For the Love of Smelt!


There are many travesties in the world.  Methinks one of the greatest is the lack of appreciation for the lowly smelt.  Some of you probably don’t even know what a smelt is.  Up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin some of us do have an appreciation for its wonderful flavor and texture.  Smelt may not rank with walleye or lobster, but it is infinitely better than lutefisk or boiled cod, which for someone reason are more admired by Norwegians and Swedes.

A smelt is proof that to paraphrase Ben Franklin, “God loved man and wanted him to be happy.”  It is a small, tiny fish about 4-6 inches long.  You catch it in April or May when they are spawning  along the Great Lakes or the Atlantic seashore.  There are six steps to eating smelt.  I will describe the process in each step.

Smelt Dip

Andrew Long holds up a net full of fish during a smelt dip along the Cowlitz River in Castle Rock on Tuesday.

  1. Finding Smelt

You have three options here.  1. Buy a wader and a net and catch your own.  2. Find a smelt fry at a rural fire department, VFW Post or police station and be served smelt.  These venues often catch their own smelt and use the event as a fundraiser.  It will probably not be fresh at a smelt fry and now a days they seem to be smaller and smaller at these shindigs. 3. Try a dozen different grocery stores and if you are lucky you might find a one-pound bag of frozen or if you are really lucky fresh smelts for about four dollars a pound.  The price shows you how unappreciated they are.


  1. Preparing Smelt

If you go to a smelt fry, you can skip this step and the rest of the steps following.  However, if you catch or buy smelt there are different ways of preparing and cooking.  To prepare fresh caught smelt, simply gut them and take the heads off.  No need to filet them as the bones are so small that after frying them, you can eat bones and all.  Some people just fry the fish, head, guts, and all.  If you buy them in a bag frozen they will already be prepared.


  1. Cooking Smelt

The preferred method is to get some flour and oil.  Lightly bread your smelts and deep fry them in the oil.  Roll them in paper towers to absorb some of the grease.  Be careful here as grease adds flavor.  If you are wanting some variety, the Internet is full of smelt recipes where you can pretend that you are a French or Italian chef and cook them with some exotic recipe.  True smelt people look down upon these pretentious and gastronomical quirks.


  1. Eating Smelt

I love catsup on my fried smelt.  Sometimes I will use tartar sauce.  It is important to eat smelt in modest size portions.  Most smelt frys will advertise “All you can eat or until gone.”  Eating medium size portions will enable you to go back for seconds and thirds without seeming like a glutton.  Your spouse may say that you smell like a smelt if you go back for fourths but sometimes even thirds will leave you reeking of smelt.


  1. Cleaning Up After Eating

Good reason to go to a smelt fry.  No cleaning up after eating.  Otherwise, you will need to clean some greasy frying pans and the dishes you ate on.  If you eat at home, you can always take a nap after three servings of smelt and hope someone else will take care of the dishes.


  1. Finding More Smelt

You will be hard pressed to find a smelt fry after the middle of May in either Minnesota or Wisconsin.  Smelt frys are usually poorly advertised.  You need to scan your local papers for where they will be holding them.  I came back to Wisconsin in early April this year and had already missed two local smelt frys.  I managed to find three more that occurred after I was home.  I had to check high and low for these events.

I also visited all the local grocery stores to see if anyone had smelt.  After going to St. Croix Falls, Luck, Siren, and Frederic grocery stores, I found a single bag at a grocery store in St. Croix Falls.  I noticed it had been opened and I gutlessly decided not to buy it.  It was a close decision because I was getting close to a withdrawal thinking about not having any more smelt until next May.

Well, That’s All Folks!

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