[IN IMAGES] Smelt fishing on the quays of Quebec

[IN IMAGES] Smelt fishing on the quays of Quebec


Fishing for rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) has long been a highlight in Quebec City during the fall season. All the reasons were good to participate: to feed your family, to obtain an extra income or to have a good time. From the end of September until mid-November, hundreds of fishermen, armed with their bamboo rods, rushed to the quays of the Old Capital.

Smelt fishing on the Quai de la Traverse in Quebec City, 1946.

1) Rainbow smelt

Second Smelt Festival at Bassin Louise in Quebec City, 1963.

The rainbow smelt is an elongated fish, usually 18 to 20 cm in length, although it can reach 35 cm. It moves in mid-depth schools in lakes, estuaries or coastal marine areas. Smelt live in salt water, but spawn in fresh water. It then goes up small streams and whitewater rivers at spawning time.

Rainbow smelt leave the sea, estuaries or the Great Lakes in the spring, shortly after ice break-up, and move up rivers to spawn at the age of 2 years. In the fall, in dense schools and at the mercy of the tides, it ascended the river until the 1970s towards Quebec in the direction of Lake Saint-Pierre, and approached the quays and the Saint-Charles River. In the spring, it came back down to spawn mainly at the mouth of the Boyer River in the Bellechasse region.

2) An old fishery

Smelt fishing. 2000-pound net in Chandler, 1945.

The smelt fishing certificates in Quebec are old. As early as 1664, the governor of Trois-Rivières and founder of Boucherville, Pierre Boucher, noted in his True and Natural Historythat there is “abundance of Eplan during the Fall, both in Quebec and in Tadoussac”. “Eplan” is an old form of the name for smelt. In 1754, Sieur Boucault observed that “there is a very abundant fishing of herring and sardines in the river, up to 20 or 30 leagues below Quebec, during spring and autumn, we also fish there and in the rivers that empty into it, salmon, aloze, smelt, walleye, white fish, bass, bass, muskie, sturgeon and eel”. Another observation: in April 1770, Pierre-François Drouin, inhabitant of Charlesbourg, and Louis Bougie, inhabitant of Beauport, concluded a verbal agreement for the payment of a portion of land. In addition to a sum of money, the buyer agrees to provide one hundred eels and two bushels of eplans!

Damase Bernier and other smelt fishermen on the wharf in Baie-des- Sables (or Trois-Pistoles), 1950.

In Quebec, in Chaleur Bay and Carleton in particular, large quantities of smelt are caught. For a long time, if a part is sold on the markets, a significant portion is used as fertilizer instead of manure. This was also the case on the Côte-du-Sud.

Aerial view of Old Quebec and the Port of Quebec, 1966.

3) Stories of fishing

Smelt fishing, around 1960.

Who says fishermen, tells stories of fishing, often almost miraculous. In 1886, we note in the newspapers: 

“For several years the smelt fishery had not been as successful as it is this fall. Fans have a field day. The quays and the boats are swarming with sinners who all find their fortune there. It is by five or six at a time that these excellent little fish are drawn from the water. A young man took, in a fairly short space of time, nearly thirty dozen. 161 dozen in 28 hours by another in the same year. Also in 1886, two young people from Lévis, Messrs. Adélard Brochu and Adjutor de la Salle, between them caught 70 dozen in the space of 3.5 hours.” 

Smelt fishing in the port of Quebec, fall 1958.

The year 1894 is also exceptional: “Never has smelt come in such large quantities to our area. It comes to us in shoals so thick that the fisherman just has to throw his line in the water to get as many hooks as he has. Amateurs have caught up to fifty and even sixty dozen on a line in one trip. Also, from Cap Blanc to Bassin Louise and from the mouth of the Saint-Charles River to the General Hospital pier, there is not a bit of unoccupied wharf left. 

The mentions of extraordinary peaches are multiplying. In 1895, a fisherman caught 50 dozen in a single day, or about one every minute. Who says better! In 1963, from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., Cyrille Robitaille, installed in a rowboat moored to the pilots' wharf and by the light of a beacon, caught 143 dozen smelts. 

4) Fishing smelt: nothing could be simpler

First Smelt Festival in Quebec City, 1962. Fishing with a lantern.

A simple fishing rod, a piece of line, three or four hooks and a weight are enough to be a smelt fisherman on the quays of Quebec. As bait: earthworms, but also liver, pieces of poultry gizzard, or even fish eyes. Even without bait, it was possible to catch fish. In 1892, it was observed that schools of smelt were sometimes so thick that instead of catching the fish, they hooked it.

Smelt fishing in Quebec, 1950.

Usually, smelt is fished during the day, but in 1888, torch fishing was successfully introduced. Taking advantage of the rising tide – the best time to fish – is also an asset for a good harvest. Spring fishing, at the time of spawning, is not as fruitful in Quebec as that of fall. On the other hand, the fish is bigger.

