Smelt, American fish

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Smelt (Osmerus mordax)

***** Location: America
***** Season: Late Spring
***** Category: Fish


Technically, rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax); also called
American smelt, leefish, freshwater smelt, icefish, and frost fish.

Originally an ocean fish, the smelt was introduced to Crystal Lake in Michigan as food for stocked salmon in 1906. It soon escaped into Lake Michigan, and by 1930 the rapidly growing population had expanded into Lake Superior. It is now found in all five Great Lakes as well as many lakes and rivers in upstate New York and as far south as Iowa and Illinois. Fishes of other species in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America are also called smelt.

The smelt is 7˝–9˝ in length, weighs about 3 oz., and is colored sliver with pale green back; iridescent purple, blue and pink on sides.

Charles Trumbull


The University of Wisconsin further describes the smelt as follows:

In the lower Great Lakes, rainbow smelt were at first regarded as a nuisance, hordes of them invading and becoming entangled in fish nets. In Lake Superior, however, they were welcomed both as a forage fish and as a recreational target during their spring spawning runs. Systematic harvesting began in 1952, and dip-netting and seining in spawning streams has developed into an avid sport.

In the streams, rainbow smelt display the characteristics that inspired their name, shimmering colorfully. Removed from the water, they quickly fade to a lifeless silvery white and give off the odor of freshly cut cucumbers. These carnivorous fish school in both coastal and central regions of the lake. Sensitive to bright lights and warm temperatures, they are usually found in dark, cool depths offshore.

Smelt are not only processed for animal feeds but are also enjoyed by people, and countries as far away as Japan are interested in importing its meat and roe. Unfortunately, smelt populations fell sharply in the early 1980s and the outlook for them is not clear.


Smelt are caught primarily at night during spring spawning season, which begins as soon as the ice breaks up on the lakes. On the south shore Lake Superior this is typically during the last two weeks of April. Great numbers of the fish swim up tributary stream from the lakes into rivers. They are caught by dip netting in the shallows. The smelt run is often a social occasion in Wisconsin and Minnesota. A bulletin from the Cook County, Ill., Forest Preserve District in 1947 noted, “Smelt festivals were annual events in which many thousands of people took part, dipping out millions of the fish by the light of bonfires, using nets, tubs, buckets, and even their hats.”

Smelt are also fished commercially in Lake Michigan and are an object for ice fishermen.

Worldwide use


kyuuri uo キュウリウオ (Osmerus mordax dentex)
Because he looks like a cucumber, he is called "Cucumber Fish". From Spring to Summer he swims up the rivers of Japan for spawning.
He tastes best when freshly fried on charcoal.


Smelt, kisu キス see below.



Smelt, Корюшка, korushka (koh-roosh-kah)
Osmerus eperlanus

It is the early-spring fish in St. Petersburg, Russia. It appears in Neva River just after the ice drift is gone, and it is sold everywhere for some days.

запах весны -
у метро продают
с лотка корюшку.

flavor of spring -
a street vendor selling smelt
at the Metro station

Anastasia Nemchuk
St. Petrsburg, Russia

See also:
Fish Kigo from Russia

Things found on the way


a few folks absent
from the picket line today:
smelt running

Charles Trumbull
From "Playing Hooky," a rengay with Bill Lerz and Joe Kirschner, 1998, included in 3 x 3 x 3.

For more haiku about SMELT contact Charles directly, there are more in his extensive database.


Related words

***** Smelt, Japanese Fish, kisu キス
Kigo for All Summer

WHC World Kigo Database : Fish as Kigo -


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