Ice Fishing for Smelt

Well, winter has finally arrived in the northeast and my precious open water on lakes is almost gone. As I grumble and begin to sort and organize my ice fishing stuff, I can’t deny that I am looking forward to the opportunity to go ice fishing for, of all fish, the smelt.

Rainbow smelt are slender and small: 7-8 inches long and weighing just a few ounces.  About the size of some of my bass and pike lures. They don’t hit hard; the cocoa puff sized bobber just sort of rolls over.  And they can’t put up much of a fight even on the tiniest tackle.  I have had aquatic vegetation that fought harder. But smelt fishing is strangely fun.   

With miniature toy-like ice fishing rod and reel combos, anglers drop a line of up to three tiny hooks in tandem, tipped with wax worms under a micro bobber. Then they park it on an overturned bucket and wait. But if the smelt are “in,” they typically are in large numbers and you won’t have to wait long.

When a bite is detected, the line is just lifted out of the water. Smelt have such small mouths that they may not be hooked but are just hanging on.  Lift quickly; shake off the smelt into bucket number 2, laugh, and repeat. If they are really biting, this can be done with a rod in each hand.

There is no limit for smelt in Lake Erie in the Pennsylvania, one of the 2015 Top 100 places to fish and boat in the country, if caught on hook and line. If cleaned properly, “butterflied,” and fried lightly, they are considered a delicacy. 

Before you venture out, be sure to check your state regulations. For example, Pennsylvania recently increased the size of a hole in the ice from 8 inches to 10 inches, although I’m sure it wasn’t to make more room for smelt. It has been many years since I’ve wrangled smelt and I think my kids will have as much fun as I did. 

Andy Whitcomb is an award-winning freelance writer, outdoor humorist, and stressed-out Dad living in Pennsylvania. Visit him at
Andy Whitcomb

Andy Whitcomb

Andy Whitcomb is a columnist, outdoor humorist, and stressed-out Dad. He says there are “people who fish”… and there are “fishermen”.  One of the few things he knows is that he is a “fisherman”...  To the point it could be classified as borderline illness.  Sharing this obsession is rewarding, therapeutic. He likes to encourage people to “stop and smell the crappie."  Enjoys catching fish, but gets a greater thrill out of helping someone else hook up.
Born in Florida, but raised on the banks of Oklahoma farm ponds. Now relocated to western Pennsylvania. He has fished, worked, lived all around the US.  He has a B.S. in Zoology from Oklahoma State as well...
And he met his wife while electrofishing. He has been contributing weekly to since 2011.