Smelt are part of the Osmeridae fish family, known for their small size and slender body shape. They average 5.0-7.2 cm in length and have an almost translucent appearance with a silvery sheen on the sides, pointed head, and large mouth with fang-like teeth. Their lifespan is about 2-3 years but can be as low as one year and with the recent adverse ecological changes, smelt populations have been declining and are now threatened.

Reducing water flows and man-made elements such as power plant intakes, water pumps, and dams are interfering with the smelt’s natural migrations not to mention the local ecosystem is decaying due to contamination. This forces various smelt species to fight with new competition or predators from non-native species. Much of the declining water levels and dams have landlocked these fish in lakes.


Smelt feed on a variety of bait including insects, sea worms, shrimp and squid. Larvae and juvenile smelt feed on small crustaceans and zooplankton. Predators like trout have been heavily feeding on smelt, taking part in the species decline but also having adverse affects on the predator. Smelt contain thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys Vitamin B1 (Thiamine), causing deficiencies in these predator’s offspring.

Smelt are quite easy to catch using a cast net in shallow surf zone areas along the coastline or streams. Smelt travel in schools no more than a mile off the shoreline making them easy prey. They taste great when fried and make for a delicious meal.

Types of Smelt

There are many different types of smelt. A few species include the Rainbow, Longfin, Delta, European, Pygmy and Pond Smelt. These fish can be found in Oregon Lakes, California reservoirs, Alaskan waters and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Smelt primarily inhabit saltwater oceans but migrate upstream to freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes to spawn in the springtime.