One frequently asked question during my career as a fisheries biologist with Michigan Department of Natural Resources was, What has happened to all the smelt? Where did they go? Smelt, where have they gone? Are they still here? Where can I catch some? First, their history and biology in the Great Lakes and then the answers.
Rainbow smelt, scientifically know as Osmerus mordax, is a species from the Atlantic Ocean. The native range of smelt is the east coast of North America from the Delaware River, New Jersey north to Labrador and inland waters in New Hampshire, Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
The establishment and spread of smelt in the Great Lakes is credited to a single stocking in Crystal Lake, Benzie County in 1912. They escaped Crystal Lake through an outlet to the Betsie River, which empties into Lake Michigan near Frankfort, where they became abundant. From there they spread to the other Great Lakes, where they became established. During the 1960s smelt were very abundant in Lake Superior, where one could get half a net full or more in a single scoop from any of the local streams. Do you remember the smelting parties? In Michigan, they have subsequently been stocked into numerous inland lakes throughout the state as forage for game species.
The rainbow smelt is an anadromous species, leaving the ocean, Great Lake or inland lake to spawn in tributary streams, much like salmon or steelhead. Spawning runs begin in early spring, when stream temperatures reach 40 degrees, and last for two to three weeks. Smelt have tremendous reproductive capability. Scientists have calculated Lake Superior female smelt contain about 14,500 eggs per ounce of body weight. So, a large, 10-inch, four-ounce female smelt can deposit 58,000 eggs.
Smelt do not get very large, even in the Atlantic Ocean, where they reach a maximum length of 14 inches. In the Great Lakes and Michigan's inland lakes they are typically 7-9 inches. The state record smelt is 12 inches. Smelt are a cold-water species, preferring water temperatures in the 43 to 56 degree range. They feed mainly on fresh water shrimp, zooplankton, aquatic insects and aquatic worms, but will occasionally eat other small fish.
Where have they gone? Smelt are tasty creatures! Everyone loves to eat them. They are eaten in great numbers by other fish, birds and people. This had led to their decline in the Great Lakes. After the control of sea lamprey and restocking of the Great Lakes with trout and salmon, smelt populations were heavily preyed upon. Additionally, with the ban of pesticides such as DDT, populations of gulls and cormorants exploded. Finally, until very recently, the commercial harvest of smelt was in the millions of pounds. All these factors have led to the large reduction of smelt populations. They continue to hang on in low numbers in our Great Lakes and the persistent smelt dipper may get enough for a meal or two.
That is the bad news. ... The good news is Michigan has several inland lakes that provide excellent winter ice fishing for smelt. The best in the state are: Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Higgins Lake in Crawford and Roscommon County, Duck & Green Lakes in Grand Traverse County, and Big Glen Lake in Leelanau County. In these lakes anglers frequently catch over a hundred in an evening hook and line. Smelt fishing regulations are different and you do need a fishing license. Anglers can use any number of hooks for taking smelt in recognized smelt waters (see DNR list). The daily limit is two gallons, whether dipping or fishing.
There are a few Upper Peninsula lakes that have a smelt population: Grand Sable Lake in Alger County, Lake Angeline in Marquette County and Clear, Dodge and Island Lakes in Schoolcraft County. However, they offer limited smelt fishing opportunity. The only lake in the Copper Country with a smelt population, to my knowledge, is Gratiot Lake. A statewide list of inland lakes can be found on the DNR website under Fisheries.