Smelt wrestling, carp trains and other local fish tales

Smelt wrestling
Fill a ring with smelt, strip down to shorts, then wrestle in the slimy mess. Marinette, Wis., hosted the annual Smelt Carnival in 1939 and 1940 with a smelt wrestling event that delighted spectators, who kept their distance lest they be hit by an errant fish.
Photo by Wisconsin Conservation Department I Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

This weekend is the fishing opener, and scores of anglers will head to lakes and rivers across the state to catch — and maybe release — what they can.

Fishing has a long history in the land of 10,000 lakes, and Eric Dregni's new book "Let's Go Fishing!" dives into some of the sport's splashier moments.

'Let's Go Fishing' by Eric Dregni
'Let's Go Fishing' by Eric Dregni
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

Dregni spoke with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about one of his favorite moments in the book: Smelt wrestling.

Smelt were introduced into rivers that fed into Lake Michigan in the early 1900s, and the invasive species quickly made itself at home. By 1930, smelt had spawned their way into all of the Great Lakes. They clogged waterways and ran out of food, dying by the thousands on lakeshores.

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"So many smelt would run that beaches along the Great Lakes in the 1940s were cleaned with bulldozers to clear the dead smelt that couldn't find enough food," Dregni writes.

So what do you do with piles of dead fish? If you're in Marinette, Wis., you wrestle in them. At the annual Smelt Carnival in 1939 and 1940, men wrestled in a slimy, smelt-filled ring.

Commercial fishing on the St. Croix River, 1914
Just south of Stillwater, Minn., on the St. Croix River, this commercial fishing operation hauled in loads of large fish in 1914 that would leave modern anglers amazed.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Speaking of invasive species, carp were also introduced into the Midwest's lakes and rivers in the late 1800s. German and Scandinavian immigrants in the area were homesick for carp, Dregni said.

"Carp [in Europe] are considered some of the most prized fish. Even Shakespeare talked about a 'carp of truth' — a golden nugget of truth. Carp were some of the best fish," he said. Immigrants wrote to Congress and convinced them to send carp to the Midwest.

The carp were so valuable, Dregni said, that when they arrived at Union Station in downtown St. Paul, they had to be monitored by armed guards.

"Now of course we know that about half of the weight of all the fish in the Great Lakes is carp. They just went crazy."

Once the carp overtook the lakes, popular sentiment swung against them.

"Once they realized that carp were going crazy and they weren't so tasty, people started talking about it as 'the German menace.' It became a xenophobic thing against Germans," Dregni said.

Woman prepares lutefisk dinner in St. Paul in 1936
Mrs. Olsen prepares a lutefisk dinner at her house in St. Paul in 1936.
Photo by St. Paul Daily News | Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Dregni's book also digs into the most divisive of fish dishes: lutefisk. The oldest reference to lutefisk is from 1555, Dregni said, in a book called "History of the Nordic Peoples."

Legend has it that Norse berserkers accidentally left some cod behind at a campsite on one of their raids. The fish remnants were left sitting in birch ash and rain puddles, which is basically forms lye. When they returned a month later, they ate the preserved fish — and that's how lutefisk was born. (Dregni notes that they had to learn to wash the lye off, after a series of stomachaches.)

One 1930s St. Paul recipe for lutefisk swapped the birch ash for drain cleaner. Dregni notes that "keeping fish in drain cleaner, or lye, may sound extreme, but the caustic chemicals were easily rinsed."

For the full interview with Eric Dregni on "Let's Go Fishing," use the audio player above.