2012: A smelt odyssey
The oldtimers remember how it was with smelt, the tasty baitfish that became somewhat of a springtime tradition. It was sort of like spring bullhead fishing; a good time to catch and eat. The smelt seemed to be everywhere – in the tributary streams off Lake Ontario and in the Finger Lakes streams of New York. For most, that’s become a bygone era. The younger generation has never seen runs of smelt, let alone sampled the deep-fried table fare.
Chris Kenyon, outdoors promoter for Wayne County and an outdoor writer in several publications around the state, received a letter from one of his readers last fall – hand-written, another action that seems to be disappearing in this day and age of social media. It was from Donald Steurrys of Sodus, reflecting on his past experiences on the local front with smelt dipping. He wished that dipping those tasty morsels was still an option for the 75-year-old sportsman. He was reminiscing about younger days, an antiquated – and cheaper – version of the time machine.
As Kenyon read the letter he, too, reflected on those days. The fact that it was handwritten meant a lot as well. His adrenalin level was raised and out came a piece of paper and pencil for a response. He said that if Steurrys would remind him in the spring, there was still one or two areas – like the Niagara River – that seemed to still have consistent runs of smelt and he would do his best to obtain a bag. “I’ve got friends …”
Sure enough, at the end of winter, Kenyon received another letter from the “old codger” as Donald’s wife put it – reminding him of his offer of trying to obtain smelt. “I would make it right by you,” said Steurrys. Just the wording impressed Kenyon and he made up his mind to do whatever it took to come up with some smelt.
Kenyon contacted me and asked about the Niagara River smelt run. I told him it started early this year, in March. The run was already starting to die, but there was a chance that we could still come up with a bag. I finally got through to Mike Fox of Lewiston, a guy in an enviable position of having a house on the Niagara River just north of the Village of Lewiston.
After telling Fox the story of the quest for smelt, he was excited that he could help in the cause. “I love stuff like that,” said Fox. “Come on down and take what you need.” Two hours later, we had a bag of smelt on ice, heading east. The next morning at 11:30 a.m., Kenyon made the trek from Wayne County to a restaurant just off the Thruway in Batavia. The bag of Lake Ontario gold was passed on, like an Olympic torch being passed on to start the games.
Hours later, Kenyon pulled into the Sodus driveway and Steurrys was summoned. “Tell him Kenyon is here with a present.” When Steurrys arrived on the scene, Kenyon presented him with the Holy Grail of fish snacks.
“Smelt …” was all he could muster as he stared at the bag of baitfish. He was speechless for several minutes, allowing the grandkids to gather and say “Hey Grandpa, you told us about these in some of your stories.” The stories will now live on as the kids will be able to relate firsthand what a smelt is … and how they taste. After they were cleaned, it wasn’t long before they hit the hot oil. Don’t be surprised if these kids are now involved with a pilgrimage of sorts to Lewiston next spring when the smelt start to run up the river.
The Niagara River Anglers Association will be hosting the group’s annual smelt dip and fry on the banks of the lower Niagara River May 4 starting at 6 p.m. Because the smelt run was early this year, some 400 pounds of smelt were purchased for the event this year to ensure everyone who attends gets a tasty treat. Help pass the outdoor traditions on … and kudos to Kenyon for following through and keeping his word. It was a great feel-good story.