The art of the smelt run

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Posted with permission from the Hamilton Spectator


April 24, 2010
Jon Wells
The Hamilton Spectator
(Apr 24, 2010)
The sun's last light has just faded, the sky now blue-black, and the darkened water caps in a rapidly cooling breeze.

On the pier, near the lift bridge and lighthouse, portable generators hum, powering floodlights that illuminate small patches of the water, colouring it a murky green. A dozen people man homemade fishing pole contraptions, from which hang rectangular dip nets.

To the uninitiated it is an odd scene. But to the nocturnal fishermen who take part every year in the smelt run, it is as much a rite of spring as the first rake of the lawn and the Leafs missing the playoffs.

And that goes for eating the little fish, too, which are not much bigger than your index finger.

Years ago, writes a smelt enthusiast online, "biting the head off the first smelt was meant to bring luck."

See slideshow


The local smelt run began at the start of April and will last perhaps another week. Some say it is not what it once was. A journalist declared it a "thing of the past" -- and that was 12 years ago. Certainly the smelt run has changed. The generators are a sign of that. But a thing of the past?

A father and son walk up the pier, the son pulling a red wagon that holds their wooden pole-and-pulley tool of the trade. Frank Matruglio, 33, and dad Guido, 73, set up and lower the net. A toque is perched atop Guido's head for the cold night.

Frank shines a flashlight beam into the water over the submerged net. It's old school, no cords or generators. The smelt are attracted to the light; the trick is to see them swim near the net and pull it up at the right moment.

"You either love it, or you don't," says Frank, as he wonders if tonight perhaps conditions are not ripe for the smelt, the night too dark, the chop getting too rough. There are no smelt in sight.

"We are not in a good spot, Frankie," Guido interjects, eyeing a man down the pier.

That man wears a hat with furry ear flaps, has a cigarette dangling from his lips, and has them outgunned with two floodlights.

His name is Luis Ferreira. He has been doing the Hamilton smelt run for 34 years, but his fishing resume stretches back more years than that and 4,000 kilometres away.

Yes, the diehards are here for the smelt run. The question is, are the smelt?

Traditions always look best in the rear view mirror, and that goes for the smelt run. Back in the day, 30-40 years ago, smelt were so plentiful in springtime that you could wade into the water off Hamilton Beach, dip a bucket and emerge with a pile of the silver-bellied fish flapping. Beach Strippers cooked smelt over bonfires, after biting or cutting the heads off, removing the guts, and impaling the sardine-sized fish on a stick. Or, they dusted the smelt in flour for frying in a skillet.

But the abundance of smelt was not a natural phenomenon in the old days. The relative scarce presence of the fish today is more in keeping with the lake's natural balance.

Smelt are not native to the Great Lakes, but rather hail from the Atlantic Ocean. Man brought them here: Construction of the canal shipping system allowed for smelt migration inland, while smelt eggs were planted by the millions in 1912 at Crystal Lake on Lake Michigan's northeast shore. Smelt prefer cold water, so thrived in deep and frigid Lake Superior, but also, eventually, called the deepest parts of Lake Ontario home as well. Years ago, increased pollution in the lake actually served to boost their population by killing off predator fish such as lake trout that would otherwise eat them.

Every spring, smelt migrate from near the centre of Lake Ontario to the more shallow, warmer-water shorelines of the lake and also some rivers to lay their eggs, before returning to deep water, and this is when the smelt run is on.

The eggs hatch within 15 to 25 days -- a short time frame, which has served the smelt's survival well, certainly compared with whitefish or lake herring, whose eggs take 120 to 140 days to incubate.

Smelt are drawn to lay eggs on calm moonlit nights, which means they are also drawn to any kind of light, like the one Luis Ferreira is blasting off the pier.

Ferreira, too, is not native to the area. His roots go back to Portugal, the Azores, on the tiny island of Sao Miguel. His father, Joe, owned a fishing boat. As a boy, with his four brothers, they went on runs catching mackerel, tuna, barracuda. They fished with a net, but only for sardines, to use as bait, which they attached to big hooks and steel cables to catch fish, like tuna, that could weigh as much as 300 kilograms (600 pounds) apiece. Joe died of a heart attack when Luis was 15. His brothers stayed, but Luis left Portugal with his mother, Maria, for Hamilton. Today he works as a cement finisher in building construction, and hits the smelt run every year.

"I eat some of the fish, but give most of it to others," he says in heavily accented English. "I fish here with my buddy, Agostino."

Ferreira stands on the pier, staring into the lit square of light on the water, waiting for a school of smelt to come into view over his dip net. Agostino sits in a chair, smoke wafting from his cigarette, ready to pull up the net by a rope when Luis gives the word.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

"Pull! Agostino! Pull!"

He does, hoists the net into the air, about 30 silver smelt flopping, water dripping from the net.

"Hey! Oh-ho! Agostino!" a friend yells triumphantly, and Agostino grins. He then scoops the smelt in a metal pot, dumps them in a plastic bucket, and returns the net to the water.

By the 1990s, the smelt population in Lake Ontario had declined dramatically, ending the teeming smelt run's glory days of decades past. Pacific salmon and lake trout had been introduced to the lake and they feasted on the smelt (a Chinook salmon eats 10,000 smelt a year).

The old days were great, Frank Matruglio says, but they also meant bringing home several pails of fish for mom to help clean, which wasn't always popular.

"Everyone likes to catch them, nobody likes to clean them."

Most everyone out on the pier on this night have roots abroad. A man named Bill is from China and says he speaks little English, but has been doing the Hamilton smelt run for 20 years. Silvano is from Italy. John is from the Netherlands. And Frank's dad, Guido, who is from a town near Rome, came to Canada back in 1961.

Frank and Guido, with their modest flashlight, were having little luck, no smelt at all. Guido kept casting an eye over at the haul taken in by Luis Ferreira.

"Pull, Agostino!" Luis bellows again. "Pull! Yes! Agostino!"

"Dad," Frank says, "Concentrate, never mind what they're doing."

And then, moments later, Frank spotted the slender silver bodies swimming into his light.

"Dad, pull!"

Guido hoisted the net, and there they were, maybe a dozen smelt. "You just gotta time it right," Frank says. By night's end, Frank and Guido catch maybe a half-pound of smelt.

"It's just something different to do, that not a lot of people are doing," Frank says.

Today catching smelt is more about intuition, reading the conditions, the weather, with a little low-tech thrown in to help. With patience, a good eye, and a strong light, you can still haul them in -- like Ferreira, who along with his buddies caught enough to fill five tall buckets. But nowadays only the truly dedicated join in.

Not like it was? No, it's not. But maybe, all things considered, the smelt run is better than ever.

Guido and Frank, Luis and Agostino, Bill, Silvano and the others pack up their dip nets around 10:30 p.m.

Maybe just a few more good nights remain, and then it will be over, until next spring, when the smelt hatched this season will be full-grown. And then, just as sure as the spring air warms and the moon appears in the sky, they will return to the same spot along the shore, and the game will be on again.

jwells@thespec.com

905-526-3515
 
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