Romancing the Smelt

April 30, 2008

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We continue our trip back into Chicago history by recalling the days when fishing along Lake Michigan yielded an abundance of smelt, and apparently, romance. Scientists say the fish are disappearing because of declining water quality and invasive species. But many hopeless romantics still gather along the lakefront to honor the little fish, and the relationships formed while catching it. Eight Forty-Eight's food critic David Hammond has the story. 

When my dad came home from the war in 1945, he wooed my mom by taking her out to dinner at a now shuttered German restaurant on north Pulaski Road.  He still remembers that he wowed his gal by ordering a platter of Lake Michigan smelt and eating ‘em whole, head to tail. Apparently, he has not been alone in appreciating the smelt's romantic allure. Last weekend, Paul Schwanke and Ginna Shannon celebrated their fourteenth wedding anniversary by heading back to Belmont Harbor, where they met, smelting, and fell in love.

SCHWANKE: It was always the guys coming down here to smelt. One night…some other people said they were all coming down…

SHANNON: Some friends of mine came in and said we're going down to Belmont Harbor to go smelt fishing, do you want to come with us, and I said Yes, so I came down here and Paul was actually the smelt fisherman. I saw him and I came back the next few nights, looking for Paul, and just having a great time. The lake front was very full of a lot of people down here partying and smelting and fishing.

SCHWANKE: And it was love at first sight. It was better than fishing for smelt that night that I met her.

This past weekend, like many others in April, brings together a band of merry smelters, fire cans blazing, music playing, nets ready, seeking smelt as they have for years, though not always so successfully.

ANDY FAGIOLO: I used to come down with my dad to North Avenue, probably thirty years ago, and we caught them by the bucket-load back then. There were a lot of folks. It would be hard to get a place to put your net in the water. You had to get here early.

VICKIE BARSON: They would cook them all up and, you could not even get an inch in, and they'd be cooking them there and pulling them in, like thousands of them. You couldn't even get a seat along the edge of the lake.

LENNY: I been smelting here for approximately fifty years. In the old days you caught smelt. We'd come down here to Belmont Harbor and just fish for smelt…always caught fish…and we used to do pretty good, coupla five gallon bucket-fulls. We were fifteen, sixteen years old. Come out here with a case of beer, jug of wine. We'd have a party and catch smelt.

At smelting parties these days, things have changed a little; Vickie Barson notes that one guest is conspicuously absent.

BARSON: There's no smelt. That's the thing that's changed, right? There's no smelt. No smelt.

Smelt may be vanishing due to Round Goby, an invasive predator that comes to our area in the ballast tanks of Eurasian cargo ships. Gobies eat smelt eggs, so there's less smelt today than there was even five years ago. And Barson has another explanation for why smelters have less luck with every passing April.

BARSON: Lemme tell you: I have a theory. I have a theory. I think the smelt got wise, and they're coming in May now.

And they're not getting caught, so they got it over on these guys, and they haven't figured it out yet. Still, smelters keep coming back to the beach. Steve LeHaie of Shaw's Crab House arrives with some fried smelt from Lake Erie. Then, suddenly, there's an excited cry. They've caught fish!

DAVID HAMMOND: We're going down to the water. They're pulling in a net. We'll see if they got anything.

FEMALE VOICE 1: Oh, poor little guy.

FEMALE VOICE 2: Those are so cute!

SCHWANKE: What we've got here is some… baby perch that got caught in the net, and we'll take them out. You can see the stripes on them. And then there's some rock bass here and we want to get them out of the net and back in the water.

DAVID HAMMOND: So, perch, rock bass, and…smelt?

SCHWANKE: None tonight, yet, but you know it's still early. Hopefully, yet, we'll still get some tonight.

FEMALE VOICE 3: I saw three one year!

It's hard to tell how long smelters will keep coming after smelts are completely gone from Chicago, but you get the feeling that for old friends, this fish is just one small reason for heading out to the lakefront on a chilly spring evening.

STEVE LEHAIE: It's a tradition…people want to remember the old times. It's always fun in April to drive along Lake Shore Drive and see all the little fires, and you know they're not catching any fish, but they're having a good time.

David Hammond is a contributor to Gaper's BlockChicago Reader and Time Out Chicago, and he co-moderates LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.