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Lewiston’s annual Smelt Festival hits the deep fryers Friday

LEWISTON – The Smelt Festival kicks off the festival season in Lewiston on Friday, with volunteers breading, deep-frying and serving up 400 pounds of smelt starting at 6 p.m. at the foot of Center Street along the Niagara River waterfront.

“They’re not fishy, they’re crunchy and small,” said Paul Jackson, president of the Niagara River Anglers Association. “We deep fry them, so the bones are gone, and some people like to use different sauces, from cocktail sauce to hot sauce. You just snap them down like a french fry.”

Beer, wine, pop and water may be purchased, as well as menu items from the nearby Water Street Landing, Silo Restaurant and Lower Niagara Moose Lodge 584.

The band 90 West will entertain against the potential backdrop of a stunning sunset over the Niagara River. The anglers co-host the event, with the Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce and Village of Lewiston. It is sponsored by CWM, DiMino’s Tops Markets and Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.

It will be held rain or shine.

Jackson said the smelt samples are free, but donations help his group provide everything from sponsoring youths for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s camp in Rushford to its important stocking program in the Niagara River.

For example, the anglers are raising 75,000 Chinook salmon fingerlings and 10,000 steelhead in their Youngstown pens, to be released into the Niagara in a month. Another 130,000 young fish are scheduled to be “direct stocked,” or released from the delivery truck right into the river, this week.

Jackson said smelt that are celebrated in Lewiston on the first Friday of each May continue to run in the Niagara, but are not nearly as plentiful as they once were.

“It’s not like the old days, probably because of the competition from the salmon, who gobble them up,” Jackson said. “The ’50s and ’60s were the heydays. Now they run sporadically. They may not run for hours and then a school comes in.”

The smelts’ fickle nature and smaller numbers have forced the organizers to purchase frozen smelt for the event, to ensure that festivalgoers have a chance to enjoy this tasty little snack.

“We had tremendous crowds last year – thousands,” Jackson said. “They were all lined up to taste the smelt. As fast as we can cook ’em, we hand ’em out.”

Jennifer Pauly, president of the Niagara Chamber, said, “This is a fun festival and it’s only one night. It brings a huge number of people to the village and even if they don’t attend the festival, many of our local restaurants serve smelt on their menus, too. The band 90 West is a big draw and have quite a following, so we hope this brings people out, too.”