Photographs by Carrie Marie Burr
“I tell my kids,” says Tom Conrad, “that when smelt are running, it’s a signal of spring, when everything wakes up after winter.” And those kids were in for a show last March, when Conrad and his partner, photographer Carrie Marie Burr, brought them to a brook near their home in Huletts Landing, on Lake George. That day, says Conrad, the coltsfoot was blooming—a sign for smelt spawning time, according to local lore—and the kids witnessed a narrow Lake George tributary thick with dark, torpedo-shaped fish. The boys learned not to disturb the brook’s sandy beds where the fishes’ eggs had been laid, and that up to four weeks later the young would hatch and drift back into the lake. It was a teachable moment. Living in the Adirondacks means that “nature is a huge part of our daily life,” says Conrad.
But you don’t have to be a kid to marvel at these indefatigable creatures. Our region’s rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) were introduced to Lake George more than a hundred years ago, to support a more vibrant lake trout population. The millions of fish brought here thrived, living in cooler pockets of the lake, eating smaller fish and invertebrates, and supplying meals for trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon.
Today Lake George’s smelt population is carefully monitored; runoff, silt and shoreline development threaten the fish’s spawning migration, which can affect the success of larger fish. Rainbow smelt, says Warrensburg-based Department of Environmental Conservation aquatic biologist James Pinheiro, “have become a keystone species in Lake George” and “demonstrate how critical every portion of a lake’s watershed can be to the ecosystem as a whole.”
Smelt are open for fishing in Lake George from May 16 through March 31, for angling only and with a daily creel limit of 25. The season closes during spawning runs; the use or possession of smelt as bait during the spawning season is prohibited.