“Fishes of Wisconsin” Redux: Rainbow Smelt

Sorry to dig up old bog posts twice in a row, but this little fish popped up on our “Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge and, well, here we are again – at the end of a long work week and looking forward to all things fried on Wisconsin menus. That’s right, it’s the day of our great state’s world-famous fish fries and that means it’s “Fish Fry Day” here on the blog.
Today’s special – rainbow smelt.

Rainbow smelt. Photo: Marilyn Larsen
Rainbow smelt. Photo: Marilyn Larsen

Alas, not all of the species on the “Fishes of Wisconsin” can be, how shall we put it, “uncomplicated.” This tasty invasive species has a long history in the state. So, how did these small, but voracious, fish get to Wisconsin? Well, like many invasive species, they started in the Great Lakes. In fact, according to the Minnesota Sea Grant, “it is generally accepted that the Great Lakes population of rainbow smelt resulted from their being stocked into Crystal Lake, Michigan, in 1912.” Why would people throw smelt into a lake, you may ask? Well, because many folks think smelt are good eats. And, historically, they were easy to catch.
Hundreds of anglers with dip nets await the evening spawning run of smelt. Photo: Steve Stearns, Duluth News Tribune archive
Hundreds of anglers with dip nets await the evening spawning run of smelt. Photo: Steve Stearns, Duluth News Tribune archive

In fact, rows upon rows of smelt lovers used to wade out into cold Great Lake tributaries in spring and go “smelting” with their dip nets, hauling in a garbage can full of fish in one night. To serve – simply batter them up and fry them whole. (They’re good, I promise!)
In Wisconsin, there’s a long history of smelting, but that whole history was built on a non-native fish. And now smelt are moving into Wisconsin’s inland lakes and wreaking havoc on native fish populations. For example, in (ironically) Crystal Lake just northeast of Minocqua, smelt are so numerous they’ve eaten some many young perch and walleye (and their eggs) that those treasured sport fish populations have collapsed. Here at the Center for Limnology, we have a unique experiment underway to kill the smelt and let the few remaining perch and walleye rebound. Unfortunately, while we killed a whole lot of smelt, we didn’t get them all – and that means, enough smelt survived to keep the population from collapsing.
A tiny fish with a big bite. Although they don't grow over six inches in length, smelt are voracious predators of young fish and eggs, and can cause populations of much larger fish to collapse. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer
A tiny fish with a big bite. Although they don’t grow over six inches in length, smelt are voracious predators of young fish and eggs, and can cause populations of much larger fish to collapse. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

It’s been said that a weed is “just a plant out of place.” And, in the case of fish, an “aquatic invasive species” is just a fish out of place. Not everyone is trying to eradicate smelt. In Massachusetts and other New England states, the fish is of special concern and efforts are underway to restore native smelt populations. Maybe we need to invent a way to ship live smelt back to their natal waters? Maybe we need to ramp up the smelt fries?
Whatever we do, I think we can all agree to admit we’ve at least come a little ways as a society – far enough to keep smelt wrestling off the table! (See below)
Two men smelt wrestling at the Smelt Carnival in Marinette, WI. circa 1939 Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society
Two men smelt wrestling at the Smelt Carnival in Marinette, WI. circa 1939 Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

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