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Learn about rainbow smelt

The rainbow smelt is a common sea-run (diadromous) fish along the northeastern coast of the United States, and is a popular fish for food. Read on to learn more about this fish.


  • Rainbow smelt are rather small fish, generally growing to between 6 and 10 inches in length. They weigh between 1 and 6 ounces. 
  • They are slender fish and have a pointed head with a relatively large mouth and teeth. Rainbow smelt are mostly silver, but have a pretty iridescence shine when fresh and smell like cucumbers (hence the name).

Rainbow smelt facts

  • Species name: Osmerus mordax
  • Female rainbow smelt lay roughly between 20,000 and 80,000 eggs depending on their size.
  • Smelt are spring spawners; mainly from early March to early May.
  • Rainbow smelt spawn in fresh water, and only at night. The eggs survive best in fast moving water and on aquatic vegetation.
  • Young smelt eat zooplankton and adult smelt eat mostly small crustaceans and fish.
  • Rainbow smelt are favorite among predators; with estimates of up to 72% of adult smelt dying each year. Predators include:
    • Striped bass
    • Bluefish
    • Birds
    • Marine mammals  
  • Rainbow smelt are schooling fish and popular for anglers for chance to catch many in one day and their fine taste.
  • You can use several kinds of fishing gear to catch rainbow smelt, including cane poles, ultra-light spinning outfits, and handlines, but nets during the spawning run are prohibited.
  • Frying is one of the most popular methods for cooking smelt.

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