Opening Letters

Fishful Thinking

a newcomer discovers the great Sconnie institution of smelt feeds

Josh Hakey, illustrated by Catlin Felix Kramka |

It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday, half an hour after the smelt feed began, and we’re looking for a place to park. Thankfully, we find a spot that isn’t too far of a walk back to the Rock Dam Rod & Gun Club. The first thing I notice as I walk down the dirt road is the unmistakable smell of fried fish, then the line, leaking from the main entrance of the clubhouse, bending when it hits a smaller building about 20 feet away.

This is where the actual frying is being done. There’s a constant back-and-forth between this building, nothing more than a glorified shed, and a window next to a side entrance of the clubhouse; Styrofoam boxes of raw smelt going one way, and pans of finished product going the other. A forest of mostly pine trees serve as the background. At this point I’m starving, and I light up a cigarette, my fourth for the day, hoping it will calm my nerves a bit.

The fish itself is very rich in flavor, reminiscent of fresh walleye, and I didn’t even bother to get more tartar sauce after the initial cup ran out.

The smell. Oh, God, the smell. It is absolute torture standing here at the back of a slow-moving line, hungry, as food passed in front of me every few minutes. It only got worse after entering the building, as the smell intensified in the enclosed area. There are two rows of tables set up in close proximity to each other, covered in cheap white plastic tablecloths, with just about every seat filled. I hope there’s room for me once I finally make it through.

There’s a bar set up to the right of the entrance. Stationed at every stool is a man at least 60 years old, wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a baseball cap, with many displaying whether they served in Vietnam or World War II. Leinie’s and Miller are their drinks of choice. They sit around, talking, laughing, enjoying each others’ company. These are men I immediately respect, without knowing anything about them. I want to sit amongst them, but I don’t dare approach in the state I’m in. I need a haircut. I need a shave. I need to wear something better than a t-shirt and hoodie. In short, I need to straighten up my act. 

Besides, what am I going to say? “You guys see that new trailer for Prometheus? No? What about Diablo III? Excited? Oh, it’s a video game for your computer. You don’t own a computer?” Please. I could try and ask about their service, but I can’t shake that feeling of inadequacy, so I stay in line.

Lining the wall against which the line progresses towards the plates, and the oh-so-important food to pile upon them, are cork-boards into which many photos have been pinned. They depict various scenes from local life: ice-fishing contest winners, FFA events, putting up the new Rod & Gun Club sign, et al. I want to try and take it all in, but before I realize it I’m standing in front of the cashier sitting at a table with a cashbox to her left and a roll of tickets to her right. I quickly pay and grab a plate. 

The ubiquitous side-dishes of pickles, coleslaw, baked beans and more try and lure me in, but I remind myself of the reason I came. The only ones I grab are a few slices of cheddar and some potato chips, leaving most of the plate for an imposing pile of fish, dwarfing the small plastic cup of tartar sauce I’ll be dipping into. 

What followed was a blur of hot and salty fish goodness. The fish itself is very rich in flavor, reminiscent of fresh walleye, and I didn’t even bother to get more tartar sauce after the initial cup ran out. The tail fins had been chopped off, a change from what I remembered of past feeds, but it made little difference as far as I was concerned. The bones and fins of these tiny fish crumble easily, and the only time I really noticed them was once after taking a bite, a few vertebrae extended from the rest of the fish in my hand, shiny with melted collagen. You couldn’t even tell that there were ribs attached, they had broken off so cleanly. Steam rose from the white flesh, bringing with it a hearty, earthy smell which complimented the setting I was in.

As I sat there, satisfied with the clean plate in front of me, it started to really sink in that the average attendee is either at (or well past) retiring age. This worried me. Judging from the reaction of my peers when I talked about going, I don’t know how long this’ll be around if they don’t get some new blood. Coming here I felt the outsider, but after spending a few hours in their presence, I am one of them. That, as much as the smelt, made the trip worthwhile, and it’s a feeling I want to share.