"The smelt are running!"' is an exultant cry that's as much a symbol of promise as the rainbow. These multitudinous fish are some of the best delicacies of spring in Ontario and an unmistakable sign that nature's bounteous wealth has returned full cycle.
Late April or early May, just after ice-out and before the water has warmed past about 48F (9C), watchful townsfolk head down to lakes and creeks to look for returning smelt on spawning runs. If they see a few, they come back the next day with a net and pail and sit on piers or beaches to wait with other watchers. But it's more than sitting and waiting. They're really connecting with each other and communing with the natural world. Then one day thousands of silvery flashes swarm upstream and along shorelines to spawn, and with luck you can get all you want in minutes.
A survey by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans reveals that in 1995 more than 13,000,000 smelt were caught across the country, and smelting has become so popular that of all the fish retained by recreational fishermen, 8 per cent of them were smelt.
Smelt spawning might last for up to three weeks, until water temperatures reach about 64F (18C), but the peak lasts only days or, at most, a week. Therefore, smelt lovers must tune into the subtleties of spring breakup...and the fishing grapevine. If you're not hooked in, phone the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) office nearest to where you plan to fish. They're listed in the free 2000 Ontario Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary.
Smelt are normally deep-water, light-sensitive fish, so spawning runs and hence fishing expeditions usually happen after sunset. In fact, smelt are the only fish (other than baitfish) that can be caught legally after dark in Canada by techniques other than angling.
On my most recent smelt-fishing expedition, four of us took a large dip-net (183 cm or 6 feet square is the legal limit) and drove to a creekmouth near Port Hope. In less than an hour we caught thousands of smelt as they swarmed in from Lake Ontario. It took us two hours to clean the smelt, but we dined all the while on freshly fried ones sizzled pan after pan on the stove beside us. They were tender, moist, sweet, and had that incredibly light, clean flavour that only fresh fish can have; uncooked, they have a slight, pleasant cucumbery odour. Some people remove the backbone when cleaning, but that is unnecessary, unless it's an exceptionally large smelt. The bones of smelt are a good source of calcium. When cooked, just munch them right up with the rest of the fish or pick off the meat corn-on-the cob style.
What did we do with the hundreds of smelt that we couldn't stuff into our bulging bellies that night? We froze some one-meal portions in plastic bags and stacked them in the freezer. They kept well for several months (until they were gone), and were much better tasting than frozen ones you can buy in a supermarket. We smoked the rest in a 6-foot-high canvas teepee, using elm wood, although a maple or apple wood fire is also excellent. We stored them on a long string over the dining area, where they got drier and drier, fishier, saltier, and chewier - quite like dried cod. They were good with beer.
There are many locations to go smelt fishing in Ontario.The fish are in all the Great Lakes and have been introduced to many inland waters. Top spots for smelt dipping include Port Stanley on Lake Erie, Brechin on Lake Simcoe, Whitby on Lake Ontario, Parry Sound on Georgian Bay, Kagawong in the North Channel, Chippewa on Lake Superior, and Lake Muskoka. For the best bet near you, again call your local MNR office.
Ed Crossman of the Centre of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, has been involved with Osmerus mordax (rainbow smelt) and he points out the interesting fact that smelt are a recent newcomer to most regions of Ontario. There were no smelt north of Niagara Falls until it was introduced into Lake Michigan in 1906 as prey fish for the Atlantic salmon (the salmon did not take at that time, but the salmon did). It was first reported in Lake Ontario in 1931, and Lake Simcoe, 1962. They are an adaptive species, and do well when introduced either intentionally or unintentionally.
It is good news, though, that smelt are one of the safest fish to eat. In most locations, there is no restriction on consuming this little carnivore. There are a few, though, so pick up a copy of the Guide to Eating Ontario Sportfish and check the listings for the waters you fish. The guide is available at MNR offices.
You need an Outdoors Card and an angling licence to fish for smelt. The summary of the regulations lists when and where you can use either a dip- or seine-net for smelt. Study them carefully. Most Great Lakes streams are off-limits to smelt netting, but you can fish along lakeshores and near creekmouths.
Try smelting this spring. Connect with others who'll be out there, commune with nature, learn about managing a natural resource, and, oh yes, enjoy a great meal of this Canadian delicacy.