(Osmerus mordax): WILD CAUGHT
FOR SUCH A LITTLE FISH, it sure can cause big excitement for ice fishermen and seafood lovers alike. Because when the weather up north is on the wrong side of zero, it’s time to go smelting!
The Rainbow Smelt is a whitefish and the smallest of Maine’s sea-run fish, rarely exceeds 6-9 inches in length and just a few ounces in weight. A member of the salmon family, they were once found as far south as Virginia, although Maine now boasts their largest commercial catch population. Swimming in schools, smelts are marine fish that spend most of their time in Coastal waters and harbors, but with the cold water seasonal changes of winter will begin to swim up rivers to spawn in estuaries and streams before returning to the sea after the spring thaw. It is during these icy months that fishermen set up their smelt shacks on frozen Coastal rivers and drop their hooks.
Rainbow smelts are slender, olive green in color along the dorsal with a silvery stripe along its side and a silver belly. Smelts occur in many northern waters on both sides of the Atlantic; they are well known in France (eperlan). Its close relative, the capelin, lacks the popularity of the smelt. Smelts have an unusual taste (some have written that fresh smelts smell a bit like cucumbers – even of watermelons), but most will agree they are delicious when fried…especially right after harvest, and even as a Maine breakfast. Scaled and gutted, dipped in milk and flour and fried briefly in hot oil, it is a memorable experience. Smelt fillets, oily and high in fat, can also be poached or baked.
The smelt season, while eagerly anticipated, is brief – and is generally dependent upon deep freeze temperatures to properly ice up the flowing rivers so that the fishing shacks can safely be set (smelt shacks can vary in sophistication, but it is not uncommon for them to boast wood stoves and electricity). The favored method for catching smelts is with a simple rig of fishing lines baited with cut bloodworms dipped through a “raceway” or a rectangular hole in the ice. A little jig works well too, as do nets when placed strategically along riversides with breaks in the ice.
Care should be taken with fresh smelts as they are delicate fish that bruise easily and have a limited shelf life. Maine smelts generally run 5-7 per pound and due to the limited catches and high popularity, are in always in tight supply!
Catch Region: Coastal Maine Rivers
Seasonality: Very Limited Winter Catches; Largely Reliant on Very Cold Temperatures/Freezing. Can begin in December and last until the Spring “Thaw”.
Catch Methods: Lines, Jigs, Nets
Yield: About 45 %
Flavor Profile: Distinct, oily
Texture Profile: Delicate