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Smelt netting on Chicago lakefront still lures diehards

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Updated: April 2, 2013 9:17PM

The battered smelt had a kick.

Dave Parker pan-fried them in olive oil over an open fire in the fresh, cold air Monday night at Montrose Harbor. The fish morsels connected smelt netting with its fading tradition on the Chicago lakefront.

Slap Ya Mama mix gave his smelt the kick after he put them through an egg wash, then dredged them in baking powder and flour.

The group of 15 associated with Perry Castrovillari, around grills under a tarp tent near the mouth of the harbor, had come with a backup plan. They had three pounds of smelt from the store.

‘‘If we weren’t going to net them, at least we were going to eat them,’’ Pete Cops said.

Late Monday evening, they had the most smelt — all of 11 floating in a metal washtub — of anybody at Montrose.

‘‘We have been doing this for 42 years,’’ Castrovillari said. ‘‘We used to bring in buckets full of them.’’

Smelting on the Chicago lakefront slides into a slow dance of memories and traditions. The background sounds on opening night were the broadcast of the Blackhawks’ game against the Predators and music from the Creedence Clearwater Revival era.

For opening night, eight or nine groups at Montrose tended nets while talking, drinking and eating by lanterns and wood fires in barrels.

Only Montrose had netters. We found no netters at Jackson Park, 39th, 31st, Burnham, Diversey or Belmont on opening night. A weeknight with temperatures in the 20s might have had something to do with that.

‘‘It’s a boys’ night out,’’ said Jim McGuinn, one of a group of former and current postal workers with Mike Del Vecchio, James Damian and Steve Collura. ‘‘No matter what, rain or shine, we are out here every opening day.’’

They had no smelt, but they had a wonderful spread of chili and brats on mini-grills under their blue tarp tent.

‘‘It is like a giant tailgate party,’’ Del Vecchio said. ‘‘I remember as kids filling up buckets. It was a major family night.’’

Fewer smelt aside, some family traditions go on. In the metal tub by the mouth of the harbor, two headless smelt floated with the nine live ones. Perry Castrovillari Jr. and his friend Jason Garcia had continued the tradition of biting the heads off the first smelt.

It was time.

I savored my favorite night view of Chicago from the south rocks at Montrose before we left.


Do not launch at the temporary launch at Heidecke Lake unless you have a boat you don’t mind risking. It’s shallow.

Turkey hunting

The youth turkey hunt in the north zone is this weekend. No harvest numbers have been released for the youth hunt in the south zone.

Stray cast

Sports talkers saying ‘‘bump’’ when they mean pitching mound grinds on my sensibilities as surely as fishermen who release yellow perch with distended bladders in deep water.

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