Smelt (fish)

Smelt (fish)
Rainbow Smelt, Osmerus mordax
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Osmeriformes
Family: Osmeridae


Smelts – more precisely freshwater smelts or typical smelts to distinguish them from the related Argentinidae, Bathylagidae and Retropinnidae – are a family of small fish, Osmeridae, found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are common in the North American Great Lakes, and in the lakes and seas of the northern part of Europe, and run in large shoals along the coastline during their spring migration to their spawning streams. The Delta Smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus is found in the Sacramento Delta of California, and is an endangered species.

It is one of the few fish that sportsmen are allowed to net, using dip nets, either along the coastline or in the streams. Some sportsmen also ice fish for smelt. Smelt are often fried and eaten whole.



Delta smelt H. transpacificus

Smelts resemble salmon in appearance, but are smaller, usually reaching only around 20 centimetres (7.9 in), although some species can reach as much as 70 centimetres (28 in).[1] Indeed, smelts are a food source for salmon and lake trout. Like salmon, many species are anadromous, living most of their lives in the sea, but travelling into fresh water to breed. However, there are a few exceptions, such as the surf smelt, which spend their entire lives at sea.[2]

Smelt roe is bright orange in color, and is often used to garnish sushi.


There are fifteen species of smelt, grouped into six genera:[1]

Family Osmeridae


Salangidae, Plecoglossus







Cladogram of the Osmeridae family. It has recently been suggested that Salangidae and Plecoglossus might be sister clades to the osmerid genera.[3]

Smelt dipping

Smelt dipping in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan

In the Canadian provinces and states of USA around the Great Lakes, "smelt dipping" is a common group sport in the early spring months and when stream waters reaches approximately 4°C, (40–42°F). Fish are spotted using a flashlight / headlamp (the best smelt dipping is in the middle of the night from 10:00 pm – 2:00 am) and scooped out of the water using a dip net made of nylon or metal mesh. The smelt are cleaned by removing the head and the entrails. Fins, scales, and bones of all but the largest of smelts are cooked without removal.[citation needed]

On the Maine coast, smelts were also a sign of spring, with the run of these small fish up tiny tidal estuaries. Many of these streams were narrow enough for a person to straddle and get a good catch of smelt by dipping a bucket.[citation needed]

Smelt fishing is also a popular sport in Washington and Oregon along the coast in the winter and summer months. Many people also fish for smelt year-round on the Puget Sound beaches as well as in the Columbia River.

As food

Close-up of smelt for sale at a California seafood market

North America

Smelts have been traditionally an important winter catch in the salt water mouths of rivers in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Fishermen would go to customary locations over the ice using horses and sleighs. Smelt taken out of the cold salt water were much preferred to those taken in warm water. The smelt did not command a high price on the market, but provided a useful supplemental income in times when wants were much less. The smelts were "flash frozen" simply by leaving them on the ice and then sold to fish buyers who came down the rivers on horse and sleigh. They were also a winter meal. They were gutted, heads and tails removed and rinsed in cold water then dipped in flour mixed with salt and pepper and fried in butter. Served with boiled potatoes and pickled beets, they were an addition to winter fare. They are still considered traditional Acadian fare.[citation needed]

East Asia

Smelt is popular in Japan, as the species shishamo, and is generally served grilled, especially when full of eggs.

Smelt is also served in Dim sum restaurants deep fried with the heads and tails attached as Duō luǎn yú (多卵魚), which loosely translates as "fish with many eggs."[citation needed]


Fishing for smelt, 1972

In the city of Inje, South Korea (Gangwan-do Province) a yearly Ice Fish Festival is held from January 30 to February 2 on Soyang Lake. The festival coincides with a smelt run when these small fish make their yearly journey into fresh water to breed. Smelt are locally known as "Bing-O" and are typically eaten alive or deep fried.[1]

In Finland, province of Paltamo, has also yearly "Norssikarnevaali" festivals in middle of May.

For some Italians, especially from the region of Calabria (Reggio Calabria), fried smelts are a traditional part of Christmas Eve dinner consisting of multiple courses of fish.

The Kelso, Washington Chamber of Commerce, located along the Columbia River in the Northwestern United States, dubbed itself the "Smelt Capital of the World" in 1956, and held a festival for the annual smelt run, until the runs dried.[4]

Lewiston Smelt festival

The village of Lewiston, located on the lower portion of the Niagara River in Western New York State, celebrates an annual two day smelt festival. The festival typically takes place the first weekend in May. Highlights of the festival include free samples of battered deep fried smelt, musical entertainment, chowder, and beer. The Niagara River Anglers prepare 300 pounds of smelt on Friday and the Silo Restaurant and Water Street Landing deep fries 200 pounds of smelt on Saturday.

Area Lewiston restaurants will offer their own culinary variations of smelt over the weekend. Participating restaurants can be identified by decorative fish flags outside their doors.

The slogan of the annual Smelt festival is: "Lewiston never Smelt this good."[5][6]

In popular culture

The song "Tiny Fish For Japan"[7] by Stan Rogers is about the smelt-fishing industry.[8]


  1. ^ a b Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2008). "Osmeridae" in FishBase. December 2008 version.
  2. ^ McDowell, Robert M. (1998). Paxton, J.R. & Eschmeyer, W.N.. ed. Encyclopedia of Fishes. San Diego: Academic Press. p. 116. ISBN 0-12-547665-5. 
  3. ^ Molecular resolution of the systematics of a problematic group of fishes (Teleostei: Osmeridae) and evidence for morphological homoplasy, Katriina L. Ilves , Eric B. Taylor, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50 (2009) 163–178. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2008.10.021
  4. ^ The Ghost Run of the Cowlitz, Richard A. Hinrichsen, Cowlitz Historical Quarterly. (1998) Volume 40, Number 2, pages 5-21.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

External links

  • Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2006). "Osmeridae" in FishBase. January 2006 version.

This small fish is a fresh water fish but can survive in the salt water

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