Shantytowns come alive in the night, as anglers use bright lights to draw Northern Michigan smelt up from the dark bottoms of inland lakes.
A frozen lake in the dead of night is a desolate place indeed. Yet, the parking lot at Interlochen’s Green Lake is full, and trucks and utility vehicles line the narrow road leading to the snowed-in boat launch.
Out on the frozen lake, a ways from the launch, a strange colony constructed of canvas and plastic and even semi-permanent domiciles is waking up. LED lights submerged beneath the ice emit an ethereal glow below this nomadic village where the colorful language of fishermen (an artful composition of the technical and profane) punctuates the frigid silence.
Unlike most types of angling that encourage a monkish adherence to solitude, smelting is a communal endeavor. Beginning in mid- to late-winter, Northern Michigan smelt school-up in the hundreds and draw in fishermen and fisherwomen by the dozens. The usual angler decorum of respectful distance is tossed out the window as shanty villages spring up atop the mobs of aggressive and, most importantly, delicious fish.
Like the smelt themselves, the equipment used to lure in these slippery missiles is unorthodox. Bright lights run off a deep-cell battery are plunged below the ice to draw in zooplankton, which in turn attract swarms of wolfish smelt. Once enticed into firing range, anglers drop jigs tipped with waxworms or white spikes into the fray, watching their rod tip for the slightest tick-tick.
On a good night, these voracious feeders will nab the bait as quickly as you supply it. Most smelting excursions go well into the early morning, so put your catches on ice until daylight.
Smelt Fishing Gear
An ultra-sensitive rod, hair-strand line (one- or two-pound Trilene Micro Ice mono) and Hali Sukkula jig is the preferred setup. Use a flasher (Vexlilar, Humminbird) to pinpoint where the maws are amassing.
Chow down on this deep-fried delight and you’re likely to become an icebound insomniac, too. The generous two-gallon possession limit is plenty of motivation to park yourself on a frozen lake well past bedtime. Once you’ve cleaned your catches, coat the smelt in flour, egg wash and batter (I am partial to Andy’s Cajun Fish Breading), then drop into the hot oil. Fry each side 1–2 minutes (until golden brown) and then drain on paper towels.