After the Big Melt, Eat Smelt
By Michael Welch
It’s a rite of springtime passage as the icy waters of our lakes thaw up and the fish start moving again. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but if you are traveling lakeside during a spring evening, you might glimpse people with flashlights, nets and waist-high waders wandering around the lakeshore where gorges and falls merge into the wider lake.
They’re looking for smelt, the North Atlantic version of a sardine and just as delicious. These tiny fish, usually only four to seven inches in length, are a declining delicacy in the Finger Lakes. Folks that have been around a while will tell stories of going out with plastic garbage bags to fill with smelt for a lakeside fish fry and that you could barely avoid stepping on the schools of fish as you scooped your net.
With the increase in trout and landlocked salmon bounties in our waters (major devourers of smelt) Rainbow smelt populations are nowhere near what they used to be. But the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says they can be found in small numbers in Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, Canandaigua, Canadice, Hemlock, Keuka and Seneca lakes.
The beauty of the smelt is in the eating though. The flesh is rich and slightly oily, with a mild fish flavor and it’s the ultimate in gill-to-tail eating since the entire fish can be consumed, head, viscera, skin and all. The bones are so tiny they usually melt during the cooking process.
A fishing license is required to net for smelt and the season usually runs through late May. Check the DEC website (dec.ny.gov) for the latest on yield limits and hours for fishing.
If you’re not interested in getting the license, donning waders, and heading out during the cold spring nights, Wegmans sells 16-ounce bags of frozen wild smelt from Canada that are cleaned and ready to cook. There’s nothing like fresh caught fish, but these are a good substitute, especially for a fried smelt sandwich.
Spicy Pan-Fried Smelt
This fish is freshest fried in a kettle over an open fire on the beach as soon as you get back on dry land. But a kitchen fish fry will do nicely too.
1 pound fresh or frozen smelts (about 16 to 18 fish)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon smoked paprika or chili powder
Canola oil (for frying)
Juice from ½ lemon
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
Lay smelt fillets on a board and season lightly with salt and pepper. Mix the flour with the paprika or chili powder in a shallow bowl or pie plate. Dredge each smelt in flour on both sides, shaking off any extra flour and place on a large tray or plate.
Pour enough oil into a large pot to fill a 1/2″ deep. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350°. Working in batches fry fillets until golden and cooked through, about 2 minutes per batch. Transfer fish to paper towels to drain. Season with salt, drizzle the lemon juice and parsley over the fish and serve over a bed of fresh butter lettuce or cooked dandelion greens.