Getting smelt for your smelt fry might be harder this spring under COVID-19 restrictions, and if you usually come to Lake Superior from out of town, you won't be getting any at all.
The city of Ashland has formally closed its city piers, docks and beaches until at least April 24, specifically aimed at keeping away armies of smelt-netting folks who flock to the Lake Superior shoreline to scoop the tasty little fish as they spawn along sand beaches and in streams.
“They're closed to everyone, residents and non-residents, because we just wanted it simple to enforce,’’ said Sara Hudson, Ashland Parks and Recreation Department director. “This so stinks for everybody ... but we can’t have crowds out there, we just can’t. People need to stay home.”
The April 24 deadline may be extended into May if the governor’s safer-at-home statewide order is extended, Hudson said.
Duluth officials Friday said they will allow “local residents” access to beaches and other waterfront areas but only if people are keeping their social distance from each other.
“Smelting is traditionally combined with large gatherings that do not conform with the CDC’s social distancing guidelines,” Duluth Parks and Recreation Manager Jessica Peterson said in a statement. “Area locals may continue to smelt, but they must practice social distancing and respect standard beach closure times of 10 p.m. during the smelt run.”
“Due to safety, only area residents are to participate in this recreational activity,’’ Peterson said. “We are all making changes to our daily lives, accepting some of our traditions might need to look different this year, and we ask that people use good judgment before deciding when, where and how they will recreate during the pandemic.”
Duluth is ordering that smelters participate only with their own family and that they not share communal tubs to hold their fish. No groups of more than 10 people will be allowed.
The city of Superior also is going to try to keep its Lake Superior beaches open to smelting, Mayor Jim Payne said Friday, but only to residents of Douglas County. Payne said Superior Police will patrol the beaches to enforce social distancing orders for all smelters “and if they find folks from outside the county, they will send them home.”
Payne said the policy is an effort to provide local recreation for local residents and still follow the state’s safer-at-home order not to travel for recreation. He said specific details of the policy will be released next week.
Smelt, actually an invasive species from the ocean that entered the Great Lakes a century ago, usually “run” or spawn in late April and early May, depending on how fast water temperatures warm up. They can school in vast swarms with thousands of fish in each group.
Smelters often gather in large, gregarious bunches, mostly at night when the small fish gather along sand beaches to spawn. The mouth of the Lester River and other streams also are popular smelting spots.
Smelting has in the past drawn crowds from across the Upper Midwest. It was already expected that Wisconsin’s safer-at-home travel restrictions and Minnesota’s stay-at-home regulations — which both require residents to recreate only in their home community — would keep away most hordes of tourists that often show up for smelting. But city officials said they wanted to make it clear to outsiders not to come this year.
Smelting usually involves wading into the water and dipping nets to scoop the 6- to 9-inch long fish, or using long seines along beaches.
In the 1970s, when smelt runs peaked, thousands of people crowded Duluth’s waterfront for what became all-night bonfire and beer parties, often leaving with huge tubs full of smelt and leaving behind a mess. Smelt fries were a staple among clubs, taverns and church basements. In recent decades the smelt runs have been much smaller, although occasional years see good hauls taken. Some smelt may still be available this year from commercial netters.