggested was the Carp River, just north of St. Ignace.  The area off-shore has a lower than average predator population.  Which means more smelt are actually making it to frying pan size.  And, a few of these may actually trickle into the stream.

One last thing that Johnson wanted to point out is that the smelt are still out there.  Even though few are making it into the streams, they are still a valuable forage species. As mentioned, species like trout and salmon make a living off of eating smelt.  And, there are a lot of people who love fishing trout and salmon. So, even if today’s fishermen don’t get the pleasure of catching the smelt.  They get the pleasure of catching things that eat the smelt.

However, one last bit of bad news is that the populations of trout and salmon are more linked to the populations of smelt than ever before.  With the decline of alewife’s over the last few years, the DNR is watching the smelt population “with great concern”.  As mentioned, nobody really knows the effect exotics such as Zebras and Quaggas are going to have over the years to come.  However, all we can really do is watch and wait. The exotics are here.  And, as my old buddy Hubert always says, “She’s too late to sneeze once your nose is gone.”