Dipping for Smelt

By Spider Rybaak

Grindstone Creek from the NYS Rte. 3 bridge, March 5; gotta wait until ice-out to dip.

Back in the early 1960s, environmental pollution was rampant. Lake Erie was so dirty, authorities began drafting a death certificate. Lake Ontario was much deeper so it could swallow more stuff, but it was limping along on its last leg, too; fish populations were down to a fraction of what they used to be.

But there was hope.

By the middle of the decade, strict environmental laws were passed and enforced. Nature responded quickly, improving the water in the Lower Great Lakes to such a degree that fish numbers took off. Since it takes a while for game fish to grow to legal size, they were slow in coming around; but bait fish populations exploded.

That was good…and bad.

First the good: smelt reached such incredible numbers, guys dipping for them in the mouth of the Salmon River could fill 5-gallon buckets with their eyes closed. On skinny creeks like Deer and Little Sandy, conscientious anglers dipped gently, carefully to avoid crushing the smelt below the net’s rim or hurting those off to the sides.

The bad: alewives thrived, too. Boney and tasting like swamp mud, they were avoided by man. Unsightly winter kill lined beaches around the lake and the authorities decided to bring the lake back into balance by stocking voracious lake trout, king and coho salmon.

It worked. The salmonids swam around with mouths wide open, growing huge. Smelt numbers dropped incredibly. Dave Wood, owner of Woody’s Tackle on NYS Rte. 3, says dipping for them got so bad by the late 70s, he stopped going.

Fran Daher, over at North Syracuse’s Mickey’s Live Bait and Tackle concurs. “We used to sell dozens of dipping nets annually in the 70s, now we’re lucky if we sell a couple- three a year. Smelting has become a dead art,” he adds.

But it shouldn’t be. Word coming out of the western part of the lake has it that smelt numbers are rebounding. Fran Daher’s admission that he’s only selling a few nets a year suggests someone’s getting smelt around here. After all, argues cousin Staash, “these guys ain’t buying dip nets to catch butterflies; they’re getting smelt but they ain’t talking about it.”

Brian Weidel, of the USGS, Great Lakes Science Center, says” “From what I hear, spring 2011 was a good year for smelting, at least in the western NY tributaries. This MAY have been associated with slightly higher smelt abundance in the lake in 2010. Since then the population has dropped, which is usual for the species. Their abundance tends to naturally cycle.”

However, Weidel isn’t so quick to blame the drop in smelt populations on predators: “One thing that is important for anglers and the public to recognize is the overall productivity of the lake has decreased (which is a good thing) because of the Clean Water Act and other important legislation that reduced pollutants in the lake,” he claims.
Since smelt numbers are cyclical, there’s a good chance this year’s run will be a good one. The only way to find out if they’re running up Oswego County’s Lake Ontario tributaries again is to go for ‘em.

The mouth of any tributary will do. Here’s some with good public access:

Little Salmon River, County Route 40 or Mexico Point Drive, Texas, NY.
Grindstone Creek, Selkirk Shores State Park, NYS Rte. 3, a couple miles south of Port Ontario.
Deer Creek, Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area, NYS Rte. 3, a couple miles north of Port Ontario

Going for these guys isn’t rocket science; all you gotta do is stand on the bank, dip and scoop. Dip nets come with long handles so you don’t have to stretch too much.

Woody claims [global warming notwithstanding]“This winter is like the ones we used to have, so the smelt won’t be running until April.”

And that’s reassuring, suggesting the weather is like smelt…cyclical.

Dave Wood, owner of Woody’s Tackle Shop in Port Ontario, holding a smelt dipping net.