IF IT’S SPRING THIS MUST BE THE SMELT SNOW (April 3/98)

“I don’t give a hoot what anyone says, it ain’t spring until the worms rise or the smelts start to run,” old Manny used to say.

The neighbourhood loafabout, who seemed to have nothing to do but fish, hunt and trap, made this observation when we asked if we could dig for bait in the manure pile back of his barn. We had skipped school on a late April afternoon to fish a nearby brook, ignoring the foot or so of snow and the ice that was still in. When we stopped for worms at Manny’s, he reminded us that we still had winter conditions. “Look around,” he said. “You gotta be crazy to go fishing when the weather’s like this.”

“But it’s spring and the fishing season’s open,” we protested.

This was when Manny repeated his famous observation about worms rising and smelts running. Manny had been telling people this for years and since he caught more fish, bagged more game and trapped more muskrats than most people it was taken as the gospel. Most of the old-timers in the neighbourhood gauged their outdoor activities by what Manny said or did. “Check with me after the first full moon in April ” he would say when asked about spring fishing. “Huntin’ won’t be good until the pople leaves turn,” was another of his observations.

Manny has been gone for some 40 years but I still remember the method he used to predict that sure harbinger of spring, the smelt run. Manny insisted that it “weren’t true spring” until the smelts arrived. And, he said, the smelts wouldn’t run until the occurrence of that once-a-year event he called the “smelt snow.”

Now as we all know, between the time spring officially arrives and the smelts make their annual spawning run, there could be a dozen or more falls of snow. How anyone could single out a particular snowfall and determine that it was the smelt snow was puzzling. As for it not being “true spring” until the smelts were in, now that made a bit more sense. It’s a rural belief the smelts don’t start the spawning run until the snow water is out of the rivers. And once the snows had melted and the runoff of snow water had ceased, spring had usually arrived.

This may have been the kind of logic Manny used when he talked about frost moons, worms coming up and smelt snows. It is an old folk belief, by the way, that the spring run of smelts is always foreshadowed by a smelt snow. Any old-timer who knows his moon phases, frost lore and the odd ways of earthworms, is aware of the role of the smelt snow in predicting runs of fish and the end of winter.

Once I asked old Manny how he could tell which snowfall was the smelt snow. He claimed that if it becomes “downright summery in late April and a warm rain is followed by a snowfall, that’s the smelt snow.” The calendar had nothing to do with it, he said. After the smelt snow you could smell spring in the air and the “winter smell” would be gone. And, he added, there could be more snowfalls after the smelt snow “but there was only one that brought the smelts up.”

I recall that Manny never went trout fishing until the smelts were in. Which in most springs makes sense since the longer winter lingers, the later the occurrence of the run. Nowadays many anglers ignore smelt snows and smelt runs and start fishing the day the season opens, even though wintry conditions still linger in the meadows. If he were around today to observe this early April madness, old Manny certainly wouldn’t approve of it.

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