The Schnitz Ale smelt are coming fresh right now from nearby Lake Erie. They’re getting a light coating of our organic cornmeal and battered in our proprietary beers and are served up with fries and housemade tartar sauce. Come by in the next week or so to grab a plate or two of this super tasty regional specialty and celebrate the start of the annual smelt season here in Northeast Ohio!
Smelt are a huge part of the Great Lakes fish History. However, had you dipped that same cup half a century earlier, you’d have come up completely empty. Much to my surprise, smelt aren’t native to the Great Lakes. They came from the East Coast to Crystal Lake here in Michigan in 1912 and then started showing up in Lake Michigan on the “shores of Phil Smidt’s” back in 1923, three years after the end of the Spanish flu. They boomed in fresh water and became a big part of the lake catch for fishing boats. They provide a good bit of base food for bigger fish in the lakes, and also a significant source of income for fisherman. Smelt are in the same family as trout and salmon but a whole lot smaller, but are fished at night like anchovies in the Mediterranean.
In the 1940s, the smelting phenomena was called “smeltmania,” according to an April 28, 1977, article in the Stevens Point Daily Journal. “People came from hundreds of miles to celebrate (the smelts) arrival, and grown men, fully clothed, jumped into the water to catch them with their bare hands,” stated the article. In later years, “sportsmen lined the shores, armed with everything from bedsprings to bird cages” to “scoop up the (fish).” Smelt were so abundant that “some old-timers say that on a quiet night you can actually hear them coming in with a soft, wooshing sound.” Smelting arguably reached its zenith in the 1930s when Oconto and Marinette attracted 20,000 to 30,000 visitors to dances, banquets and parades that stretched three miles, wrote George C. Becker in “Fishes of Wisconsin.”
There was even a “smestling” match held in a ring covered with 2 tons of smelt; the wrestlers fought to see who could stuff the most smelt into his opponent’s trunks. The impact of the small, exotic fish was significant at a time when the U.S. was clawing its way out of the Depression. “We’ll never quit,” Kolanowski said. “We’ll never let this tradition die.” Schnitz Ale Brewery is Proud to carry on this time honored tradition!