What anglers should know about smelt

?Many people may not know it but the rainbow smelt, a prolific baitfish species in Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, is not native to these waters—or anywhere in Sunset Country for that matter.
First discovered in the late 1980s/early 1990s in “Woods” and Rainy, smelt have become a significant part of the ecosystem in these waters over the past decade.
I definitely can say they have altered the habits of many predator fish in these lakes—evident by the change in location of fish during certain seasons.
I’m not a biologist, so I’ll skip some of the scientific facts about smelt and instead stick to discussing some of the fishing facts I have noticed.
An invasive species that somehow made its way into these waters, from an angling standpoint smelt have considerable upside and some downside.
Smelt first showed up in Rainy Lake a few years earlier than they became quite as prominent in Lake of the Woods.
In the late ’90s, anglers competing in the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship on Rainy Lake were catching bigger bass than they were at tournaments on Lake of the Woods, likely because of the high smelt diet the Rainy Lake fish had.
One of the advantages to waters that host large populations of this prolific baitfish is the fish that reside in them likely experience faster growth rates because of the high-quality forage.
For predator fish, smelt are a good thing. I’ve seen bass and lake trout puke up smelt while they are fighting on the end of my line and I’ve found smelt remnants in the bellies of walleyes, crappies, whitefish, and pike that I have cleaned.
Everything eats them.
But the downside is that smelt are predators, too, preying on the fry and fingerlings of cisco, whitefish, and lake trout, among other species.
As such, they can be a negative factor in the populations of these native fish (they are the only baitfish I know of that has teeth).
The other problem with smelt is that they can crash in relatively short order and leave a bunch of fish that have become dependent on them without food.
This is what apparently has happened on Rainy Lake. And when the population crashes, it leaves fish without food in places they have come to expect it, so they move to new locations.
This is one of the reasons why anglers consistently have been catching large walleyes in shallow water throughout the summer months over the past couple of years on Rainy.
I think they have changed their diet somewhat to include more shiners, perch, and crayfish that live in shallower water.
I can remember driving around on Rainy Lake five years ago and not being able to even read the lake bottom on my sonar because the smelt were so thick in places. In the past few years, however, it is nearly impossible to even mark a smelt in the north arm of the lake.
I’m not saying there are none left (there certainly are), but the population has dropped dramatically.
Will it return? Only time will tell, I suppose.
On Lake of the Woods, things are different. Smelt populations currently are high, especially in the clear, deeper sections of the lake, to include Shoal Lake.
By profile, smelt are long, slender minnows, typically three-six inches in length. Anglers can cash in by using smelt imitating lures like hard jerkbaits and soft plastic jerkshads.
Any type of long, slender bait that is light-coloured, white, or chrome will work.
Jerkbaits work great for casting and covering water to find fish. In deeper, vertical situations, a plastic jerkshad body rigged up a jig is a deadly smelt imitation.
Just when the smelt crash is going to occur on the Lake of the Woods system is uncertain, but history shows that smelt populations fluctuate on most waters.
Also unknown is what the population will do on Rainy Lake in the coming years. Evidence indicates they should return in high numbers, but only time will tell.
Anglers should know it is illegal to possess smelt in Ontario, so please do not try to use them for bait.
They are a fragile fish that die very quickly when taken out of the water, but their eggs are super hardy and tough, which is how transplant likely occurs.

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