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Smelt, where have they gone?

February 17, 2005

The original range of smelt was the Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey north to Labrador and inland waters in New Hampshire, Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The establishment and spread in the Great Lakes is credited to the stocking in the Crystal Lake, Benzie County in 1912. From there they spread to the other Great Lakes, where they became abundant. In Michigan, they have subsequently been stocked into numerous inland lakes throughout the state.

The smelt is an anadromous species, leaving the ocean, Great Lake or inland lake to spawn in tributary streams, much like salmon or steelhead. Spawning runs begin in early spring, when stream temperatures reach the low 40ºs and lasts for 2 to 3 weeks. Smelt have tremendous reproductive capability. Scientists calculated Lake Superior female smelt contain about 14,500 eggs per ounce of body weight. So, a large, 10 inch, four ounce female smelt can deposit 58,000 eggs! Smelt feed mainly on fresh water shrimp, zooplankton, aquatic insects and aquatic worms, but will occasionally eat other small fish.

Where have they gone? Smelt are tasty creatures! My favorite recipe is to broil them in the oven, after dusting with garlic salt. They are eaten in great numbers by fish, birds and people. This had led to their decline in the Great Lakes. After the control of sea lamprey and restocking of the Great Lakes with trout and salmon, smelt populations were heavily preyed upon. Additionally, with the ban of pesticides such as DDT, populations of gulls and cormorants exploded. Finally, until very recently, the commercial harvest of smelt was in the millions of pounds. All these factors have led to the large reduction of smelt populations. They continue to persist in low numbers in our Great Lakes and the persistent smelt dipper may get enough for a meal or two. The positive thing for salmon fishing ports like Ludington is Chinook salmon love to eat smelt. That is one reason the "King" fishing is excellent out of Ludington.

That is the bad news...The good news is we do have several inland lakes that provide excellent winter ice fishing for smelt. A few of the better ones in our area are: Crystal Lake - Benzie County, Higgins Lake - Crawford and Roscommon County and Green Lake - Grand Traverse County. A statewide list of inland lakes can be found in the DNR web site, www.michigan.gov/dnr under the Fisheries tab.


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