Smelt – Dip Net to Dish

In the mid 1940’s a small silvery fish known as the rainbow smelt appeared in Minnesota waters of Lake Superior. Since then, smelt have become a dominant member of the Lake Superior fish community. Although not as abundant as they once were, smelt continue to provide food for the growing trout and salmon populations in Lake Superior and for people, especially during the North Shore’s “Spring Rite.”

The Spring Rite is an annual event that draws thousands of winter weary sportsmen to the shores and tributaries of Lake Superior. With dip nets, buckets, and waders in hand, the smelters long to once again feel the exuberance of free flowing water and to try their hand at catching the delicious little fish.

Smelt are found in grocery stores from the North Shore to Japan. They not only taste good, but like other fish, can reduce serum cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. Each spring, recreational fishermen have the opportunity to load up on these sweet tasting, nutritious fish. Unfortunately many fishermen end up throwing out the majority of their catch.

Smelt are probably thrown out for one or more of these three reasons: 1) too many were caught to adequately process, 2) they were not handled properly after they were caught, or 3) they were not frozen properly. Smelt are very delicate and require great care from the time they are caught until they are eaten. Even if you intend to use the smelt as bait during a future lake trout or northern pike fishing trip, you must take good care of them.

What follows are handling and freezing tips and some recipes that will help you make the most of your rite of spring.

After the Catch

After standing waist-deep in an icy-cold stream with an equally cold wind blowing off Lake Superior, it may seem ridiculous to ice your smelt catch. But that is exactly what you should do. Spoilage bacteria grow even at 40 degrees F. Icing the smelt lowers their temperature to 32 degrees F and greatly reduces loss of quality caused by bacteria. Place the ice below the smelt as well as on top of, them. As the ice melts, it washes the bacteria and slime to the bottom of the cooler. Do not let smelt soak in the meltwater at the bottom of the cooler. Smelt may be kept iced this way for up to two days with little change in quality.

Smelt are delicate and bruise easily so do not pack too many into large containers like five gallon buckets. Garbage cans or garbage bags. Smelt at the bottom may be crushed and will end up soaking in a pool of blood and slime. A full plastic bag may even break on your way back to the car, resulting in a feast only for the seagulls. Bruised smelt do not taste as good and will quickly spoil even during frozen storage. The highest quality smelt are those layered with ice in a cooler and cleaned as soon as possible.

Cleaning Your Smelt

Dressing smelt is very easy, although, with the large quantities usually brought home from the stream, it can be a tedious chore. Perhaps the quickest way to dress them is with a pair of sharp scissors; however, a knife will also do.

Method 1– Cleaning

Diagram 1 showing how to insert the knife to remove everything forward of the pectoral fins; Diagram 2 showing how to scrape out entrails with spoon by moving from anus towards head.

Step 1:

Cut off the head behind the gill cover on a slight angle so that the pectoral fins are removed in the cut.

Step 2:

Insert knife or scissors into anus and cut along the belly to the point where the head was removed. With finger or spoon, remove entrails by starting at the anus and scraping forward.

Diagram showing how to clean fish under a faucet running cold water.

Step 3:

Clean and rinse by running under cold water. Scaling or skinning is not necessary, but can be done by scraping with a toothbrush or finger.

Method 2– Cleaning

You might like to try the following method that some smelters find quicker and not so messy.

Step 1:

Diagram showing how the head should only be attached towards the bottom to facilitate step 2.

Insert scissors or knife into anus and cut along belly to the pectoral fins. Cut from back of the head, on a slight angle, to just behind the pectoral fins--but without completely severing the head.

Step 2:

Pull out head, pectoral fins, and entrails all at once. You will pull of that last bit of flesh on each side as you pull the head towards the tail.

Method 3– Butterfly Fillets

Cooking does not always make edible the backbones of medium to large smelt. To eliminate the problem, try this technique.

Two images showing how to make the cuts around the spine from the inside, and then lifting it out.

To butterfly fillet a dressed smelt, cut along both sides of the backbone from inside the body cavity. Cut through the rib bones on each side of the backbone but not through the back of the smelt. Continue the cut all the way, making a cut on both sides of the anal fin. Then simply grab the backbone and pull it out from the inside. The rib bones are left with the fish. It’s not as tedious as it sounds.

Freezing Smelt

It is important to package smelt properly, then store them in a deep-freezer at 0 degrees F for no longer than 5 to 6 months. Otherwise, you will probably be disappointed in their taste and may end up dumping them in the garbage. Two excellent ways to freeze smelt are described below.

Method 1– Freezing

Wrap enough dressed smelt for a meal in freezer cling wrap (saran). Force out as much air as possible and seal tightly. Overwrap with freezer paper to protect the cling wrap from being punctured. Place package in the freezer. Generally, two pounds of fish per cubic foot will freeze within proper time limits.

Method 2– Freezing

Place a family sized meal of smelt in a freezer bag (like a ziplock bag) and add just enough water to cover the smelt. Seal the bag and lay flat in the freezer. Substitute small plastic containers for the freezer bags if you like.

Remember that freezing in too much water is not good for the fish. A large container of water will cause fish to freeze too slowly to maintain high quality, the ice may crush fish as it expands, and the water will draw out valuable vitamins and nutrients from your fish.

Smelt are moderately fat and, therefore, don’t keep as long in a freezer as do leaner fish like walleyes, crappies or sunfish. The fat in smelt will begin to turn noticeably rancid after about 6 months in the freezer. If smelt are kept frozen at a temperature above 0 degrees F or they are kept in the freezer compartment of a refrigerator (rather than a deep-freezer), they will turn rancid even quicker.

Be sure to label and date your packages before placing them in the freezer.

Thawing Your Smelt

Schedule the thawing so that you will cook the smelt soon after you thaw it. Do not hold thawed fish longer than one day before cooking. To thaw, place the frozen package in the refrigerator. Allow 24 hours for thawing a 1 -pound package. If quicker thawing is necessary, place the frozen packages under cold running water. Allow about an hour to thaw a 1 pound package.

Never thaw fish at room temperature or in warm water. Never refreeze fishery products.

Once you become versed in these smelt handling techniques, you may find yourself eating smelt more often than “one good meal per year” that many proclaim is all they want.

Related pages:

About smelt populations in Lake Superior:


This page last modified on August 20, 2010     © 1996 – 2014 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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