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Shedding light, hope, on smelt opener: Mix of Chicago outdoors

Jeff Sauer (left), Elliott Olson and Keith Kielnik follow the old traditions of smelt netting on the Chicago lakefront on opening night Saturday at Belmont Harbor.
Credit: Dale Bowman

In a moment of quiet at Belmont Harbor Saturday night, Jeff Sauer and I soaked in the lights stretching from the high rises along Lake Shore Drive to the mountains of light dominated by the Hancock downtown.

“I never get tired of this,” Sauer said.

Neither do I.

Good thing the sensory overload is part of smelt netting, because smelt are shadows of what once was.

Smelt netting reopened Saturday for the month of April on the Chicago lakefront.

I did a tour, south to north, seeing no smelt fires at 31st Street or Burnham Harbor to Sauer’s lone group, including Elliott Olson and Keith Kielnik, at Belmont.

A study in at Belmont Harbor Saturday on opening night of smelt netting on the Chicago lakefront.
Credit: Dale Bowman

“I used to live by Lane Tech, used to come down here to smelt,” said Sauer, who lives in Woodridge. “Just trying to keep the tradition, even though there there aren’t many smelt.”

He’s right.

“Back in the day, my, oh my Lord, we would get them, fry them and eat them right away,” Sauer said.

Now it’s a tradition. Sauer’s group had two nets, a grill for doing sausages, chicken and garlic bread on a board, and beer.

They had no smelt while I was there, but Sauer later emailed, “We had a total of 26 smelt, not including the ones that got away [and a] lot of baby perch, which we let go. They started showing up around 11 p.m. You should have stuck around, the garlic bread was excellent.”

His garlic bread on a board did look that good.

But I wanted to push on to Montrose, the motherland of smelt netting. There were about 12 groups and a surprise for recent opening nights, some smelt were netted, too.

Jef Walczak, who leads one of the regular groups, emailed, “Total count was 16–lol–enough for a sandwich.”

A shade of what once was.

Tom “TJ” Collins. Credit: Courtesy Carl Vizzone

HIGH SCHOOLERS: Tyler Lubbat and Nolan Siara, of Buffalo Grove’s bass fishing team, placed third (five bass, 14 pounds, 1 ounce) in the Costa Bassmaster High School Midwest Open Sunday on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

IN MEMORY: Tom “TJ” Collins (left) died.

“He was a staple on the North Side in keeping the fishing community informed with info as it happened,” Carl Vizzone emailed. “The network he created was astounding.”

Mr. Collins was noted for flying the flag to mark “Camp Collins” of his fishing spot.

No services are planned but regulars plan to fly the “Camp Collins” flag.

Eric Schenck, new executive director of the Illinois Conservation Foundation, explaining Chillicothe Bottoms in 2013 on an Illinois River excursion.
Credit Dale Bowman

ICF: The Illinois Conservation Foundation hired Eric Schenck as executive director. He is familiar from his former role as Manager of Conservation Programs with Ducks Unlimited. He’s a good man going into a tough job.

HUNTING: In Illinois’ first double weekend for a statewide youth hunt for turkey (March 25-26 and April 1-2), the harvest was 1,541. That compares to 1,058 in the youth seasons last spring when the weekends were split between the south and north zones. . . . The first regular spring turkey season in the south zone runs through Friday, April 7. First season in the north opens Monday, April 10.

STRAY CAST: Variance fits fishing as much as baseball.