It's not your imagination, smelt have disappeared.
Not just on the Chicago lakefront, but throughout Lake Michigan.
Smelt netting begins tonight in Chicago, but it will mainly be a social event, a welcome outdoor event to give winter a much needed kick in the ass.
At least in 2001, there was enough smelt netted at Montrose on opening night for Derrick Coley to eagerly perform the lakefront ritual of biting the head off the first smelt.
Now, smelt are so scarse, even a few being netted tonight might be a surprise.
First the dire smelt outlook from biologist Steve Robillard, then some basic details.
``Story for smelt isn't very promising. Even in Huron where there was a little flurry after alewife crashed, the numbers aren't really increasing. Like most other fish out in the lake, it's a food issue that seems to be limiting numbers.''
Then he added some pieces of evidence from lakewide surveys (which are also give a rather bleak overall outlook on the big lake):
From the bottom trawl (age-1 and older):
The Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) has conducted lake-wide surveys of the fish community in Lake Michigan each fall since 1973 using standard 12-m bottom trawls towed along contour at depths of 9 to 110 m at each of seven index transects. Rainbow smelt lake-wide biomass equaled 0.89 kt, which was only 0.01 kt higher than 2007, which is the lowest estimate in the time series. Overall, the total lake-wide prey fish biomass estimate (sum of alewife, bloater, rainbow smelt, deepwater sculpin, slimy sculpin, round goby, and ninespine stickleback) in 2008 was 25.62 kt, which was the lowest observed since the survey began in 1973.
From the hydroacoustics (age-0 and older):
Acoustic surveys were conducted in late summer/early fall during the years 1992-1996 and 2001-2008 to estimate pelagic prey fish biomass in Lake Michigan. Midwater trawling during the surveys provided a measure of species and size composition of the fish community for use in scaling acoustic data and providing species-specific abundance estimates. Mean total prey fish biomass was 15.3 kg/ha (relative standard error, RSE = 7.6%) or ~82 kilotonnes (kt, 1,000 metric tons), which was 1.9 times higher than the estimate for 2007 but 78% lower than the long-term mean. Rainbow smelt biomass in 2008 (1.6 kg/ha, RSE = 10.6%) was identical to the biomass in 2007 (1.6 kg/ha).
USGS posts their reports online now at:
Smelt netting may begin at 7 p.m. Netters must be out of the parking lots by 1 p.m. Take care of your surroundings (for years, the most complaints about fishermen have come from the behavior of smelters in April) and respect others.
For those unfamilar with smelting, most smelters are more than willing to explain what they are doing. Many even share the feasts they have put together.
If I make it out tonight, I'll probably start checking netters at 31st, then maybe jump north. Depends how many family duties are piled up.