Cooking and Eating Smelts
Smelt is one of the few fish that sportsmen are allowed to net, using dip nets, either along the coastline or in the streams. Some sportsmen also ice fish for smelt. Smelt are often fried and eaten whole.
Smelts resemble salmon in appearance, but are smaller, usually reaching only from 2 to 7 inches, although some species can reach as much as 28 inches. Smelts are a food source for salmon and lake trout. Like salmon, many species live most of their lives in the sea, but travel into fresh water to breed. But, there are a few exceptions, such as the surf smelt, which spend their whole life at sea.
In parts of Canada and states around the Great Lakes, "smelt dipping" is a common group sport in the early spring months and when stream waters reach about 40–42 degrees. Fish are spotted using a flashlight (the best smelt dipping is in the middle of the night from 10:00 pm – 2:00 am and scooped out of the water using a dip net. The smelt are cleaned by removing the head and the entrails. Fins, scales, and bones of all but the largest of smelts are cooked without removal.
On the Maine coast, smelts are also a sign of spring, with the run of these small fish up tiny tidal estuaries. Many of these streams are narrow enough for a person to straddle and get a good catch of smelt by dipping a bucket.
Smelt fishing is also a popular sport in Washington and Oregon along the coast in the winter and summer months. Many people also fish for smelt year-round on the Puget Sound beaches as well as in the Columbia River.
Smelts have been traditionally an important winter catch in the salt water mouths of rivers in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Smelt taken out of the cold salt water are preferred to those taken in warm water. Then they are gutted, heads and tails removed and rinsed in cold water then dipped in flour mixed with salt and pepper and fried in butter. They can also can be flash frozen and stored in the freezer.
Smelt are a small fish that are wonderful fried crisp and eaten with the fingers. The smaller ones have bones that are tender enough to eat. With the larger smelt nibble the fish off the bones.
Serve with cocktail sauce or creamy horseradish sauce.
Pan-Fried Smelt with Spinach Recipe
2 pounds small smelts (900 g)
1/3 cup (50 g) all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 pound (115 g) butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound (450 g) fresh spinach, washed and stemed
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat your oven to 225 degrees F (110 C) and put in a overproof platter.
Step 1...Rinse the smelt under cold water and pat dry.
Step 2...Mix the 1/3 cup all-purpose flour with 1 teaspoon of the salt and the fresh ground pepper, put it on a piece of wax paper and drag each smelt through it so each side is coated.
Step 3...Melt the 1/4 pound butter and 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. When it is hot, put in as many smelts as you can without crowding the skillet. Fry 1 to 1-1/2 minutes on each side over high heat. Transfer to the warm platter and continue until all are fried.
Step 4...Put the spinach in the skillet, sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. and stir in the 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Cover and cook 3 minutes, or until just wilted. Serve covered with the smelts.