Opening night: Chicago lakefront nearly empty of smelt netters for the opener, but tradition goes on

Smelt have been way down on Lake Michigan for years; and opening night Thursday showed the Chicago tradition fading to memory.

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Pete Kopf only put one net out on opening night Thursday of smelt netting on the Chicago lakefront. Credit: Dale Bowman

Pete Kopf only put one net out on opening night Thursday of smelt netting on the Chicago lakefront.

Dale Bowman

I encountered only one group on the Chicago lakefront set up for netting smelt on opening night Thursday.

The lack of smelt netters on the lakefront made the limited crowd at the Cubs opener look huge by comparison.

“I only put one net in,” said Pete Kopf, who had his usual crew of family and friends on the east side of the mouth of Montrose Harbor.

His crew is the only one I saw out in the first hour and a half (nets may go in at 7 p.m.) of opening night, as I also checked the Shedd Aquarium and Belmont Harbor. Conditions (north winds and waves) and street parking restrictions may have contributed to nobody being between Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium; high cost of parking may have contributed to the lack of groups at Belmont.

Of course, a winter-like night may have contributed, too. It will be interesting to see what the coming week of beautiful weather does to bring out smelt netters.

For Kopf, the night held hope and history, “First of our opening day of the smelt season. Being it was all shutdown last year, this year it might be a little better.”

That is probably wishful thinking, as the preview visit with USGS guys suggested. Click here for the smelt preview of prospects.

Asked the last good smelting he remembered, Kopf said, “Almost 18 years ago, maybe 15 years ago. It was fun. Every 10 minutes, you were pulling up nets with smelt. The next morning you had smelt and eggs.”

The memories kept coming.

“I remember 25 years ago at North Avenue, they were using throw nets,” he said.

Kopf gave his lone net the first check: Completely empty.

“I want to get three at least and bite the head off one,” he said.

Biting the head off the first smelt is a Chicago tradition and rite of passage.

As always, food and drink set the ambiance for the night.

“We got the hot dogs and hamburgers,” Kopf said.

When I checked their table, my scavenger skills coming through, they also had brats, chips, cheese and crackers, and beverages.

The season runs through April 30.

Chicago Park District regulations remain the same—nets may go in at 7 p.m., must be out of the parks by 1 a.m., no open fires, no closed tents, no parking on grass or sidewalks, dispose of coals in appropriate trash receptacles—with added COVID precautions such as social distancing this year. The park district’s informational card is available from Henry’s Sports and Bait, Park Bait and park district security.

One tradition of smelt netting remains: The festive gathering of food, drink, family and friends on the Chicago lakefront, as shown last year at Montrose. Credit: Dale Bowman

One tradition of smelt netting remains strong: The festive gathering of food, drink, family and friends on the Chicago lakefront.

Dale Bowman

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