The dominant species of smelt in the U.S. is the rainbow smelt. Not normally known as a game fish, but cold weather makes one do crazy things. And smelt ice fishing is strangely fun.
Ice fishing requires a certain way of thinking. Or perhaps lack thereof. After all, it is COLD and there won’t be any casting. Just drill a hole, usually with an ice auger, through good safe ice to access water in liquid form. In PA, the size of the hole cannot exceed 10 inches in diameter. Always good to know the regulations except that for smelt fishing; you’ll only need to punch a hole about the size of a 50-cent piece.
Smelt ice fishing requires ultra, ultra-light ice fishing tackle. These fish are slender and small, maybe only in the 6-8 inch range, and weighing just a few ounces, or about the weight of a ball point ink pen. A rig may consist of perhaps three tiny hooks spaced several inches apart so it is possible to land 3 ink pens at once.
They don’t hit hard; a cocoa puff-sized bobber just sort of rolls over. Smelt have such small mouths that they may not be hooked but are just hanging on to the bait, generally wax worms or such. As one might expect, they can’t put up much of a fight even on the tiniest tackle. I have had aquatic vegetation that fought harder. But smelt ice fishing trips are astonishingly amusing.
Once a bite is detected, lift your line quickly but steadily. Then hold the smelt over a 5 gallon bucket, shake them off (remember, they probably are not actually hooked), laugh, and repeat. If they are really biting, this can be done with a rod in each hand. Smelt ice fishing kind of reminds me of playing that claw-type arcade game.
Although bait sized and used as bait for pike, walleye, catfish, etc., smelt may not be considered a “bait fish,” with regards to daily limit. For example, in PA, the baitfish combined limit is 50, however, for Lake Erie, if you are catching smelt on hook and line, there is no limit. But keep in mind the time it takes to clean these tasty morsels before you fill too many buckets. I’m just saying.
Originally found in Atlantic watersheds in the northeast and the Alaskan and Canadian watersheds of the Pacific according to the USGS, smelt ice fishing trips are now possible in about 30 states because they have been widely introduced. Check your state regulations when you get a new fishing license and see if this wackiness is available in your area this winter.