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  • Writer's pictureNew Wave Fishing Academy

Smelt Fishing Ontario: Where, When, & How

smelt fishing ontario, rainbow smelt fish

Did you know that rainbow smelt fish are an ocean species?

Smelt were first introduced into the Finger Lakes of New York around 1917 which drain into the Great Lakes watershed. While rainbow smelt fish are classified as an invasive species to Ontario waters they have had an established population for decades.

Due to their invasive species status rainbow smelt fishing ontario waters is a fun and common spring activity for anglers across the province. Rainbow Smelt are only accessible to anglers in the spring period while they spawn while spending the rest of the year offshore and in the depths where cool water exists that they need to survive. Anglers in the 1980's & 90's reported taking smelt by the truck bed load from spawning locations but populations have since dwindled and most can expect less than a 5 gallon pail from a group in an outing. While smelt can be used as bait throughout the remainder of the year fried smelt is a delicacy that many people look forward to each spring. After removing the head and internal organs smelt are coated with spices and fried whole. Fried smelt can be a fun and tasty activity but note it is a lot more work than you expect; especially if you are planning a feast for multiple guests!

Rainbow Smelt fish spawn in rocky & gravelly creeks or rivers where they exist. In order for a successful spawn a high water velocity is needed, If the rivers or creeks entering a body of water do not have this naturally the smelt may hold off until a heavy rain occurs to increase water velocity before performing their spawning habits. A majority of these spawning locations will have no flow and can even dry up in the summertime! Rainbow smelt will spawn once water temperatures approach 42-44 F and as such the rainbow smelt fishing will be best at this period as well. Other signs to know if the spawn is on include hearing frogs (spring peepers) at dusk. When spawning smelt will move up creek or up river into inches of water where anglers can capture them using dip nets, butterfly nets, or other means. Note that rainbow smelt are swimming upstream so scooping the net downstream is the best way to capture them. Smelt are weak swimmers which allows anglers smelt fishing to capture them using this method when they are already fighting the current and mostly still! Rainbow smelt are weary of light and will spawn at night under the cover of darkness. Shining lights into the creeks will help you spot if they have moved in but will spook the smelt.

To find where rainbow smelt fishing ontario waters can occur be sure to check local listing to see if smelt fish are in a body of water. A great resource for this is the Ministry of Natural Resources Fish ONline tool or Muskoka Water Web lake fact sheets. Links to each are at the end of this post. After identifying potential bodies of water look for any incoming sources of water (river, stream, damn, waterfalls, or just a trough that might collect spring rain). Google Earth or other satellite imaging tools can be used for this. Head out at night (9 PM - 3 AM) and walk the creeks from the shallowest portion back out to the body of water to see if they have moved into the area. If you can spot any be sure to turn off the lights and start scooping!

In order to be effective while rainbow smelt fishing you will want to be sure you are prepared! A number of these spawning locations will be difficult to scoop from the shoreline. Anglers commonly will need to wade into the creek for proper access. Chest Waders, waterproof gloves, headlamps, and a bucket to put the rainbow smelt into once caught are all essential pieces of gear for smelt fishing!

Finally, be sure to respect the areas where smelt fishing occurs. Many of these area may be considered private property or be along a property line so ensuring the areas are respected, you are not trespassing, and you are not leaving behind garbage will ensure these areas can continue to be used for years to come. Good luck on your journey into the world of rainbow smelt fishing and fried smelt dinners!


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MNR FishONline

Muskoka Water Web Lake Fact Sheets


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