Pete Kopf checks his net at the mouth of Montrose Harbor on opening night last year for smelt netting in Chicago.
Scot Peterson pulled up a memory of smelt.
‘‘I grew up in Chicago Ridge, and a couple of high school buddies and I went down to the lakefront by the Shedd one night in 1993 to give it a shot,’’ he emailed. ‘‘We came home with a few dozen and brought them into our Outdoor Recreation class the next day and fried them up for the class. Definitely a memorable experience!’’
Tom Kobierski, ‘‘Coach Kobo,’’ taught the class at Richards.
Memories are now where smelt mostly live in southern Lake Michigan. But Peterson, an assistant research scientist for aquatic ecology at the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Lake Michigan Biological Station, offered a sliver of hope.
Smelt netting in Chicago begins Friday.
Vic Santucci, the Lake Michigan program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, emailed that only three smelt were caught in their surveys last year.
But Peterson emailed, ‘‘We have seen a small bump in the smelt found in our surveys over the last couple of years, but I’ve only been here since 2016, so I was curious how they stacked up to the numbers before my time.”
He went through the INHS bottom-trawl dataset from 1990 to 2016, which was done primarily in 10 to 35 feet around Waukegan in August through October.
‘‘We would find hundreds of smelt in at least a few of our trawls during the early ’90s,’’ he emailed. ‘‘After 1995 or so, we would only see them in the hundreds every two to four years, but we would still consistently find them in those in-between years (a few dozen here and there). This trend continued up to 2010, but [we] stopped seeing those big numbers after that. Then only a handful here and there.’’
Micromesh gill-net surveys near shore began in 2006 in the same depths, but they also included Highland Park and Jackson Harbor. Those catch rates matched fairly well with the bottom trawl.
‘‘Our totals only exceeded 100 in two seasons — 2010 and 2011,’’ Peterson emailed. ‘‘So looking back at 2020, when I thought we found ‘a bunch’ of smelt, that year’s total was 80 fish, our third-highest total from 2006 to 2021. For comparison, our peak smelt catch from our gill-net surveys was 570 fish in 2010.
‘‘So, unfortunately, the overall outlook on the smelt isn’t great. But on a positive note, 2019 to 2021 are the highest numbers we’ve seen since 2011.’’
They also found a broader range in size in 2021, including the biggest one Peterson has seen so far: just longer than 9.5 inches.
‘‘So perhaps this small but upward trend will hold up,’’ he said.
Lakewide hints are similar, according to Ralph Tingley III, a fish biologist for the USGS Great Lakes Science Center.
‘‘The acoustic survey conducted in the summer did record the highest density of age-0 smelt since 2009,’’ he emailed. ‘‘However, densities are still well below estimates commonly observed in the bottom-trawl survey from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. It is still not well understood why smelt numbers have remained low in recent years.’’
Chicago Park District regulations remain the same: Nets may go in at 7 p.m., and you must be out of the parks by 1 a.m. No open fires, closed tents or parking on grass or sidewalks is permitted. The park district’s informational card is available from Henry’s Sports and Bait, Park Bait and the Northerly Island Visitors Center.
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.
The Illinois Morel Mushroom Facebook page posted its second progression map Tuesday with early finds in six southern counties.
Theater-released movies become to the Oscars what smelt are to netting.