Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax)
Only one member of the smelt family-the rainbow smelt-is present in New York. This is a small, slender, elongate fish averaging 6-8 inches long. This silvery fish has a complete lateral line, relatively large scales, a large mouth, a forked tail, and an adipose fin.
Sea-dwelling populations of this fish are anadromous, running up freshwater streams to spawn. Freshwater or landlocked smelts are most important in New York. They are found in Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes, and scattered lakes in the Adirondacks. They also are present in Lake George and Lake Champlain. They are fairly common in the Hudson, particularly in the area midway between Manhattan and Albany.
Smelt spawn in spring, when large numbers run up tributary streams. Although spawning usually occurs in streams, in some situations smelt may spawn offshore on gravel shoals. Spawning primarily takes place at night, with two or more males accompanying one female in riffle areas of the stream or along the lake shore. The female releases her 10,000 or more adhesive eggs, which stick to the bottom gravel. During spawning season male smelt have many rough-feeling breeding tubercles on the body which easily distinguish them from the females.
Smelt are schooling fish inhabiting the cool, medium depths of lakes. Feeding on many small invertebrates and some small fish, they, in turn, are preyed upon by other fishes, including many of our most prized sport species, such as the lake trout and landlocked salmon.
Smelt are caught by dip netting and winter ice fishing. Some of the best opportunities are in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and Finger Lakes tributaries.
Distribution of rainbow smelt in NY state.
A 230 KB image of the rainbow smelt is also available for download.