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Smelt Fishing

Nightime scene of Harvey's Lake smelt fishing, Jan., 29, 1957

Harvey’s Lake is Pennsylvania’s largest natural lake by total volume of water with a surface area of 658 acres and a maximum depth of 93-100 feet.  In 1951 the Lake’s water volume was estimated by the PA Fish Commission as 7,333,000,000 gallons.  Both private and public sources have introduced non-native fish into the Lake.  The earliest experiment may have been black bass which wealthy Wilkes-Barre businessman with Lake interests brought to the Lake from the Susquehanna River in 1871.

Smelt fisherman at Harvey's Lake, 1959

Perhaps the most unusual fish stocked in the Lake were Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus Mordax).  Smelt are coldwater fishes which originally thrived along Eastern and Western North America and its tributary rivers.  They are anadromous fish which ordinarily spawn in fresh water but as adults they live in the ocean.  However, they can successfully live in fresh water lakes.  The adult length is 7-9 inches with a weight of only 3 ounces.  Ocean smelt have a pale green back with purple, blue and pink sides and a silvery belly, but fresh water smelt backs became quite dark, almost black.  They feed on smaller fish and zooplankton (minute animal and plant life).  Oddly, when freshly caught, smelt have a distinct “sliced cucumber” odor.

In the early years of the twentieth century smelt were introduced into Lake Michigan and are now found in all the Great Lakes and particularly Lake Erie.  They are now found in a large number of lakes in the Northern United States.  Usually smelt are stocked in a lake as forage fish for larger sport fish.  But sport fish (for example, bass, trout) and smelt compete, too, with other fishes for zooplankton food supplies.  The net effect can actually decrease sport fish population not the intended increase.

In 1952 the Pennsylvania Fish Commission stocked 800 smelt from Lake Erie into Harvey’s Lake.  (The Commission would also stock smelt in Raystown Lake and the Allegheny Reservoir elsewhere in the State).  It was hoped that smelt would be forage fish for the Lake’s large Lake Trout which once were a prized fish in the Lake.

After a couple of years of growth the smelt population at the Lake became abundant and were caught in large numbers, particularly  by ice fishermen beginning in January 1955 and in subsequent winters in 1956 and 1957.

Smelt can be caught with difficulty during the summer, but abundant smelt are easily caught during the winter night hours by ice-fisherman when the plankton rise nearer to the surface under the ice, attracted by a fisherman’s light, and schools of smelt follow after the plankton.

In the January 1982 issue of Outdoor Life, angling writer Tom Fegely, wrote about an evening fishing at the Lake for smelt with Chuck Rupert, with the PA Fish Commission, and Kingston angler Joe Sisky:

Last year I joined forces with a few regulars on the lake’s thick ice cover and came home with a hefty share of the small, silvery scrappers. Chuck Rupert works for the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, and when not on duty he can be found huddled in his ice hut somewhere atop the snow-covered ice. But when I met him for a night of smelting early last February he told me that ice hut had blown away during the previous night. We decided to fish anyway, drilled our holes in thelantern-lit darkness and roughed it without the shelter. As is typical in a Pennsylvania winter, wewere chilled to the core within 15 minutes. Had itnot been for the plight of Joe Sisky of Kingston, another regular who had problems with his motor-ized auger, we might not have found shelter thatnight. But he offered to share his hut in exchange for our ice-cutting services.

Once inside Sisky’s plywood-paneled shelter, we drilled three six-inch holes, lit anotherlantern, pulled our seats up to the ice holes, and began fishing.

“This is the hardest part,” Rupert said,dropping his minnow-embellished teardrop jiginto the clear water. “Before you catch ‘em, yougotta find ‘em.”

Rupert went on to explain that the smeltwander the lake in vast schools, sometimes justa few feet below the ice, and on other nights asfar down as 60 feet. Some fishermen cut short the time needed to discover the depths preferredby the smelt each night. One angler I met had oneof Lowrance’s “green boxes” --- a portable, battery-operated depthfinder. When a school of smelt swam below his ice hit, this night at only 12 to 15 feet, the red lights on the finder flashed wildly.

When the fish run deep, the time consumedin getting the bait to them and the extra secondsneeded to haul the smelt back to the top cuts into theactual catching time. And when upward of 200 to 300 smelt carpet the floor of an ice hut on “hot” nights, the extra elbow exercise is especially tiring.

Equipment is simple, although some anglersprefer a motorized auger to bore though two feet of ice.Tip-ups are rarely used because the nibble of the smeltis too sensitive to trigger the flag. Instead, small jiggingrods are preferred. These may be equipped with spincastor spinning reels or just a line-storing spool sold on most ice-fishing rods. Two-pound-test line provides theeasiest handling of the ultralight terminal tackle, whichconsists of small ice flies – miniscule jigs of red, orange,gold, or some other color. Some fishermen choose No. 12hooks and a split-shot sinker instead of the jigs.

