Smelt Fishing 101

Inside the smelt shelter.

Smelt. The name is not exactly inspiring of angling greatness, but there’s much to be said for these slender, shiny fish. Text & Photography by Tom Richardson

Smelt, specifically rainbow smelt, can be found in both the salt and fresh waters of New England. Along the northern coast, schools of smelt migrate upstream each winter to spawn, although their numbers, like those of river herring, have been greatly reduced by dams and other forms of habitat destruction. (Prior to the mid-1800s, most coastal rivers in New England saw seasonal runs of smelt.)

A fine smelt!

Smelt also thrive in freshwater lakes of New England, where they provide a critical source of food of landlocked salmon, trout and smallmouth bass. As with marine smelt, freshwater populations also gather in large schools, especially at night, when the feed on plankton and small copepods. Come spring, they head for the rivers and streams to spawn.

Tiny jigs baited with meal worms do the trick with smelt.

But aside from their important role as a prey species, smelt are also coveted by anglers as food and bait. And catching them is a winter tradition cherished by many ice fishermen.

Onota Lake in the Berkshires of Massachusetts is big, deep (65 feet max) and fed by several streams, making it ideal for large schools of rainbow smelt. To catch them, anglers usually look for deep areas bordered by steep drop-offs or prominent underwater structure, around which the smelt gather to feed at night.

A Vexilar portable sonar is key for determining if smelt are in the house.

After drilling several (4 to 6) holes in the ice, some eight inches apart, an underwater light is usually deployed to attract tiny plankton and other smelt morsels. A portable “flasher-type” sonar is useful for detecting the schools of smelt, which hold anywhere from right near the bottom to just a few inches below the ice.

Once you detect smelt on your sonar, send down a tiny jighead tipped with two meal worms to the same depth. If there are several anglers in your party, have each fish a different depth until you strike smelt gold.

Slowly raise and lower the rod while being careful not to create slack in the line. Most smelt will hit the bait as it’s falling. If you feel a slight tap, gently lift the rod to set the hook. Reel slowly and steadily so as not to tear the hook out of the fish’s soft mouth tissue.

Pan-fried smelt are a treat!

Rods should be ultralight ice fishing models paired with ultralight spinning reels. Spool up with 2- to 4-pound fluorocarbon or mono. Given that a large smelt measures six inches, you can see why a light setup is preferred.

Once you locate a school of smelt, it’s easy to catch over 100 fish in a few hours. Many smelters save a portion of their catch for bait, but just as many like to eat smelt. Smelt are delicious, and can be pan-fried in a skillet or deep-fried in batter and eaten whole—bones, heads, guts and all! Of course, you can also clean the fish and remove their heads if you wish.

Safety First

Obviously, safety is paramount when ice fishing for smelt. Always check the local ice conditions before venturing out.

If unsure of the ice thickness, assess the ice by using a chisel to chop a hole in the ice to determine its thickness and condition. Ice thickness is seldom uniform, so continue to test the ice as you venture further onto the pond or lake. Remember that ice thickness depends on water currents, depth, and the presence of springs and objects such as tree stumps or rocks (ice will be thinner around objects that retain warmth from the sun). Daily changes in temperature also cause the ice to expand and contract, which affects its strength. Never venture on to ice-bound rivers or streams, because the currents make ice thickness unpredictable.

What if you fall through the ice? As with any emergency, don’t panic. Briefly call for help. It doesn’t take long for the cold water to start slowing your physical and mental functions, so you must act quickly. Air will remain trapped in your clothes for a short time, aiding in buoyancy. Kick your legs while grasping for firm ice. Try to pull your body up using ice pins or picks, which should be hanging around your neck. Once your torso is on firm ice, roll towards thicker ice—the direction from which you previously walked. Rolling will distribute your weight better than walking.

After you reach safe ice, you need to warm up quickly to prevent hypothermia. Go to the nearest fishing shanty, warm car, or house. Don’t drive home in wet clothes.

If a companion falls through the ice, remember the phrase “Reach-Throw-Go.” If you are unable to reach your friend, throw him/her a rope, jumper cables, tree branch, or other object. If this does not work, go for help; do not risk becoming a victim yourself. Pet owners should keep pets on a leash. If a pet falls through the ice, do not attempt to rescue the pet; go for help. Well-meaning pet owners often fall through the ice when trying to save their pets.

Ice Thickness and Strength
Ice Thickness (inches) Permissible Load (on new* clear**, blue ice on lakes or ponds)
2″ or less STAY OFF!
4″ Ice fishing or other activities on foot
5″ Snowmobile or ATV
8″-12″ Car or small pickup truck
12″ – 15″ Medium truck
*New ice is stronger than older ice. **White ice or “snow ice” is only about half as strong as new clear ice. Double the above thickness guidelines when traveling on white ice.
  • More Safety Tips
  • Leave information about your plans with someone, including where you intend to fish and when you expect to return.


  • Wear a personal flotation device.


  • Ice varies in thickness and condition. Always carry an ice spud or chisel to check ice as you proceed.


  • Be extremely cautious crossing ice near river mouths, points of land, bridges, islands, and over reefs and springs. Current almost always causes ice to be thinner over these areas.


  • Avoid going onto the ice if it has melted away from the shore. This indicates melting is underway, and ice can shift position as wind direction changes.


  • Waves from open water can quickly break up large areas of ice. If you can see open water in the lake and the wind picks up, get off!


  • Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.


  • Carry a safety line that can be thrown to someone who has gone through the ice.


  • Heated fishing shanties must have good ventilation to prevent deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Open a window or the door part way to allow in fresh air.






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