My fishing compadre Tony taught me to fish Lake Michigan salmonids from shore, in locations within a one-day fishing/round-trip-car-drive from northern Chicago. Typically the best fishing required travelling south to Michigan (Berrien Springs at the Dam, St. Joseph River), or travelling north to Wisconsin (Waukegan, Kenosha).
However, in the month of April, northern Chicago offers “catch-one-every-drop” fishing for brown trout of ten pounds or larger in Lake Michigan–if smelt fishing is good.
Using trolley nets from shore to catch 7” smelt is a long-standing Chicago tradition. Every night when the weather is acceptable, small groups of friends set their nets starting at 7PM. Nets are checked periodically, any caught smelt are removed, and nets are reset. Fishing stops at 1AM. During this period, when sufficient smelt are caught to barbeque a round of fish for all, heads and entrails are removed and tossed to the side–forming a pile. Fish are battered and happily consumed with beer. When smelt are running well, it is not unusual to see dozens of trolley nets set up in Chicago harbors.
My favorite harbor for fishing browns during smelt season is Belmont Harbor—the eastern boundary of Lincoln Park. Belmont berths boats of 80 feet and longer. The northern finger of the harbor is where the big cruisers dock, with their engines facing the edge of the harbor. When their engines are fired up to leave dock, and during docking, the pressure from compressed water produced by the decreasing distance of the prop from the harbor wall causes holes to be excavated on the bottom of the Lake beneath the props. For net anglers this area offers the best, most spacious location for setting one’s nets, because a bigger boat needs a larger docking space.
Ordinarily, in this area there are no big fish predators—no baitfish, soft-shell crabs, or aquatic vegetation to attract them. But, the situation changes during smelt season—a time when large, seasoned brown trout love to effortlessly gorge themselves on smelt heads and entrails.
Tony and I would arrive at Belmont about half an hour before the Harbor Master (we couldn’t fish there until he arrived). Before he arrived, we would run down the docks—away from the cruiser section, and fill a small bucket with smelt heads.
When the Harbor Master arrived he would start to kick the piles of smelt heads into the water, beginning in the cruiser section. As he kicked a pile into the water, one of us would drop a single hook with a smelt head attached into the spread of sinking heads. Virtually an immediate hook-up was the result. The other angler repeated this when the second pile of heads was kicked into the water. Soon after the second dude hooked up, the first dude would be releasing his brown. Then the first dude would run one spot ahead of the second dude–getting there when the next pile of heads was kicked into the water. We would play fisherman leap-frog in this way, catching robust browns as though we were on an assembly line.
We learned four things.
• The bigger the hole, the bigger the fish: while this is well known, it is nevertheless reassuring to replicate this phenomenon.
• Stiff rods and strong lines worked best because it was dark, and because the browns were excited (a.k.a. “stupid”) since they knew and anticipated what was coming–the sound of the Harbor Master’s boots served as their “learned” dinner bell.
• No other bait—real or artificial—which we tried got hit: the browns were big (hence experienced), and only there for the smelt heads.
• “Smelt head bonanza” is is not only a tradition for experienced Chicago anglers–but it also is a tradition for big, old, experienced Lake Michigan browns.
Match the Hatch
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
December 31, 2020