The smelt dippers

By Tim Callahan

It’s April 10 and my journal says last year on this day, I got into a great run of smelt at 10:30 in the evening.

What a difference a year makes with Mother Nature’s clock. My main goal then was to do a painting at the mouth of the Tahquamenon River and wait for dark and the running of the smelt.

I get there a couple hours before dark and make two trips from my truck, carrying buckets, dipping nets, lanterns, and all my painting gear. I get set up and go to work; I have the place all to myself. I notice a lot of mergansers, a fish-eating duck, and gulls dive-bombing out in Whitefish Bay. They are most likely smelt dippin’ themselves from the fish staging at the river mouth before their evening run. I get as much painting done as possible – also taking a few photos.

It’s dusk now and time to fire up a lantern and get ready. Other dippers are showing up now, making campfires, which I note in the journal to put into the painting. I’m joined by a couple of dudes from Newberry. They brought along some beverages that are really appreciated – the one thing I forgot. Always nice to have company when the dippin’ starts.

The smelt run starts out slowly, one or two every now and then, and eventually they’re coming in pretty heavy. I got my two gallon limit within five minutes. I’m in waders up to my knees in the river when all hell broke loose. A giant muskie or northern pike is at my feet, gorging on smelt. I see the fish only for a split second and all around me, smelt are flying out of the water, trying to avoid this predator. They’re called the wolves of the river for a good reason.

That was a first for me. Earlier I saw an otter swim by us; you never know what you’ll see.

Well it’s time to make the journey back to the truck with all this stuff, plus a heavy basket of smelt. The real work is just starting; at home I’m up until 2:30 in the morning cleaning smelt, saving one to sketch for my painting.

That was last April. This April, I hit the river on the same date. That time I finished the painting and when darkness came and no other fishermen showed up, I knew I missed the run. I heard later it took place a week or so ago while I was downstate working.

There again, I did go home to one smelt: The one in the painting.

I hope you enjoy The Smelt Dippers.