Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Smelt Dipping

Every spring, after the last piece of ice leaves the lakes, a new season starts.  Not our “official” mud season, as that is well under way by that time, but rather a season known locally as “dipping” season.  The reference is to dipping smelts.  Every spring, the rainbow smelts leave the lake and go up into the brooks for their annual spawn.  An annual tradition that has become part of the local culture is to intercept these fish and “dip” them.  The traditional method of take is with a long handled metal mesh net that can be seen in the photos.  As the schools swim up the brooks, the net is quickly plunged into the midst of the school and quickly swept though in attempt to capture as many as possible.  In my area, to avoid over harvesting of this important resource, smelt dipping is limited to one brook.  Below is a quick story of last week’s smelt dipping trip.
                “Are the smelt running yet?” was the question heard repeatedly everywhere you went, as everyone waited with great anticipation for the run of the delicious smelt.  Finally rumor began to spread that someone had gone and netted a few, but they weren’t running hard yet.  The only spot that is open for dipping smelts in my area is Mud Brook that dumps into Van Buren Cove on the ever famous Long Lake .  The lake is well known for producing very fat salmon due to the high numbers of smelt in the lake. 

     Finally I heard what I was waiting for, the smelt were running hard!  After a quick phone call to Blake to inform him of the latest news, we had plans to meet and try our luck on some smelt.  Heather and I headed down and met up with Blake and Sarah where the road turns to dirt.  We all piled into my truck and navigated the remaining miles to Mud Brook.  I knew from all of the stories flying around that the smelt had been starting to run between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M.  We were quite early at 6:00, but I had a slightly different plan than the majority.  The large schools of smelt run in the dark, but smaller schools move up the brook all day long, and they congregate in certain spots.  Over the past few years, I have made it a point to find some of these holes and mentally file them away for future use.  As we reached the brook, I was surprised to see only two vehicles waiting, as this is usually a very popular event.  Wasting little time I pulled on my hip boots and headed down into the mud and bushes to my first spot.  Squinting against the glare of the waning sun on the water I saw the dark cloud that was a school of smelt.  I hurriedly plunged the net into the water, and like a true amateur hit an unseen alder which slowed my scoop and up I came with only one smelt.  Taking a deep breath, I calmed myself down and watched to see if the school returned.  Luckily it did, and by this time Blake had caught up to me after my headlong rush into the alders.  Since he had never had the chance to experience smelt dipping, I figured there is no time like the present to learn.  Quickly explaining the basics (see below) I handed him the net and he was off.  A quick plunge of the net yielded him similar results to my dip, and we now had a grand total of two smelt.  The smelt decided not to return to that hole, so we moved up to the next one.  As I reached the hole, the bottom looked suspiciously black, but I couldn't clearly distinguish anything.  Since it was my turn back on the net, I swung deep into the bottom of the hole and was thrilled to feel several small vibrations of the net pole which usually mean you are gathering lots of fish.  As I lifted the net clear of the surface of the water, I was rewarded with a net full of wriggling fish.  Quickly bagging them up, I discovered that in one dip I had managed to get over half of my two quart limit.  

     Handing the net over to Blake, he managed to pick up a few more stragglers from that school, and we were off to the next spot.  Hitting a few more of my favored holes, we quickly picked up our limits of fish.  It wasn't my best dip ever, as I have seen times where you can literally fill your net with fish, keeping your limit and releasing at least as many for another day, but it was good.  I managed to fill my limit in three dips and did something I have never done before.  I caught a smelt bare handed!  I was standing in knee deep water and watching a school moving through, when I had the bright idea to try to grab one bare handed.  I poised my hand over the water and when a part of the school that was close to surface swam by I struck, and sure enough I came up with a fish.  Probably not a huge feat, but I was quite satisfied by it.  One of the most rewarding things about smelt dipping is that you can go and be successful at it, and come home with a mess of delicious fish.  As we were leaving we went down to another spot on the brook and were surprised by all kinds of people.  There were at least 50 people waiting for the run to start, and it was rewarding to drive on by with our limit already in the truck.  An important note when it comes to fishing is that sometimes thinking outside the box pays off.

Limit of Smelt

Notice the Dip Net

Basics of Smelt Dipping:
1.  Look for schools, but don't be afraid of "blind" dips. (They can really pay off)
2. Dip from the head of the smelt towards the tail. (The swim faster forward than backward!)
3. Dip as deep as you can reach.  (They seem to dive deeper as you dip)
4. Sweep sideways and up as fast as you can. (The faster you are, the more you get)
5. Never dip more than you can use or what the limit allows, whichever is less. (When dipping is good, it is easy to get caught up and the temptation is there, but don't give in!)


  1. My grandfather would pay kids to fill up his coal truck with smelt and would then drive these loads of smelt to the cat food factory for cash. Not sure what the limit was back then…..

  2. That must have been quite a sight! Maybe the limit used to be two trucks instead of two quarts.