Minnows, I’m Telling You, Minnows
That’s how smelt appear when you’re angling through the ice with hook and line for finger-length fishes. Attractive, endearing, delicious creatures with silvery sides and peppercorn eyes.
I acquired the vice via kindred spirits who fashion lives and schedules around what’s biting, and now we chase them with regularity on Green Lake in Michigan’s Grand Traverse County. There, the frozen waters inspire a village of ice shanties and their after-dark dwellers to gather in the glow of lantern light in pursuit of a slim fish no larger than a cigar.
Go with the Glow—Despite their size, rainbow smelt are indeed predators, with origins in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the toothy rainbow smelt, Osmerus mordax, whose teeth entangle fishhooks with bait like burrs on Velcro, is closely related to the salmon family. And like salmon, smelt follow an anadromous life cycle, feeding in the ocean or lakes and ascending rivers to spawn.
But this is winter, when the methods to catch smelt on hook and line are as unusual as the fish themselves. For starters, you need light—light from lanterns or submersible bulbs run off deep-cycle batteries. The glow pulls zooplankton towards the surface, and hence the smelt. (A sprinkling of crumbled dog food in the water provides added attraction.) In the dark, on the ice, the scene looks like an underwater alien invasion, with circles of incandescence glowing beneath the snow.
Twenty minutes to half an hour of luminescence sets the feeding spree in motion. When plankton rise, the smelt follow. With gossamer line (try 1- or 2-pound Berkley Trilene XL or Micro Ice) and featherweight rods (the lightest, most willowy panfish wisp you can find) and reels, drop puny panfish jigs baited with a spike or white Berkley Power Natural. When the rod tip barely twitches—a sure sign that a smelt has lambasted your bait with all it can muster—set the hook and start reeling. Next thing you know, a gyrating little squirt zips through the hole. Onto the ice or into a bucket it goes, destined for the deep fryer.
Keep it Simple, Smelters
I hate making smelt fishing more difficult than it need be, but a few tips help put more in the box—er, bucket. When placing a light, set your shanty about 10 feet from it. Be ready for smelt to cruise anywhere from inches under the ice to more than 20 feet down over 40 or more feet of water. With a flasher sonar, it’s possible to drop the jig to the smelt’s precise level. Usually I go by feel and intuition, dropping the jig down in 2- to 3-foot increments; when I catch one, I return to the same level. If I can’t find them, I keep lowering the jig till I get bit.
What works best for me, at least from an entertainment standpoint, is sight-fishing smelt a foot or two under the ice, where the little critters rise to feed as night wears on. From the indoor darkness, I look to see smelt just under the ice. Drop a hook down and watch one toy with it. The smelt races in and swings, then backs off. It circles and approaches. It feigns attack. Then, finally, it opens sesame and the hook disappears.
While I’ve been fortunate enough to catch large, powerful, brilliantly colored beasts from Alaska to Bolivia, I’ve developed an odd fondness for our very own midwestern salmon-like minnow. What the smelt lacks in size, it more than makes up for in availability and a strange affinity for maggots, dogfood, and lightbulbs. They’re cheap entertainment that can equal a bucket full of snack-sized eats.
Smelt are a curious little introduction into our waters. In Michigan they date to the ’20s, when the predecessor to our Department of Natural Resources stocked them in Crystal Lake to provide food for trout. When some escaped through a creek connected to Lake Michigan, populations exploded within decades in Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior, all attributable to the Crystal Lake experiment.
A similar boom occurred in the Dakotas starting in 1971, when 7,100 adult smelt were stocked in Lake Sakakawea—again to provide forage. From Sakakawea, they spread downriver to Lake Oahe, their numbers cresting at 1.1 billion in 1996 before a crash to 45 million in 1999, according to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission. To put another perspective on the steep decline, consider that Oahe’s poundage plummeted from 44 to 2 pounds per acre in three years. Biologists attribute the downfall primarily to floods that flushed smelt through the dams, plus predation and cannibalization of juvenile smelt by hordes of adults.