Duluth Smelting

Rick LeBlanc of Hermantown surpassed tradition by biting the head off not just his first smelt, but about two dozen others, too, at the Lester River on May 5, 1983. (Duluth News-Tribune file photo)

At this time of year, 20 or 30+ years ago, the hot topic in Duluth and Superior would have been the status of the smelt run.

Duluth’s mostly-vanished smelting tradition has been discussed on Perfect Duluth Day at least once before. It’s been a frequently requested item for the News Tribune Attic to cover.

So, by popular demand, the latest post in the News Tribune Attic includes a bunch of photos and a couple contemporary accounts of smelting in Duluth in the early 1980s. Enjoy!



about 13 years ago

When I was in high school our favorite thing to do during the smelt run was wait until a smelter got deep into the river then run by his campfire/cooler spot and heist all his beer.


about 13 years ago

So that's where all my beer went...


about 13 years ago

I remember heading down to the mouth of the Lester. It was a circus. Kind of like the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now. One guy was in the water (very close to the edge of the river) Had one of those portable battery TVs watching Denny A. on the 10pm news while he was pulling a net. If you're lucky, the United Northern Sportsman will get out their smelt fry trailer and set up down by the DECC. Beer batter fried smelt are part of my GitcheGummi roll sushi recipe.


about 13 years ago

Smelting was easily the deadliest form of fishing in Minnesota. It seemed at least one smelter per year would drink too much beer and his waders would fill up and drag him under.

greg cougar conley

about 13 years ago

My family used to go to Wisconsin Point and to the mouth of the middle river to smelt when I was a kid. So many people used to smelt back then. There would be cars parked a mile down the road from the river. Smelt are absolutely delicious. One of my favorites, really. When I was 19 I went smelting and then went to the KFC I worked at and fried 'em up in original recipe breading. It was quite a treat.

Bad Cat!

about 13 years ago

Many years ago, I was living in the UMD (freshman year after moving from the cities) and found an official "No smelt!" sign on our dorm's bathroom door.

Being from the cities, smelting is either metalworking, or the past tense of smelling something, neither of which really made sense in this context. I needed one of my friends from Schroeder to explain it to me.

I really understood how ingrained the culture of smelting was to Duluth when UMD felt it necessary to print a sign to put on the women's bathroom in the dorms.


about 13 years ago

A bunch of my friends missed senior prom to go smelting instead.  They probably had more fun.  No, I'm sure of it.

Touchdown Johnson

about 13 years ago

Does anyone still do this any more? I'd love to try it if anyone wants a hand.


about 13 years ago

Born and raised in Duluth.  Never ate a smelt.

Never will, either.


about 13 years ago

Born in IL, raised in MPLS, ate my first deep-fried-head-and-tail-on Lester River smelt at a nursing home I worked at in New Hope, MN, circa 1979. Yum.Crunchy.Yum.

A woman I worked with would come up here each year with her friends/family and bring back literally coolers full - the big coleman coolers - and the kitchen staff would cook them up for the residents and staff - all free. 

'dems good eatin' *smack smack nom nom nom*

I did see some offered as "dressed' tonight at Cub in the fish coolers in the fish/meat section (although one package had an oddly diagonal cut head/tail in it - funny. I should have taken a photo), and a Smelt Fry sign earlier today, hanging on Mr D's.

Get 'em while ya can!


about 13 years ago

I know smelting will never again be what it used to be, but I know there are still some out there.  Have they been running in the Lester yet this year?  I haven't seen any smelters down here on the Point yet, but that doesn't mean they haven't been here.

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