Oh, the wonderful smells of spring: tulips, rain and of course, a local favorite—smelt. In fact, one of the rituals of spring in Highland Park is catching, frying and eating smelt, a small fish that looks almost like a trout, during their spawning season. Throughout April, smelt, also known as osmerus mordax, migrate towards the Lake Michigan shoreline when the waters warm up. And by warm, we mean 45 degrees.
The Park District of Highland Park started Smelt Fest 20 years ago to kick off the lakefront season. The fest is for everyone, "from kids to crusty old fishermen," says Jim Harkness, the facility supervisor at the park district.
Smelt are caught by a process called drop- or dip-netting where a pulley system drops the nets into the water. The park district provides three nets on its launch area. Harkness says it is best to catch smelt at night as they are attracted to light. "There are local anglers who fish at the same time who use their own methods," he says. The anglers are pretty friendly, so if you have questions about their individual techniques, ask.
Catching a smelt is not always guaranteed—they run together in schools—but tasting one is. Every year the park district buys 50 pounds of smelt to fry for everyone to try. "Generally you eat them whole," says Harkness. "Heads and all." But don’t worry, smelt are about 4-5 inches long, so the bones are very small. Tasting a smelt for yourself is part of your admission fee—$5 per car or $2 per person—but the North Shore Yacht Club will also sell American-style food if you’re still hungry.
The proceeds from Smelt Fest go to the park district’s grant and aid program, S.M.I.L.E. The program helps underprivileged kids in the area attend recreation programs and camps.
Dress warmly, it’s usually cold this time of year around the lake. Smelt Fest is from 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 25 at the Park Avenue boating and fishing facility, 636 Ridge Road, Highland Park. For more information, call (847) 579-3121.