Thanks, Ray Henson and Margaret Rome for the August Challenge. Ray, I enjoyed reading about you and your dad's fishing stories. The older I get, I dare to say, the more I appreciate the good old days with family and their traditions. Gosh, I miss my dad and his brothers...
Here is the greatest fish story of the Great Lakes that I know that was passed on to me. Long before I was born, men had flocked to the shores of Lake Michigan to participate in a Chicago tradition called smelt fishing. My father and his brothers were no exception. Apparently, after the war, my father and his brothers planned their night trips during the cold and rainy month of April to fish on the piers between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. The stories he told were the same.
They say, early April was the best time to fish because fish began to head to shore to spawn. As a child, I never saw a smelt fish in my life, but my father and uncles swore there were smelt fish in Lake Michigan and the smelt fish practically jumped into the nets by the thousands without effort, worms, or lures!
As a little girl, it sounded like magic! I would watch my mother pack my father's lunch box as she prepared sandwiches and snacks. I recall him leave the house with glee as he waved goodbye with a big smile on his face. My father got home before I woke up the next mornings. We enjoyed gathering around the kitchen table as he drank his hot tea and told us his whopping fish tales! He swore the fish were jumping out to greet him! They tasted delicious. And of course, he was so hungry there were never any leftovers. His ice chest was always empty.
After I got married, my husband pulled all-nighters with friends of his as they gathered on the shores of the Great Lake Michigan at Montrose Beach. At least, that is what I was told, and once again, I never saw a single smelt fish in the ice chest. And his stories were similar to my dad’s stories. Because I was skeptical, I insisted on going smelt fishing with them to see with my own two eyes if this was just a fishy story, or was it real?
One day, I joined them, my father, spouse, brother-in-laws, and friends of theirs. I was told to dress warm because the nights got cold and to drink as little as possible because once I left the pier, my spot would be taken. It was a great sight to see Kerosene lanterns lit up on the shore and piers and campfires on shore burning too! The stars in the sky were brilliant, like diamonds reflecting on the waves of Lake Michigan. Skyscrapers lit up the backdrop and all around me it was dark with lights that seemed to twinkle. Those who smoked cigarettes were interesting to watch too because I could see the tip of their cigarettes and puffs of smoke come out their nose or mouth on the cold, cold night.
I learned, smelt fishing is as unpredictable as the weather in the Windy City. Dressing in layers to keep warm was taken very seriously. Whether or not you catch smelt depends a lot on the winter weather and your own patience. Seeing is believing! The first time I saw those silvery little fish being pulled up on nets I was mesmerized! The challenge depends a lot on the type of net and whether the fish can jump out before they came to shore. The burning lanterns cast a glow of silver fish squirming to be set free.
Not everyone is lucky enough to catch smelt but when the smelt fish are brought up by the nets, everyone seems to rush by to hover over each other’s shoulder to see how many were caught and how many were shared and eaten. It really was a fish festival on the darkest and most glorious nights in April. If people still go smelt fishing in Chicago, is something I do not know. But the stories I heard were real. I really do miss all the men in my family who shared their greatest fish stories ever told---Patricia Feager