How we found the smelts

Although born in England and raised in New Zealand before arriving as an adult in Canada, Kenneth With brought with him a staunch belief in all things British. That, plus a possibility he might have been descended through his mother from Izaak Walton (English author of The Compleat Angler, about the art and spirit of fishing, first published in 1653), imbued him with a deep interest in anything that lived in the waters of Georgian Bay — and how to catch it.

So when in the late 1940s he heard rumours that there were smelts in the Bay, he had to find out for himself. These he discovered were freshwater smelts of the Great Lakes, large schools of which swarmed up rivers and rapids to spawn soon after the ice went out each spring. He learned that some permanent residents relied on catching quantities of them for food before tourism’s seasonal income began. Smelts were seldom seen in the rest of the year, except perhaps by commercial fishermen.

Eager to get to the island again anyway, Dad arranged to have the Blackduck launched as soon as the ice had gone that spring. The very next weekend the family went to Wahnuhke accompanied by a good friend. Despite a life-long experience at Georgian Bay, this man had never caught smelts there because of the early-ness of the season. He too was eager to learn about them.

There were almost no other cottages occupied yet , or boats in the channels. The men spent Saturday making a dip-net from an old pole and some window screen. The rowboat had been launched and was soaking up. It would be used to ferry us ashore at the McRae’s Lake rapids from the anchored Blackduck.

Very late that night, without another light in sight, we set out for McRae’s where the rapids were in full run-off mode with swirls and eddies in the dark waters below. The Blackduck was anchored just offshore from the big rock island in midstream. We rowed ashore with the net and strong flashlights.

While spending the early evening waiting until they believed the smelts would be running, the men had enjoyed a beverage or two. In fact the visitor misjudged his capacity, and after embarking in the rowboat for the big rock decided he would stay aboard and keep it bailed out, while we looked for smelts from onshore.

In such fine form was he that the cliff above the rapid (see Special Places) rang with his renditions of currently popular songs competing with the roar of the rushing water.

Meanwhile the rest of us were despairing as we shone lights into the swirling water. Not a flash of silver-sided smelts to be seen, just the gray depths of the Bay. Oh well, someone suggested, let’s just try out that net we made to see how it might work next year.

Dad poked it below the surface and held it there for several moments, then tried to raise it. The pole was bending dangerously as it came up — overflowing with silver squrming smelts! They were swarming so thickly they were unable to flash their bright sides so all we could see was their dark backs.

Greedily we filled the basket we had brought and even dumped a netful into the rowboat beside our singing friend. We doused our fire and were ferried back to the launch.

Unfortunately, before he could disembark himself, the friend let go and the rowboat was swept into the black night by the current to drift out of sight along the base of the cliff. Just before the Blackduck’s engine started we could hear the strains of “Cigareets an’ Whusky ‘n Wild, Wild Women” (search for Red Ingle on You Tube) serenading the invisible spirits of the rapids.

He was found by our spotlight and climbed safely aboard for the trip home.

Breakfast a few hours later was of course delicious fresh silver smelts (…and we won’t mention the hangover). But with far more than we could eat the rest were dug into Dad’s tomato patch, the fruits of which months later were especially good.

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