Species Identification

There are over a dozen species of smelt found throughout the world, all belonging to the Osmeriforme family. Some of the more common species live only in freshwater conditions, but other kinds of smelt can be found in both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. This section will deal primarily with the species of smelt most sought after by anglers in North America, the rainbow smelt.


Long, thin body, that somewhat resembles a miniature salmon. Rainbow smelts have silvery backs with iridescent sides, most commonly purple, blue, and pink.

Maximum Size

Rainbow smelt rarely reach over 12 inches (30cm), but other species can grow closer to 30 inches (70cm).

Geographic Range

Rainbow smelt are native to the east coast from New Jersey to Labrador, and along west coast B.C. northwards to the Arctic Ocean. They have been introduced into the Great Lakes and from there have made their way to other bodies of water in Ontario and the Mid-West.


Smelt prefer to school in cooler waters. They are sensitive to light and therefore prefer staying in mid-waters and as far as bottom on a bright summer day. Their ideal water temperature is 45°F (7°C).


Rainbow smelt catch.

Zooplankton, invertebrates, and small fish such as whitefish, burbot, sculpins, and even other smelt. They have also been known to eat the young of such fish as trout, salmon, perch, and walleye.


Lake-dwelling smelt spawn over gravel beds over the month of April. Given their light sensitivity, they tend to only spawn at night before returning to deeper waters by sunrise.


Smelt are a common catch for a large variety of fish species. Coho salmon, trout, burbot, perch, and walleye are some of their main predators.

Information courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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