Smelt

Adventure and discovery are two key ingredients to a satisfying road trip. Be it a winding, twisting road, meandering through a picturesque National Park, a visit to Wall Drug (in Wall, South Dakota) or a folded-up cardboard box scribbled with the word “Smelt” — only the S capitalized — on the windshield of a pickup in the parking lot of a Thrift Value store in Hayward, Wisconsin, you know that satisfaction is just around the corner!

On a recent trip through Hayward, KB caught sight of just that very cardboard sign on the windshield of a dark green pickup truck, parked under the sign of the Thrifty Value store. It is not in his DNA to dismiss the temptation of stopping at 11:00 on a Sunday morning to discover smelt freshly seined from the shores of Lake Superior. That cardboard sign was clearly an invitation to adventure.

Some smelt species are common to the Great Lakes — Hello, Lake Superior! In the early spring, when the water reaches 39 degrees F, smelt will school into larger groups and run the shoreline for spawning. Smelt are a smaller-sized fish, typically a food source for larger fish, including coho and lake trout. An early spring smelt run is a fantastic opportunity to night-catch a larger quantity, using a dip net and a headlamp. Fresh-caught smelt may be a little esoteric, but that’s a part of the attraction.

The bed of James’s truck held eight five-gallon, ice-packed pails of beautiful, silver, glistening fish. Saturday evening’s smelting activities appeared to have been fruitful. There were a number of smelt fans queued up to make their purchase and reminisce about their childhood smelting experiences with parents or grandparents. So the line didn’t move particularly fast — more like the coffee line in the Fellowship Hall after church service.

Fifteen minutes later, KB jumped back in the van with three pounds of smelt. A wonderful score for $2.99 a pound. The change for the $20 smelled appropriately fishy, but that’s a story for another day.

Monday at 11:00, Karl, Tracy and Matt got to work cleaning fish, preparing a few sides and prepping a fry station. A Filipino tempura mix of flour and cornstarch provided the perfect coating for the fry. Married up with a calamansi aïoli, our Monday afternoon smelt fry proved to be a tremendous distraction for the team at Cooks. Not a detractor in the bunch!