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Article updated: 3/26/2013 5:12 AM

Can't catch whiff of suburban smelt fishermen these days

By Burt Constable

In March of 1986, fans of the Chicago Bulls were wondering when, or if, their young injured superstar would make it back onto the court in time for the playoffs. The Chicago Bears were eyeing the upcoming NFL draft with Super Bowl aspirations. The Chicago Cubs were hoping to rebound from a disastrous season. And smelt fisherman were making their annual pilgrimage to the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

In general, not much has changed on the sports pages, but what happened to all those smelt fishermen?

"It was huge. They'd line up along the piers, hundreds of people from Waukegan to Indiana," remembers Andy Johnson, 61, who grew up in a commercial fishing family and took over the legendary Don's Dock seafood restaurant and market in Des Plaines from his father, who turns 90 this year. "People would be out there drinking their beers and catching their smelt."

Now those fisherman would be just drinking their beers. The carnival atmosphere is gone, and so are the swarms of smelt.

"Smelt are not in numbers like they used to be," says Steve Robilard, a fishery biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office in Des Plaines. "Since 1993, numbers have declined, and now there are very few smelt out there."

An Atlantic Ocean species not native to the Great Lakes, rainbow smelt were imported a century ago as food for fisheries. Stocked in Michigan's Crystal Lake, the smelt apparently used connecting waterways to get into Lake Michigan in the 1920s. Every spring, they would spawn in the shallow water near the shore. Fishermen could dip a net (sometimes even a bait bucket) into the water and come up with enough smelt for supper.

"The smelt were holding up OK through most of the 1980s," says Chuck Madenjian, a research fisher biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. But the smelt population plummeted in 1993 and, except for an upward blip in 2005, has remained at low levels. Results from last year's bottom trawl surveys of the lake indicate there might have been four times as many smelt in the 1990s as there are now.

"By 2001, they were at levels so low we had never seen before," Madenjian says, adding that the smelt that were caught were smaller. "There could be some really subtle thing going on that has affected the smelt. We can't say for sure."

Populations all revolve around food, Robilard says. Perhaps the intrusion of mussels in the food chain somehow left smelt with less food. Perhaps predators simply ate more smelt.

"There isn't as much food out there, so the system isn't as productive as it used to be," Robilard says.

To help balance that food chain, Illinois is cutting back on the number of predatory Chinook salmon it uses to stock the lake. In 2012, Illinois added 3.2 million Chinook salmon to the lake. This year, that number will be cut in half.

But there are still enough smelt throughout the rest of the continent to fill the spring menu at Don's Dock with everything from fresh smelt at $5.75 a pound to the $6.65 fried smelt dinner with fries, slaw and sauce, and even the $9.95 all-you-can eat special.

"It will be our biggest seller the next two months," Johnson says of his smelt offerings.

Supreme Lobster in Villa Park delivers fresh smelt from lakes other than Lake Michigan to the restaurant four times a week.

"Over the years, they have diminished, but they're still available," says Tim Stramaglia of Supreme Lobster.

The lack of local smelt even has affected the legendary 62nd annual American Legion Smelt Fry on April 5 and 6 in Port Washington, Wis., which often draws visitors from our suburbs. The dinner, which includes fries and a free beer or pop, will see a price hike this year. "We raised it from $10 to $11 because the smelt are getting short in supply," explains Paul Tutas, adjutant of that American Legion Post.

Generally 3 to 5 inches in length, smelt are gutted, beheaded, breaded and fried with their tiny scales and bones intact, which adds a little crunch and unnerves some diners.

"My wife won't eat it, but I like it," Johnson says.

Even with the population drop, Lake Michigan smelt still aren't as rare as local smelt fishermen. The last time Robilard went smelt fishing was as a teen along the shoreline near his home in Kenosha, Wis.

"We caught a couple smelt," Robilard says, "and that might have been the last two."

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