Each year, Michigan anglers eagerly await the warm spring days and rainy evenings that trigger rainbow-smelt spawning runs. Spawning runs begin in early spring, soon after the ice disappears, and extend over a 3-week period, as long as the temperatures stay in the low to mid--forties.
For years now, the spring smelt runs have been shadows of their former selves. Gone are the days when rivers and streams would run black, teaming with billions of migrating smelt. With only a few dips of the net, garbage cans could be filled with the tasty, bite-sized fish. Runs like those haven't been experienced in years. Why you ask? Well, it seems that more smelt are now breeding in the lake waters as opposed to heading up-stream and past anglers nets.
These "shoal spawners, as we call them, have always been in the smelt population, but they are much more numerous now. The dismal state of the smelt population has been confirmed and the Natural Resources Committee has decided to limit the catch to two gallons per angler. This is the first time in Michigan's long history of smelt-netting that a limit has been imposed.
What you need
During the spring spawning run, people dip-net them from the streams, but remember, keep only those you intend to use. It's easy and it's fun. All you need is a valid Michigan fishing license, a net and bucket, some warm clothes, dry waders, a personal floatation device (life jacket) and a flashlight. In some areas, especially where the current is strong and the water is deep, a long-handled dip net comes in mighty handy.
When to go
Depending on where you live or plan to travel, prime dipping season is mid-April to early May--earlier in the Lower Peninsula, later in the Upper Peninsula. Note that prolonged cold temperatures generally make for later smelt runs - ideal stream temps are 42-44 degrees. Precise predictions of just when and where the smelt will run are nearly impossible to make. And, as with all fishing endeavors, great success can't be guaranteed.
For more information about smelt, read the Fishing Guide. The Department of Natural Resources Fishing Report Hot Line is open 24/7 and we will report runs when we hear about them. Call toll free 1-855-777-0908. The best smelt-dipping hours are between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. each night as the smelt spawn.