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Smelting on Lake Superior

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Spring Smelt Run

How to Catch Smelt

Smelt are sensitive to temperature and light. Smelt "run" (move into streams to spawn) when Lake Superior's tributaries warm to between 42 to 45 degrees F. This typically happens toward late April - early May. Smelt run under the cover of darkness. After dark, wade into the water near the mouth of the stream with your net. Sweep your net behind riffles, boulders, or anything that might give smelt a break from the current as they swim upstream.

Some people opt to seine for smelt along beaches. At dusk and with a partner, carry a seining net out into the water as deep as you can go, holding the net above the surface. As if setting a net for tennis, place the poles down on the lake bottom and begin a slow and steady pace toward shore keeping the net in contact with the lake floor. As you approach the shore, the net should be as wide as possible. Angle the poles so that the bottom of the net leads shoreward. Pick up the pace and slide the net out of the water onto the beach making sure the smelt aren't escaping because the net lifted off the ground. Using a seine with a bag or sock in the middle will increase your catch.

Gear List

  • Hip boots or waders
  • Long-handled net
  • A cooler or 5-gallon bucket for the netted fish
  • Fishing license
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Lantern and/or headlamp
  • Change of clothes
  • Rescue rope
  • Life jacket
  • Food and beverage
  • Blanket
  • Optional: 15 to 25-foot seine net (check your local regulations)

Safety Tips

Don't ruin the fun by dying. It's going to be dark. Cold water is guaranteed. What may by easy by day could prove difficult by night, especially when your fingers are numb.

Wavy conditions off of beaches like Minnesota or Wisconsin Points can create rip currents strong enough to wash the sand out from under your feet and pull you offshore. Know what rip currents are, how to avoid them, and how to escape if caught. Wear a personal floatation device (PFD) with reflective tape when the waves are up.

In 45-degree water, unconsciousness can overtake you in 30 minutes. You could die within the hour. Know how to survive.

If you fall while in a stream or river, hopefully you are wearing a PFD with reflective strips on it. If you need a rescue, you'll be easier to find. As the cold water leaves you gasping and maybe fills up your waders (are you wearing your safety-belted chest waders?), don't panic. Panic is a killer. If stream conditions don't permit a quick exit, float on your back, use your feet to deflect yourself over boulders, and keep your head up by paddling your arms. Look for an exit point.

Where To Go

  • Rivers: Lester, Knife, Stewart, Gooseberry, Split Rock, Beaver, Baptism, Cross, Temperance, Poplar and Cascade.
  • Sandy beaches: Minnesota and Wisconsin Points (Smelt can be caught almost anywhere along the 8.5 miles of these two beaches); Chequamegon Bay (Typically, the run is seen first in the Hot Pond on the Ashland side); several beaches in the Ashland area as well as many streams and beaches along the Bayfield peninsula.
  • Where NOT to go: The following streams are closed to smelting: French, Sucker, Little Sucker, Silver, Encampment and Crow.

Fishing Regulations

Check with MN and WI DNRs for changes and more details.

  • There is no season for smelt.
  • There is no limit on the number of smelt you can harvest.
  • Fishing license: yes in Minnesota, only non-residents in Wisconsin.
  • You may not use a flashlight, or other artificial light to locate or attract smelt.
  • You must kill your smelt at the stream. It is unlawful to transport or possess live smelt.
  • Any fish netted other than smelt must immediately be returned to the water.
  • Seines: must be less than 25 feet long or 4 feet deep in Minnesota; must be less than 75 feet long or 6 feet deep in Wisconsin.
  • In Minnesota fishing with seines is illegal within 100 feet of streams.
  • Using smelt taken from Lake Superior as bait: OK in Minnesota as fresh or frozen in Lake Superior or its tributaries below the posted boundaries. For all other Minnesota waters smelt cannot be used as bait unless preserved under a MN DNR-issued bait preservation permit on other water bodies. OK in Wisconsin as frozen Lake Superior or preserved (from any location). Check WI DNR for non-frozen preservation methods.
  • Smelt from Lake Superior can be bought and sold, though non-residents cannot sell smelt in Wisconsin.

Other Considerations

  • Camp only in approved areas.
  • Check for campfire restrictions.
  • Dispose of trash properly or pack it out.
  • Unless the DNR has purchased an access easement, it is unlawful to trespass on privately owned lake or stream shorelines without permission.
  • When smelting in streams running through state parks, you must abide by park rules.
  • Check with local authorities for additional information and restrictions.
  • Don't move firewood (stop the spread of emerald ash borer, etc.)
  • Do not dispose of smelt entrails, or clean buckets that once contained smelt or entrails, into Lake Superior or any inland waters.
  • Drain water from buckets and coolers and let your waders dry before using them in another lake; invasive pests and fish diseases can be transferred in water and on wet equipment.

Related Content:

About smelt populations in Lake Superior:

This page last modified on May 03, 2019     © 1996 – 2019 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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