Duluth’s ‘Kingdom of Smelt’ Welcomes Spring with Magic Smelt Run Parade’s Return to Lakewalk

The event came back to paint the Lakewalk silver after a two-year hiatus.

DULUTH, Minn.- The glint of silver on the Lakewalk means one of the most Duluth experiences of the year is back, signaling the end of winter with the Magic Smelt Run Parade.

“And bring some great cheer, for the magnificent Smelt Queen will soon be here!” bellowed King Neptune, Jim Ouray in Canal Park.

Who else could part the clouds and stop the rain Sunday but the Smelt Queen herself? The crummy weather took a magic break for the return of the Magic Smelt Run Parade.

“It’s always hit or miss whether it’s going to be sunny, sunny, or rainy,” said Katie Frerker, participating in her 8th Smelt Parade. “This year I was wondering if it was actually going to happen.”

The event came back to paint the Lakewalk silver after a two-year hiatus. “This is super thrilling and it’s great to have a nice crowd turnout,” said Ouray, founder of the parade.

In the weeks leading up to it, families made their own puppets and costumes with the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe at the Duluth Art Institute in Lincoln Park.

“To party together on the lakefront it’s just a heck of a good time and yeah it’s nice to see everybody’s smiling faces for the most part without masks, yeah it’s just a lot of fun to be out partying,” Ouray said.

The parade has been signaling the arrival of the tiny, silver fish in Lake Superior, and the fisherman who go wading after them with their nets, since 2012.

“It was fun to see everybody again there were some people I haven’t seen for 2 years since the last Smelt Parade,” said Frerker.

And 10 years in, new people still swim their way into the tradition and even become royalty.

“I am the Smelt Pope,” John Nilmeyer said under a pontiff’s fishy head.

“Our whole family just had a lot of fun with making stuff for the parade. It’s kind of, I don’t really get to do arts and crafts that much as an adult so it was kind of a riot, we had a lot of fun with it,” he said.

Led by the stilt-walking royal guard and the Brass Messengers band out of the twin cities, each silver costume in the lineup is unique. “A Kingdom of Smelt!” King Neptune proclaimed.

But the parade signifies one thing to everyone – “Smelt are running, it’s always a sign of spring coming in Duluth,” said Frerker.

“You know kind of an end to winter, beginning of, beginning of the outdoor season,” Nilmeyer said, reflecting on his first-ever parade.

But of course, Sunday was another special holiday, and the parade honored mothers — in its own smelty way.

“Today I was mom Smelt, it’s Mother’s Day so we had a mom smelt taking care of a little baby in a carriage it had to change a dirty diaper,” said Frerker. “Yes it’s mirroring my own life we got a 1-year-old right now who’s a big baby.”

And plenty of kids joined their moms in the parade and at the party at Zeitgeist afterward — snacking on what else? Fried Smelt.

“I’ve always liked weird stuff and it’s fun to participate,” said Nilmeyer. Will he do it again next year? “Yeah!”

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