My father and his friends traveled from Detroit in 1958 to his cabin north of Cross Village an 8 1/2 Hour trip in those days. They would have arrived late Friday night. The group slept to about noon on Saturday to recover. Once up, it was overcast & cool on that early May day, they proceeded to the small stream next to the cabin. In about 2 hours they would take around 300 pounds of smelt. It was my Fathers only outdoor adventure, ever. Years later when I began to smelt dip with my high school friends, without his success, I wondered if it could have been true. Then remembering his 8mm movie of the outing, which I had watched several times, I couldn't believe how things had changed.
Those were the hay days of smelt. Then during the 60's and 70's the decline of the smelt had me dip for them less and less. Staying up all night with several friends for a quart of smelt wasn't that productive. By the 80's, Lake Michigan fisheries had been in decline for 20 years to the point were I don't think there was a fish left in the lake. Commercial fisheries from Chicago and the invasion of the lamprey eel wiped them out. Then came the alewife. With the large predatory fish gone the alewife (which had gained entrance to the great Lakes around Niagara Falls through the Welland canal) exploded and took hold in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. I believe the alewife being a little longer and 3 times wider affected the smelt population as they share the same food source and niche in the food chain. The alewife won out, at least for awhile. Then it happened the great alewife die off. Alewives by the millions washed up on beaches and clogged marinas around 1980. The shoreline high water mark was lined by dead alewives a foot thick and 4 feet wide. Marinas got it a bit worse, the dead fish would clog the basin with no shore line and rotted in the water around the boats.
Petoskey spent that summer with the smell of decaying fish permeating the entire town. The Great Lakes were a disaster. No smelt, steelhead, lake trout, white fish...nothing. During that period, approximately 1960 to mid 1980's, the Great Lakes had few if any game fish. Then MiDNR began a recovery program. They started with the coho salmon a large hook jaw, spawning red colored fish and it's population took off. Michigan anglers, who had relied on inland fishing, headed to the first big runs of coho salmon at Frankfort on Lake Michigan. With their 15 foot aluminum boats and 5 horsepower outboard motors they would be ill-prepared for the big waters of Lake Michigan and her fall storms. The fishermen frenzied for the big game fish was on. They were referred to as the "fishing fleet" off Frankfort. In the fall, during the time of this run, the Great Lakes has a gale storm season. It happens when a cold Canadian blast of air hits the warming great lakes area. And it happened, wiping out the "fishing fleet", as many as 300 boats washed ashore and the rescue operations were overwhelming.
All of this activity had an affect on the smelt population as it tried to make some kind of come back. With more funds the MiDNR began to experiment with planting different species. They introduced the King Salmon (Chinook), stocked brook trout, Rainbow and Brown trout. The Great Lakes fisheries began to grow and balance the overall fish populations. The smelt have had mild ups and downs related to game fish numbers. A good guess would be, the more game fish the less smelt.
Today the MiDNR is working diligently to protect the balance in the Great Lakes but man still creates problems to the fishery; zebra mussels, asian carp, warming temperatures to name a few. I do know one thing...I have caught more fish these last 10 years than the prior 40 years added together. As for the smelt, they still populate the waters and have their spring run but we will likely never see mass populations, as in the 50's, of them again.