Smelt, Osmerus mordax


Identifying characteristics: (Non-Native Fish) Two dorsal fins including one adipose fin, long thin body with purple, pink and blue iridescent sides.

This small slender member of the Osmeridae family closely resembles members of the trout/salmon family.

The smelt is native to North America's Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Labrador, and also occur naturally as landlocked populations in some lakes of New England and eastern Canada. In 1912, smelt were planted in Crystal Lake, Michigan, and from there they made their way to Lake Michigan.

Like salmon, lake-dwelling smelt ascend tributary streams to spawn over gravel beds. Spawning runs begin in the early spring (April), and extends for about three-week period. Cool weather conditions may extend the season. Smelt spawn at night and usually return to the lake my morning. At this time of year people dip-net them from streams by the thousands. The rest of the year, smelt school in the lakes cool, dark waters. Since they are sensitive to temperature and especially to light, they keep to the mid-waters of the lake, and may descend to near bottom during bright daylight. A cool 45 degree F is their optimum water temperature.

Smelt fry grow rapidly; in the Great Lakes most are mature by the end of two growing seasons, and nearly all will mature by the end of the third season. As with many other fish species, females grow faster and larger and live longer than males. Smelt grow to an average size of 7-8 inches in length in the Great Lakes.

Like members of the trout/salmon family, smelt feed on other living animals. Their diet includes insects, insect larvae, other aquatic invertebrates, and other fish, including small smelt, sculpins, burbot, whitefish, and other small fish. In the Great Lakes a shrimp-like crustacean is also a principal food item.

Fish that prey on smelt are coho salmon, burbot, trout, walleye, yellow perch and other smelt!

For more information on how and where to catch smelt see our Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them and Better Fishing Waters.

Also see Smelt Dipping and Fishing Opportunities for what you'll need to go smelt fishing and when to go smelt fishing.

Smelt graphic courtesy of Joseph R. Tomelleri and copyrighted.