Unpredictable smelt befuddle dippers
Written by Soo Evening News   
Saturday, 16 April 2005 05:10
"Smelt can be patchy and unpredictable," said Fisheries Research Biologist Dave Fielder, summing up the frustration of many local anglers in six simple words.

These are definitely not the good old days when it comes to smelt dipping throughout the State of Michigan, and biologists are not predicting things will be any better this year as anglers return to popular haunts hoping to beat the odds for the annual fish fry.

"It's not like it was in the 60s or 70s where the runs might last for a week or two," said Fisheries Technician Supervisor Chuck Payment of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, commenting that the small, silvery fish runs are now sporadic along the Lake Superior shoreline. "It's just a guessing game."

"A couple of years ago we had a surge in the smelt run," said Fielder of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in examining the Lake Huron waters. "It's nothing like it was in the eighties."

There's not much point in heading for northern Lake Michigan, either, as published accounts going west to Schoolcraft and Delta counties also bemoan the paltry runs.

"Some places it's not even worth going anymore," said Fielder.

Dippers who have spent recent years returning home with nothing but red eyes, cold hands and empty buckets seemingly agree with that assessment as the number of participants appears to be falling.

While Eastern Upper Peninsula dippers certainly are working hard for their meals, other traditional smelting areas throughout the northern Lower Peninsula such as Au Gres, Tawas and Alpena are down to a virtual trickle. In fact, the local runs - poor as they may be - might actually be attracting dippers from other locations.

"I think you are enjoying some of the better runs for Lake Huron," observed Fielder.

Some have speculated that the smelt have changed their spawning patterns over the last two decades and, for the most part, are avoiding the shallower waters and river systems. Neither Payment or Fielder seemed to buy into this theory.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility," admitted Payment, explaining that other fish such as lake trout and walleye do utilize different areas.

Fielder also could not rule out that hypothesis, but likewise expressed some skepticism noting there was nothing to indicate a large untapped population of smelt out in the Great Lakes.

Still, both men made it clear the smelt runs are not exactly the highest priority for the DNR. For the most part, information gathered on these popular fish comes from word of mouth and in studies conducted to determine what prey is out there for salmon, trout and other predatory fish.

There does appear to be a few glimmers of hope. On the western end of Lake Superior, Payment said smelt populations seem to be on the increase. From the studies done in Lake Huron, Fielder concludes there has been a massive crash in the alewive population and since the two species compete for forage out on the open waters, this could be beneficial.

"Our expectation is something will move in there to take that niche," said Fielder, adding if it's not smelt it may be herring or bloater chubs. "It's hard to say what will emerge."

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Web site, smelt were first brought to Michigan in 1912 and planted in Crystal Lake to serve as forage fish. They escaped into the nearby waters of Lake Michigan where their population exploded, eventually colonizing in Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

Although they were initially viewed as a nuisance fish by commercial fishermen, sportsmen began gathering at dusk along many waterways and shorelines to dip for the three-ounce delicacies in droves. Not only are the smelt popular fare for people, but they are also heavily fed upon by salmon, walleye, northern pike and a host of other predatory fish and animals.

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