In this Feb. 2, 2018 file photo, ice fisherman Roger Dupuis of Waltham, Massachusetts, shows off a pair of rainbow smelt he caught on the Kennebec River in Randolph. Maine's smelts, a small fish beloved by ice fisherman, appear to be continuing a rebound in population after years of decline. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Everybody, and everything, loves a smelt.

The sleek, silver fish — officially known as a “rainbow smelt” — is prevalent in many lakes and ponds, and is the preferred food of landlocked salmon and other larger fish. In streams, they might be gobbled up by opportunistic mammals or birds. And humans? Well, if we’re not using them as bait to catch other fish, we eat ‘em, too.

In fact, even smelts love smelts.

“Smelts are cannibalistic,” said Kevin Dunham, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s fisheries resource supervisor for the Penobscot region, who is also the state’s smelt expert. “So [adults will] eat the younger smelt “

Dunham chuckled when explaining the smelt’s universal appeal.

“Anything will eat ‘em,” he said. “We consider them pretty much the french fry of the lake, sought after by everything, including man.”

Anglers and eaters alike will vouch for the rainbow smelt. With that popularity in mind, here’s a primer that covers several aspects of everybody’s favorite bait fish.

What’s the difference?

So, you know what a smelt is. And you know it’s not the same thing as a smolt (even though the words are pretty similar), which is actually a life stage an Atlantic salmon goes through.

But what about those other smelts — the ones that anglers catch on tidal rivers — what makes them different from the smaller variety we find in our lakes and ponds.

Not much, according to Dunham. Both are rainbow smelts.

“It’s kind of like [the difference] between the landlocked salmon and the Atlantic salmon,” Dunham said. “They’re the same species, but one became landlocked over time.”

That means that the rainbow smelts that have access to the ocean have a more varied food base, and tend to grow bigger. They’re often targeted by dip-netters when they return to rivers to spawn. It also means, Dunham said, that there are even more predators out there looking to munch on them.

On some of Maine’s coastal rivers, smelt shacks are available for rent, and are very popular during the wintertime, when the ice is thick enough to be safe.

Years ago, most of the state’s lake and pond smelt populations were found in waters near the coast, Dunham said. Then they were stocked into lakes by the state to serve as forage for other species, or were illegally introduced to other waters.

Now, smelts are found throughout the state.

Smelts start off by eating plankton, aquatic invertebrates and larval fish, Dunham said. They progress to eating other fish that are smaller than them. Their growth can vary from water to water, with some lakes supporting populations of abnormally large specimens that some call “jack smelts.” In other lakes, those smelts will remain smaller.

“Up north there’s some jack smelts that could be up to 14 inches,” Dunham said.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing, especially if all of the smelts are large.

“It’s possible that if the smelt population in a lake is composed only of jack smelts, that population generally is hurting,” he said.

In general, though, smelts don’t get that big. Dunham said that the average age for a smelt is 3 or 4 years old, and the average size is about 5 or 6 inches.

Jacks are bigger than average. “Pin” smelts are smaller — maybe just an inch or two long. And pin smelts might just be the most unpopular fish in a very popular species.

“Commercial [bait dealers] don’t like to get those because nobody likes to buy them for bait,” Dunham said.

Catch ‘em

How you catch smelts depends on when you’re doing it, and where you are.

And before you even try to catch them, it’s important that you check the state’s fishing lawbook, because many waters — especially brooks and streams — are closed to fishing for them.

The reason: Smelts are just too important as forage for the larger gamefish that rely on them.

“I would say that pretty much every [landlocked] salmon population in the state is tied to a smelt population in that lake,” Dunham said.

And because of that, the DIF&W gives other fish first dibs on the tasty critters.

“The number one priority for the department is to manage them as a forage base for salmonids,” Dunham said, describing a group of fish that includes salmon and trout. “So unfortunately, we’ve had to close some areas to dipping.”

Dipping with a long-handled net is a preferred method of fishing for smelts during spring spawning runs that takes place at night on brooks and streams.

During the winter, ice anglers will often fish for them from their ice shacks, using tiny hooks and little pieces of cut worms or smelts as bait. Many times, Dunham said, those anglers fish close to shore. Their catch is sometimes used as bait for future ice fishing adventures, and sometimes taken home for dinner.

And then there are bait fishermen, who are trying to catch smelts to sell to dealers or anglers. Their method involves large nets — 30 to 50 feet across, according to Dunham — that are dropped through a slot cut in the ice.

Smelts aren’t as hardy as some other bait fish like shiners and minnows, and seem to die in bait buckets far more readily. On lakes where fishing with live bait is allowed, many anglers prefer to hook the live smelts through the back or lips, then lower them into a hole into the ice. Keeping them alive in a bait bucket, then, becomes crucial.

“They’re pretty fragile,” Dunham said. “They’re pretty delicate for some reason. But the best thing [for them] is cold, well-oxygenated water.”

Dunham suggested using a battery-powered circulator to put oxygen into the water in the bait bucket, and adding fresh water often.

Eat ‘em up

We’ve fished for smelts, and fished with smelts. Now it’s time to take the next step, and take a more active role in the food chain.

“It is quite a tradition in the state to dip a mess of smelts in the spring,” Dunham said.

Or to eat a mess of fresh-caught smelts that we’ve caught with hook and line in the winter.

Interestingly, though, all of Dunham’s smelt-cooking tips come second-hand. Everyone (except the state’s smelt expert) loves to eat the “french fry of the lake.”

“Personally, I don’t care for them, but from what I understand, and what I’ve seen — my mother always did the same thing — you just cut the heads off with a pair of scissors,” Dunham said. “If they’re small enough, she didn’t even worry about [cleaning them]. She’d cook them up, guts and all. If they’re bigger, people clean them.”

After that, it’s pretty simple.

“Roll ‘em in batter and fry ‘em up,” Dunham said.

In other words, treat ‘em just like a french fry.

Avatar photo

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...