No matter which terminal rig is used, most localfishermen agree that the premium bait is one to two-inchminnow, which they call a “pinhead.” Anglers soon learn to bring plenty of them because five to six dozen may be easily used up when the action is good. The small minnowsare dropped through the ice holes to the levels where thesmelt have been found, then allowed to swim about. If a minnow is dead it can be effectively jigged in the same vic-inity. Emergency baits include strips of smelt belly andtraditional ice-angling fare like maggots and golden grubs(mealworms). The strike of the diminutive smelt is a sensitive one. Because of the largely undetectable hit, Harvey’s Lake regulars have invented a variety of detectiondevices. One is a little more than a single-eyelet rubber tip that snaps onto the end of the jigging rod and telegraphsnibbles.

Another popular gadget is a small-diameter springtaped to the rod between the end and second-last guide. The monofilament line is threaded through the spring, whichstands at about a 45° angle to the rod. When a smelt tugs on the far end of the line, the spring bounces.

By far the simplest detection device is a small bobber,about the size of a big marble. It begins dancing whenever a smelt goes after the pinhead below.

Despite the fact that the equipment is basic and thefish are small, there’s still an element of skill to catchingsmelt. It is necessary to set the hook, and if an angler is asleep at the reel, the smelt will probably make a meal of the minnow and get off scot-free. If the rod’s equipped witha spool-type line holder, and not a reel, a swift hand-over-handmethod of getting them onto the floor of the fishing shack is in order.

Because many noncaring anglers ignored ordinancesdemanding that they remove their ice huts prior to ice-out(the huts either sank to the bottom or littered the shore eachspring), the Harvey’s Lake governing body now charges a $40 fee to put a permanent structure on the lake for the durationof the winter. When the hut is removed at the season’s end, $35 is returned.

Anglers who don’t want to shell out the $40 use port-able shelters that can be removed at the end of a night’s fishing. There’s no fee for these as long as they’re taken offthe ice daily.

It’s no problem keeping the small fish for the dinner table. Because smelt are so oily, they should be quicklyfrozen. By tossing the smelt in a corner of the ice hut awayfrom the heat of the lanterns, the chore of freezing them isdone easily. Some anglers prefer to clean them at the site.

Harvey’s Lake was studied extensively by the late Charles B. Reif (1912-2006), Chair, Wilkes College Biology Department, from 1942 to 1979.  He studied numerous area lakes and published several academic papers on area lakes.  Harvey’s Lake and its changing zooplankton populations were his special interest and impacted the rise and decline of the Lake’s fish population including smelt.

Smelt fishing at Harvey's Lake, 1968

Reif found that the smelt population declined in 1958 and 1959.  There were no smelt catches in 1960-63 but smelt boomed again in 1964-1970 (except in 1967-68) in even larger numbers than the 1955-59 period.  Then in 1971-75 the smelt population again fell extremely sharply with smelt reappearing in 1976-1980 in small numbers.  The smelt population in 1981-82 is not reported, but in 1983-84 undersized smelt were again caught.  Thereafter, in 1985-86 smelt seemingly disappeared. 

During the 1980s Reif noted the appearance of alewife fish in the Lake.  They were first observed during summer evenings after sunset in 1981 and 1982.  Alewife, a member of the herring family, and also an anadromous fish with characteristics similar to smelt, typically grew to 3 to 6 inches, but up to 9, in fresh water.  Reif estimates they were illegally introduced into the Lake in 1978-79.  Perhaps they were a fisherman’s bait fish which escaped or were dumped into the Lake.  Reif concluded that the large population of smelt, aggravated by alewife,  and other human environmental factors, substantially impacted (if not eliminated) certain zooplankton life which supported the fish.  In the meantime, the Lake Trout, were to have benefited from the smelt experiment, were largely killed off during the hot summer of 1966 due to low oxygen levels at the Lake’s depths which also likely contributed to low smelt harvests in early 1967 and again in 1968.

For more on smelt, including recipes see http://www.p0ps.com/originalArt/ruthParson/02.html.

The January 1982 Outdoor Life article is reprinted with the permission of the Copyright holder and does not imply endorsement by Outdoor Life of the site:  “Copyright 1982 Bonnier Corporation.  Reprinted with permission from Outdoor Life Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Reproduction is any medium is strictly prohibited without permission from Bonnier Corporation.  Such permission may be requested from Outdoor Life Magazine.”

 

Copyright 2008 F. Charles Petrillo

Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo