Netting smelt: Tradition returns to Chicago, not the smelt; Stray Cast, Montrose, lagoons, Chinook historyon March 24, 2021 at 10:25 am

Smelt netting will be back in Chicago on April 1, as usual.

That’s the good news after smelting was prohibited in 2020 by pandemic precautions.

While the Chicago lakefront tradition will go on this year, the prospects for actually netting any smelt remain very iffy.

“There does not appear to be any major changes in rainbow smelt density since 2019,” emailed Ralph Tingley, research fisheries biologist at the Great Lakes Science Center. “Smelt densities still remain very low in our surveys, and we did not catch any yearling and older smelt in this year’s bottom trawl. While we did catch a few age-0 smelt, our results indicate that this is the second weak year class in a row for Lake Michigan.”

Chuck Madenjian, also a fisheries biologist at GLSC, put the decline in a historical context, “According to our bottom trawl time series, rainbow smelt abundance showed a big drop in abundance during 1993-2001. But, it is difficult to explain this trend. Predation on rainbow smelt was higher in the 1980s, according to the predation models, yet the big drop occurred in the 1990s. We don’t think that predation is the main driver of rainbow smelt population dynamics in Lake Michigan, although it may contribute somewhat to the trends. In contrast, predation explains the trends in alewife abundance in Lake Michigan very well.”

The non-native rainbow smelt reached Lake Michigan via an introduction of smelt eggs into Michigan’s Crystal Lake in 1912.

As to why the decline, Tingley emailed, “Smelt densities have been relatively low in Lake Michigan since 1994, but the reason they have declined is unclear. It doesn’t appear that declines in smelt were driven by predation by salmon and trout. Oddly enough, it seems like there are more young fish produced relative to the number of spawners since the ’80s and ’90s. It doesn’t seem like those yearling fish are surviving well and getting into the adult population.”

“Jumbo Jimmy” Baczek, hazy through his net, set up nets between the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium on opening night of smelt netting in 2019; smelt netting returns in Chicago after being canceled in 2020 by the pandemic.
Dale Bowman

Rumors have flown for years about smelt coming back up north. Netters clutch that by-gone dream of nets so full they were hard to lift and white five-gallon buckets overflowing. Back to reality.

“Some folks believe that rainbow smelt abundance in the northern part of Lake Michigan has been increasing during the past several years, but our bottom trawl survey results do not indicate this,” Madenjian emailed.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources regulations are unchanged. The season runs through April 30.

Chicago Park District regulations remain the same–nets may go in at 7 p.m., must be out of the parks by 1 a.m., no open fires, no closed tents, no parking on grass or sidewalks, dispose of coals in appropriate trash receptacles–with added COVID precautions such as social distancing this year. The park district’s informational card is available from Henry’s Sports and Bait, Park Bait and park district security.


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