Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

April 19th, 2004

Smelt
By Dave Micus

Driving to work this past winter, I noticed that there were four ice-fishing huts on the Ipswich River. Calling these 'huts' is a kind misnomer; transpose them to a field near an old farm and they could easily be mistaken for dilapidated outhouses. They are tiny one-room affairs with barely enough space for a person to sit down. Being a fly fisher, ice fishing has never appealed to me. One of the pleasures of fly-fishing is the rhythm of casting, similar to the practice of tai chai. And I can't imagine ever being comfortable standing on two solid feet of ice.

I wasn't sure what the owners of these fishing shacks were stalking. A self-absorbed striper snob, I assumed the ocean in northern Massachusetts was devoid of fish once the stripers begin their fall migration to the Chesapeake. A friend told me they were fishing for smelt.

My very first fishing trip was a smelting excursion. I lived in Chicago at the time, and I'm not even sure how old I was—maybe six or seven. My father and his friend Carl were going to net smelt on Lake Michigan, and I badgered them until they realized it was just easier to bring me along than listen to my incessant whining.

Carl was typical of the eclectic group of friends my parents cultivated at the time. He was an ex-con who had served time for armed robbery, and my brothers and I were intrigued by his appalling jailhouse tattoos (one of which was a topless hula dancer that looked disturbingly like a man with breasts and probably says more about prison life than a whole season of OZ). Other friends were Chicago police detectives, fringe mobsters, longshoremen and physicians. Homeless people were fed and allowed to sleep in our cars, and the pot-bellied stove was always burning in the garage so the garbage men and other city workers could take off the chill of the cold Chicago winters. The neighborhood, Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, was becoming gentrified at the time, and the menagerie of miscreants in and out of our house drove the neighbors crazy.

Smelting season was late February and early March, not the best of times to be on the lake front in Chicago. The process was simple—you threw a weighted line out into the water, attached it to a pole on shore, and lowered a gill-net on a trolley. You waited for a bit, usually measured in beers, and drew the net up, hoping it was loaded with smelt. We fished at night because it was felt that's when the smelt run best.

What I remember most was how cold it was. I also remember looking down the breakwater and seeing dozens of Coleman lanterns illuminating the frames and nets of the other smelt fishermen. Carl and my dad were staying warm by drinking brandy; I had no such comfort (though I suspect Carl would have shared if my dad wasn't there. On another fishing trip I saved him from drowning and, in a show of gratitude, he bought me a case of gin even though I was only sixteen). It didn't take long for me to regret going along, especially when it became apparent that Carl and my dad had no intention of leaving, ignoring that I was on the verge of hypothermia.

Catching fish took the chill off, at least initially. The smelt weren't very large, and I was amazed to see Carl clean them by holding them in his fist and popping their heads off with his thumb. He then stuck his index finger in the hole where the head had been and split the belly and gut the fish all in one motion with just his fingers. Such a sight kept a six-year-old boy amused for a short time, but even this didn't circumvent the cold for long. I ended up sitting in the station wagon, hoping the night would end and I could go home to my warm bed. I must have fallen asleep, because I awoke the next day in my room with no recollection of how I got there.

We ended up with a bucket full of smelt. My mom cooked them up, we all took a heaping plateful, and I sat down to the meal feeling for the first time that glow that comes from being a provider. My pride was short-lived; they tasted like fuel oil, (we were fishing within sight of the steel mills, after all), and we threw them all away.

That was over 40 years ago. My dad quit fishing when 60 years of smoking unfiltered Camels finally caught up with him. Carl is dead, succumbing to a drug problem that was always just below the surface but became full-blown when my parents, his only steadying influence, moved from Chicago. I still fish, but not in the cold weather.

And I've never eaten another smelt. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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