“I’ve been doing the Smelt Festival since it started, back when you could catch hundreds of them here along the river. We’d have to remove all their heads and clean them the day before,” said Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster, wrapping an apron around his business suit and snapping on plastic gloves.
He paused for a photo, then turned to start serving up tiny, butterflied fried fish and plastic cups of cocktail sauce to a long, hungry line snaking across the parking lot on Friday night behind Water Street Landing in Lewiston.
Small, freshwater game fish once found in huge numbers in the U.S., smelt used to be especially abundant in the Great Lakes and its tributaries. Anglers along the Niagara River have childhood stories of dipping for smelt during their springtime run, usually in March or April. Jeff Baker from the Lower Niagara Chamber of Commerce recalled going out at night on the river with nets, reaching deep into the black water to fill several garbage pails with smelt in a few hours.
No more, though. Although warm weather and a perfect sunset lured a crowd of smelt faithful and first-timers to the waterfront for free samples, Lewiston’s 400 pounds of fish came dressed and frozen from Ontario, thawed before being dusted with Zatarain’s Cajun seasoning and taking a swim in hot oil. There just aren’t enough local smelt around to feed everyone now, said Jennifer Pauly, Chamber president.
What started out as a fry-up among a few anglers along the lower Niagara has grown into a gathering that pays respects to these tiny captains of industry. The Smelt Festival also raises funds for the Niagara River Anglers Association and marks the unofficial start to the fishing season. “People have been calling us all week to see if the smelt are running,” Pauly said. They aren’t yet, probably because of this winter’s extra-long freeze. But rumor has it that some folks are heading out to Ithaca to go smelting this weekend, where the fish have just made an appearance.
“My mother-in-law used to make these—we called them ‘Italian calcium’ because you ate the bones,” said Gus Marasco, of Pittsburgh, as he happily crunched through his paper container of fish. In town sightseeing with his family, he says he and his late wife used to visit Lewiston on their trips to Niagara Falls.
Last year I spied some dressed, decapitated smelt at the local supermarket and, curious, took a few home to pan-fry. With a light coating of flour and some sea salt, they were mild and delicious, their hairline bones nearly imperceptible.
Lewiston’s version was just as good, if not better because the smelt were smaller, lending a bigger crunch. Although I prefer tartar sauce or vinegar with fried fish, cocktail sauce seemed just right for some reason.
It was almost like eating coconut shrimp, or a crispier chicken fry. Okay, not really either of those, but they were still tasty.
Several local restaurants were also serving smelt that night. After the free tasting, I followed the rainbow fish signs indicating “Smelt Served Here” and wandered into Carmelo’s for their version: lightly battered, and served with bread-and-butter pickles and a lemon aioli (pictured above). Joined by a Big Ditch IPA and a salad, the little swimmers made for a fun and different light meal, no bones about it.
Lauren Newkirk Maynard is a writer and editor in higher education