For such a little fish it sure can cause big excitement for ice fishermen and seafood lovers alike. Because when the weather up north is on the wrong side of zero, it's time to go smelting!
The Rainbow Smelt is a whitefish and the smallest of Acadian's sea-run fish, rarely exceeds 6-9 inches in length and just a few ounces in weight. A member of the salmon family, they were once found as far south as Virginia, although Maine and New Brunswick now boasts their largest commercial catch population. Swimming in schools, smelts are marine fish that spend most of their time in Coastal waters and harbors, but with the cold water seasonal changes of winter will begin to swim up rivers to spawn in estuaries and streams before returning to the sea after the spring thaw. It is during these icy months that fishermen set up their smelt shacks on frozen Coastal rivers and drop their hooks.
Trawls, Pound, Gillnet
Rainbow smelt is a "Best Choice" from the following sources: (1) Lake Erie's Canadian waters when caught with midwater trawls; (2) Lake Huron's Canadian waters when caught with trap nets; and (3) Lake Superior's Minnesota and Wisconsin waters when caught with pound nets. It's a non-native species, so the harvest of rainbow smelt is not an ecological concern. In addition, there are no major bycatch concerns with these sources.
Rainbow smelt caught in Lake Superior's Michigan, Wisconsin and Canadian waters with bottom gillnets is a "Good Alternative" because it's caught with other species that are in decline or recovery.
Rainbow smelts are slender, olive green in color along the dorsal with a silvery stripe along its side and a silver belly. Smelts occur in many northern waters on both sides of the Atlantic; they are well known in France (eperlan). Its close relative, the capelin, lacks the popularity of the smelt. Smelts have an unusual taste. Some have written that fresh smelts smell a bit like cucumbers - even of watermelons, but most will agree they are delicious when fried...especially right after harvest, and even as a Northeastern breakfast. Scaled and gutted, dipped in milk and flour and fried briefly in hot oil, it is a memorable experience. Smelt fillets, oily and high in fat, can also be poached or baked.