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Grab a net and a pail. Springtime in Duluth means the smelt are running

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Duluth, Minn., has a tradition to mark the end of long, hard winters - a tradition that centers around smelt, a small, silvery fish. For a couple of weeks every spring, tens of thousands of those fish swim into shore to spawn, and hordes of anglers flock to the beaches and streams to scoop them up. The annual smelt run is part fishing and part carnival. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio takes us there.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Smelt are a skinny little fish, only six to nine inches long, but they have a big, devoted following.

JOHNNY THAO: Number one fish in my book - yeah, the big lake here, the taste - like, so you can't compare anywhere else.

KRAKER: Johnny Thao drove up to Duluth from St. Paul with his wife, uncle and cousin. He's made this pilgrimage north every spring for the past 15 years, for half his life, because he's just crazy about smelt. He says they taste great - kind of like french fries.

THAO: I snip off the head, and then you just yank all the guts out with it and then do a quick rinse, batter and deep fry. You're golden.

KRAKER: But you've got to catch a lot of them to make a meal. Thankfully, that's easy this time of year, when after dark, big schools swim into the warmer water close to shore to spawn. Instead of catching them with a rod and reel, Thao and his uncle each hold one end of a 25-foot-long net.

THAO: You go out there, one guy or person on each side. Pull the net, and just slowly walk back. Slowly walk back.

KRAKER: When they get to shore, they lay the net down on the beach. It's full of dozens of teeming smelt.

THAO: All right, first smelt for 2022.

KRAKER: Groups of people line the shoreline with lanterns, portable heaters and empty coolers they hope to fill with fish. They wear waders to stay warm in the 40-degree Lake Superior water.

Julie Yang drove up here from the Twin Cities with her husband. She also loves eating smelt. But for her, it's a bigger experience.

JULIE YANG: It's beautiful out here at night, so - listening to the waves crash, just catching fish in the middle of the night. I don't know. It's something weird about that, but it's fun.

KRAKER: There's a festive atmosphere in Duluth every spring when the smelt run, even an annual parade to mark their arrival. But it's nothing like it was in the 1960s and '70s.

DON SCHREINER: People would come from all over the Midwest to fill up pickup trucks full of smelt at the time.

KRAKER: That's Don Schreiner, a fisheries specialist at the University of Minnesota. He says back then, the smelt ran so thick, you didn't even have to get wet. You could just dip a net in the water and scoop them out. The population plunged in the 1980s, when larger predator fish recovered in Lake Superior.

Today enough smelt remain to sustain this long-standing tradition. But Schreiner says there's a new threat. Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota have all issued consumption advisories for Lake Superior smelt after some fish were found to have high levels of a family of chemicals called PFOS, or forever chemicals.

SCHREINER: And it seems like smelt, for some reason, accumulate more of this chemical than the other fish species that we've looked at so far.

KRAKER: Health officials advise smelters not to eat more than a meal a month. That means no more pickup trucks full of smelt to gorge on.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker, in Duluth.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.