By Joe Ognibene
About 25 years ago a few members of Niagara River Anglers welcomed spring by using long handled dip nets to scoop smelt from the lower Niagara River along what was locally known as the Lewiston Sand Dock. The scooping was great and all went home to have a fish fry unequal to none. No one knows when it was suggested it would be a good idea to haul a Coleman stove, a few pans, some oil, maybe a bottle or two of beer and lots of enthusiasm for a shore fish fry on the spot.
Dippers got more smelt than the fellows could eat so they invited members of the public who were watching to partake of the feast. Thus, a tradition that has grown beyond belief was born. As the years passed more and more residents of Lewiston heard about the free springtime “fish fry” and the members of NRAA had their hands filled feeding the crowd that gathered. The word spread and people came from miles around who, when they heard of the free of charge smelt fry, decided to get in on it. About seven years ago the Village of Lewiston took note of the crowds that gathered for the smelt fry and decide to capitalize on it. Lewiston Mayor Richard Soluri has now declared May 3, as “National Smelt Day in Lewiston.” Soluri said, “After seven years, one day just wasn’t enough anymore and this year free smelt will be available both Friday and Saturday nights at the waterfront.” Lewiston was also declared “one of the best places in the country for smelt dipping” by New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
How about that, what started as a few fellows and gals enjoying a night out dipping smelt has developed into a “National Smelt Day.” I am not sure if the rest of the country knows about our fabulous fish, but word is spreading. I’ll lay odds it won’t be long before a national television network shows up to do a segment on one more of Lewiston’s claims to fame.
On Friday night members of NRAA, the acknowledged experts will do the frying and on Saturday night the Silo Restaurant will do the honors. It has been estimated that hundreds of pounds of the tiny silver fish will have been cooked and consumed throughout both evenings. Along with smelt there will be chowder, beer and a variety of picnic foods for sale. There is no charge for the smelt and you are invited to eat all you can hold. Almost every restaurant in Lewiston will have smelt on their menus and they will compete with fellow restaurateurs in serving smelt in palate tempting ways. There will be music and entertainment on both nights in Waterfront Park.
The smelt usually begin their runs up-river after dusk, but dippers will have been busy a day or so before and when the party starts at 6 p.m. there will be plenty of fish to be eaten. If you are planning on dipping for smelt to take home be sure of what you keep. Trout could be scooped along with smelt and it is up to you to determine what you have in your net. If you are caught possessing any game fish thinking they are smelt it will cost you a hefty fine. Dipping in the lower Niagara can be dicey. The water is rushing by rapidly and the rocks underfoot are slippery. Venture out too far and the current can take your legs out from under you in a heartbeat. Boots fill with water quickly and will take you under before you can react. Dip from a dock if at all possible, chancing the Niagara River is not the wisest thing you could do. Most of the creeks that empty into Lake Ontario will have smelt running in them and most can be dipped from shore or easily waded.
n On May 3, you may keep one smallmouth bass, at least 20 inches in length if you are fishing Lake Erie or any of that lake’s tributaries. You may fish for smallmouth throughout the state, but not allowed to possess them until the regular season opens on the third Saturday in June. Considering how cold Lake Erie got towards the end of winter and the lingering ice cap the water is still on the cold side for hot and heavy bass fishing. With the ice pretty well gone a few warm days will make a big difference. Stay out of Canadian water if you’re fishing for bass as their bass season opens a week later than ours. You can be cited if caught “targeting” bass out of season in Canadian water. Be sure to carry lots of identification if fishing the Niagara River or either of our Great Lakes this summer. No one knows how stringently some of those goofy border regulations are going to be enforced.
n I’m sure most of you are aware the spring turkey season opens on Thursday, and have your plans all made. It would be ridiculous for me to write instructions on how to bag a turkey. By now you should have talked to those who have taken turkey and gotten some tips. Most important is to remember that most of the “turkey” you hear will be hunters calling the real thing. Turkey hunting is dangerous as most everyone will be wearing camouflage clothing and will be difficult to spot if hunkered down behind a bush. Sit with your back to a thick tree as much in the open as possible. Sit quietly long enough and a bird might just walk up to you. If another hunter walks close to you let him or her know you’re there. By walking near you any bird around has been spooked so no harm will be done. Good luck.
Joe Ognibene is a local sportsman who has covered the outdoor scene since 1957.