Last year around this time I received a phone call asking me to wake my five and seven year old children at midnight and drive them to a local river. On any other occasion, I would have hung up the phone, but that night was my chance to participate in a Northern Ontario tradition unlike any other. Smelting.
Every year at this time, fishing enthusiasts young and old catch tiny fish called Osmeridae, also known as “smelt”, that can grow to about forty centimeters as adults, but are more commonly under twenty. (Eschmeyer’s Catalogue of Fish.) Along the north shore of Lake Superior, you are likely to find Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus Mordax) which are closer to four inches in length and have a mouth that extends to just below their eye. These tiny fish battle the tough currents of the lake to swim up rivers and pack into estuaries for spawning. These small but mighty fish are an excellent food source for larger fish and the perfect solution for a low-cost outdoor family adventure.
Before heading out for a night of smelting, you need to first find out when and where the fish will run. Although it typically happens around the month of May, the exact date changes with the weather and water temperatures. In short, the smelt need to be in the mood before making that long journey. When the smelt do decide to make their way into the estuaries, you will find they are most active between the hours of 11pm to 2am, so be prepared for a late night.
For those of you looking for the best places to catch smelt, there are many public access points along the north shore ranging from the Marina, McVicars Creek, and Current River in Thunder Bay, continuing down the highway to the MacKenzie River, then Kama Creek by Nipigon, McLean’s Creek and Whitesand River near Schreiber, all the way to Marathon where you find the smelt run can sometimes be found at McKellar Creek. For more detailed information, you can review the 2015 Fishing Guide or check out the Ontario government website.
While you are there, don’t forget to renew your fishing license!
If you plan to catch enough smelt to cook, you will need to purchase a net. A standard net is too large for these tiny fish, so we use long handled nets made specifically for smelting. For the smaller members of our family, I pack a towel and some mittens for the ride home and let the kids use their hands to catch the fish. Smelting is a great alternative for the pre-kinder crowd that lack the patience and coordination to catch larger fish, but really love the outdoors.
Last, but not least, you will need some sort of a bucket or container to carry your smelt home. For our trip, we packed a bucket as well as some smaller containers so the kids could bring home their catch. Just be sure to include some water so they don’t dry out while you catch up on some much needed rest.
Be warned, the name Osmeridae is derived from the greek word meaning “stinky fish” and that is exactly what you get if one of these little guys land in your vehicle, stick to a shoe, or stay caught in a net. If you miss one during the night, everyone will know by morning!
At this time, Ontario has no limit for dipping smelt, but please fish responsibly. Smelt in other parts of the world like the Delta smelt, another member of the Osmeridae family and the California cousin to our Rainbow smelt, are now endangered from corporate environmental practices and continued fishing. Although the smelt population is less than it has been throughout history, we are fortunate to have enough fish to continue the tradition.
After a fun night catching smelt you can cook your bounty with limited effort. Cleaning smelt literally takes seconds. You snip from the vent forward, then clip the heads. From there, most people make smelt fries by dipping them in batter and dropping them in the pan or deep fryer, but there are hundreds of smelt recipes online.
Our family looks forward to another late night trip to the river in a few weeks. It ends ice fishing season and is the perfect start to camping season. Last year might have been our first smelting experience, but I look forward to continuing this local tradition for years to come.
– Nola Robitaille and family