Smelt fishing in the port of Quebec, 1958.

5) A fishery where patience and endurance combine< /strong>

Smelt fishing in the port of Quebec, fall 1958.

For true fishermen, staying long hours, chilled by the October and November cold and the autumn rains, is a real challenge. During the second half of the 19th century, the newspapers reported more and more regularly the ups and downs of this fishery. Falling in the water is a risk for young and old. Some drown.

Second Smelt Festival in Quebec, 1963.

6) A succulent fish

Second Smelt Festival smelt in Quebec, 1963.

The flesh of the smelt is white, fine, tasty and rather oily. A delicate and sought-after fish, smelt is usually served fried or roasted, but it can be put in a casserole or in a pâté. You can also cook it simply in salt water and serve it with a separate sauce, either Hollandaise or melted butter, to which you add a little lemon.

7) The Smelt Festival

Second Smelt Festival at Bassin Louise in Quebec City, 1963.

In 1962, Ernest Roy, from the Riviera restaurant located near the quays, at 30 rue Dalhousie, organized the Smelt Festival which was held on the quays near the crossing to Lévis, starting on October 27. This competition is held under the auspices of the Lower Town Sports Association. During the finals, Mr. Gérard Petit, from Les Saules, was declared the champion and winner of the Carling Trophy, with 5 pounds and 11 ounces of smelt. 

Second Quebec Smelt Festival, 1963. < p>During the festival, smelt fishermen can have their catches fried by Mr. Roy's cooks or sell them to him to prepare the dishes offered to visiting tasters. The festival will be repeated during the following two years. Mr. Roy sells his establishment and the new owners decide not to continue the experiment, since there are no longer as many smelt fishermen. We want to revive the event in November 1983 for the benefit of Centraide. Wasted effort. The festival will not return.

Second Smelt Festival in Quebec, 1963.

8) The film The smelts , by Paul Vézina

The movie The Smelts,that can be viewed online, is undoubtedly the most vivid and sensitive representation of what smelt fishing represented in Quebec. With bewitching music by Claude Léveillée and beautiful images by Paul Vézina, this 1964 film produced by the Quebec Film Board presents the traditional smelt fishing in Quebec City. 

In high winds and high fall tides, from Anse au Foulon to Bassin Louise, every square foot of wharf is requisitioned. The lines stretch above the waters, smelt season is in full swing. Young or old, rich or poor, lovers or lonely, Quebecers descend on the quays to meet smelt and chance encounters. This documentary won the Prize for the best folk film, fourteenth international week of tourist and folk film, in Brussels, in 1964. In 1968, it also won the first prize at the Genti e Paesi festival, in La Spezia, Italy.

9) The decline of fishing

In the early 1970s, smelt stocks in the St. Lawrence River dropped dramatically. In 1964, for example, for the commercial fishery alone, the catch was 90 metric tons upstream from Quebec and in the Bas-Saint-Laurent. In 1997, we speak rather of accidental fishing. Catches are no longer measured in tonnes, but rather in kilos. Holding Expo 67 would have dealt him a severe blow. Indeed, tons of DDT have been used to destroy mosquitoes. 

According to biologists, the poor water quality of the Boyer River which flows into the river between Saint-Vallier and Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse has caused the drastic decline in smelt.

Since the 1950s, we have known that the smelt that frequent Quebec are specific to the St. Lawrence estuary. However, the main spawning ground for smelt in the estuary is at the mouth of the Boyer River. Fishing was prohibited there in 1977. The massive use of chemical fertilizers, the dumping of pig manure and agricultural drainage, which has the effect of accelerating the erosion of the banks of this small river, are believed to be major causes of this degradation.

The smelt of the estuary was designated a vulnerable species in March 2005. An action plan for the recovery of the smelt of the southern St. Lawrence estuary was adopted in 2003. Since 1992, efforts have been undertaken to restore the waterways, more particularly the Boyer River, and find deserted spawning grounds. Progress has been made, but much remains to be done before reviving the old tradition of smelt fishing on the quays of Quebec.

A text by Rénald Lessard, Library and National Archives of Quebec

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Find out more

  • Aquarium du Québec. (2022). Historical and current data from the experimental fishery at the Aquarium du Québec [Online]. 
  • Biron, P., Michaud, A., Massey, W., Stämpfli, N., Niang, M., Lagacé, R. and Martinelli, G. (2020). EPERLAB project: Together for the study and restoration of the Boyer river. Report presented to the Odyssée Saint-Laurent program of the Quebec Maritime Network. Concordia University, 150 pages. [Online]
  • Rainbow Smelt Recovery Team, Southern St. Lawrence Estuary population (2019). Recovery plan for the rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) in Quebec, southern St. Lawrence estuary population — 2019-2029, produced for the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, direction general wildlife and habitat management, 40 p. [Online]