Fish / Main Dishes / Writing

Great Lakes Fresh Fried Smelt

Spring and Great Lakes Smelt

It’s spring and a Great Lakes Fisherman’s thoughts turn to Fresh Fried Smelt!

I remember my Uncles Sal and Pascal getting up before dawn, with fishing nets, pails and who knows what else to fish for smelts, bringing the stinky fish home, a little bigger than minnows and quick frying a batch for breakfast. I thought they were so mean to catch the tiny fish and then to eat them with their heads, tails and all! I always think of them in the spring and especially when I see the men lined along lake Michigan with their nets, poles, chairs, coolers, and grills.

All along the rocks of Lake Michigan the season’s early bird fishermen are out with smelt nets to catch the tiny delectable fish. Lucky for me smelt are also available fresh or frozen in the seafood section of local markets.

A classic way to cook smelt is to fry them. Some fishermen cook them in a frying pan on the grill—frying them on the spot, seasoned with beer, salt and pepper.

I like them dredged in flour or panko whole wheat breadcrumbs and seasonings and sautéed in olive oil.

About 16-18 smelt per person.

½ pound (about 36) Lake caught fresh smelt, heads removed (some people leave the heads on, the smelt are so small everything is edible, but…) rinse, lay out individually on paper towels to dry.

Rinse and Dry on Paper Towels

Kosher salt

Olive oil for frying, about 1/4 cup

½ cup whole wheat Panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon cayenne (or more to taste)

1 teaspoon mustard powder

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Lay smelt out on a paper towels and salt.

Mix Panko crumbs and all the seasonings in a medium bowl.

Heat a large frying pan over high heat for a minute or two. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan by about 1/8 inch. You do not want the smelt swimming in oil. Let this oil heat up for 2-3 minutes.

Dredge in Seasoned Breadcrumbs

While the oil is heating, dredge your smelt in seasoned Panko breadcrumb mixture and set aside. Lay out paper towels to drain the smelt after quick frying.

When the oil is hot, arrange smelt in one layer with room between and fry over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Turn and fry for an additional minute. Do most of the cooking on one side for golden crust.

Quick Fry On One Side For 3 Minutes

The other side takes less time and you don’t want overcooked fish. Set your smelt aside on paper towels to drain off excess fat. Wipe pan clean with paper towel and repeat for next batch heating fresh olive oil. Keep fried smelt warm in low oven 300°F. if making a large batch.

Fresh Fried Smelt and Pickled Cucumbers

Serve with peeled sliced cucumbers in seasoned rice vinegar.


30 thoughts on “Great Lakes Fresh Fried Smelt

  1. Every Saturday after my husband comes home from the market he usually has a pound of fresh anchovies. Delicious? Indeed! Deheading the little suckers and seeing your hands covered in a pool of anchovy homicide…ew.

  2. I grew up with these treats. They were great especially when Easter was late & Lent went longer. But then when I was a kid every Friday was a “Fish Friday”. Smelt is a great alternative. My wife & I love them. The only downside is at midnight when having cleaned a 5 gal bucket & find you have a second bucket still to clean. Sharpen those scissors and start cleaning.

  3. makes me excited to get out on the beach and start firing up the grill! Cannot wait to try some seafood in San Diego this week!

  4. Here is another recipe for smalts which is used by the French-Canadians.

    Put smalts in large pot, add water, cut onions and sliced potatoes, selt and pepper to taste.

    Boil on medicum fire until meat tender.

    Served with fresh salad.

    We call this: Bouilotte de poissons des cheneaux.

  5. Ooh! Smelt! As the daughter of a fisherman they were served fresher than fresh in our house. But I never truly got how delicious they are until I went smelt dipping myself. We caught ’em and then cooked and ate those tasty critters. We were in a creek right off the Lake Michigan shoreline. When the smelt run it is fun and fast dipping the net and coming out with a bunch by flashlight.

  6. I really like your pictures. I don’t recall smelts as being smelly. They are a cold water fish caught in the spring runoff when the water is really cold. Best caught in rivers and springs. The Great Lakes are great, too. I love smelts floured with salt/pepper. I would love to eat smelts pan fried on the spot. The fish has no fishy taste or smell. You can eat the spine because it is soft and crunchy when fried. We always took the head off but ate the tail as again it fries up very crunchy…full of calcium and other minerals. Thank you for a wonderful spring time story!

  7. I used to eat these when i was little and we lived in Michigan. The heads bothered me a bit, but now I couldn’t handle them even minus the heads.
    I always thought they had a fishy taste, but the crunch was nice.

  8. The finished product looks so appetizing, I might just give them a try!! and not too complicated of a recipe, either! Thanks for sharing!

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  11. Oh what memories of these little goodies. Dipping in Lake Huron in the spring when the “run” was on, so many at once, one dip of your net and you had a 5gallon pail full. Then cleaning for sometime days, because we had so many. Froze the ones we did not eat, and we had them all summer long. Thanks for the memories!!!

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  13. We get our smelts here in Atlantic Canada (Miramichi New Brunswick) a little earlier than in the Great Lakes. The fishermen actually go out on the ice and put nets out that way – a little dicey if there is any sort of thaw – the nets become in jeopardy. But “boyz-o-boy” are they “some good”! They seem to be a wee bit bigger out here, too. (See, I am a Detroit transplant out here in the Miramichi. I am glad I still get to have my “feed o’ smelts”.) It’s been fun reading everyone’s comments and I enjoyed the French-Canadian recipe – I live near the Acadian town of Neguac. I’m going to try the French-Canadian version! Merci!

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