The Ultimate Guide to Smelt Ice Fishing

If you’re new to smelt ice fishing, our guide will help you get started. We cover the best techniques for catching smelt, including bait selection, rigging, and more.

Smelt ice fishing is an exhilarating winter activity that combines the serenity of the frozen outdoors with the thrill of the catch.

This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know to get started, from the gear you'll need to the best tips and techniques for catching these tasty little fish.

Key Takeaways

• Learn the essential gear and techniques for successful smelt ice fishing.

• Discover the best times and locations to catch smelt through the ice.

• Understand the importance of proper rigging and bait selection for smelt fishing.

Gear Up for Smelt Ice Fishing

Before you venture out onto the ice, having the right equipment is crucial. Smelts can be fished very easily as they are not very demanding. But to be more precise, you can pick fishing rods that are typically shorter and more sensitive than standard ice fishing rods, allowing you to detect the light bite of a smelt.

Pair your rod with a smooth drag system reel and load it with a thin line to ensure you can feel every nibble. The line should be thin but strong, as smelt often congregates in areas with sharp rocks or other snags.

Smelt rigs often consist of multiple hooks to increase your chances of a catch. They are typically lightweight and sensitive, allowing anglers to feel the gentle bite of a smelt. These rigs can be tipped with small flies or bait to attract smelt. When it comes to bait, smelts are attracted to small, shiny objects, so consider using a little piece of minnow or cut bait to entice them.

Use a light-colored monofilament line (2-4 lb test) for maximum sensitivity. It lets you see even the faintest line movements and feel the lightest bites.

Smelt ice fishing, a beloved winter tradition in many parts of the country, offers a unique blend of excitement, camaraderie, and delicious rewards. But with diverse populations and varying regulations across the USA, finding the perfect spot can be tricky. To help you plan your next smelt adventure, here's a breakdown of some top locations:


  • Maine: The undisputed king of smelt ice fishing, Maine boasts iconic "smelt camps" along its coast, offering comfortable shacks, warm camaraderie, and bountiful catches. Popular areas include Sebago Lake, Casco Bay, and the Kennebec River.
  • New Hampshire: Great Bay and the Piscataqua River offer excellent smelt fishing opportunities with accessible ice conditions and dedicated smelt shacks.
  • Vermont: Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog are prime destinations, known for their healthy smelt populations and charming lakeside communities.


  • Michigan: Green Bay on Lake Michigan is a renowned hotspot, with numerous charter services and dedicated smelt shacks offering a full-fledged experience. Higgins Lake and Houghton Lake are also popular options.
  • Wisconsin: Green Bay extends into Wisconsin, with Sturgeon Bay and Kewaunee offering similar shacks and abundant smelt. Lake Winnebago and Lake Mendota are also popular choices.
  • Minnesota: Upper Red Lake and Rainy Lake are legendary for their walleye and smelt populations, attracting ice anglers from all over. Smaller lakes like Burntside and Pelican also offer good smelt fishing.

Other Regions:

  • New York: The Niagara River near Lewiston offers a unique smelt fishing experience, with shacks set up on the ice over the fast-flowing river.
  • Washington: The Cowlitz River near Kelso, self-proclaimed "Smelt Capital of the World," boasts good smelt populations and a vibrant ice fishing community.

To maximize your chances of success, focus on fishing during the evening hours when smelts are most active. Look for areas with deep water near rocks or drop-offs, as smelt tends to congregate in these spots. A fish finder can help you locate schools of smelt beneath the ice.

Also, check out our article on Big Stone Lake Ice Fishing

The Smelt Run: A Phenomenon Worth the Wait

The smelt run is an annual event that ice fishing enthusiasts eagerly anticipate. During this time, usually in the early spring, smelt migrate in massive numbers to spawn, providing a prime opportunity for fishing for smelt.

Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are famous for their smelt runs, drawing anglers from all over who want to catch smelt. The runs typically occur at night, so be prepared for some evening fishing. Using a dip net is a common technique during the smelt run, as the fish move in large schools and can be caught in greater numbers.

Understanding the timing of the smelt run is crucial for those who love the outdoors and the thrill of catching smelt. It's a unique experience that combines the serene beauty of winter transitioning into spring with the excitement of a bountiful catch.

To maximize your chances, follow local fishing reports, join online forums, or subscribe to newsletters from experienced fishing teams. These resources can provide additional information on the exact timing and location of the runs, ensuring that you're in the right place at the right time.

With a little patience and the right techniques, the smelt run can be one of the most rewarding fishing experiences of the year.

Mastering the Technique

Catching smelt through the ice involves finesse and patience. Start by drilling a series of holes in the ice over the area you believe the smelts are holding. Drop your smelt rigs down to the desired depth, often just above the bottom or mid-water column where smelts are known to feed.

Jigging is a popular technique for smelt ice fishing. It involves lifting and dropping the tip of your rod in a rhythmic jig or motion to make the bait move enticingly. This action can mimic the movement of small baitfish, drawing smelt to your hook. Be ready to set the hook gently as soon as you feel a bite, as smelt have delicate mouths.

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This sensitive Piscifun rod is a very budget-friendly option to hook some smelt
This sensitive Piscifun rod is a very budget-friendly option to hook some smelt

Bait and Attraction Strategies

The bait you choose can significantly impact your success. As mentioned earlier, smelts are attracted to shiny objects, so using small jigs or spoons tipped with bait can be very effective. Some anglers also use attractants or scents to make their offerings irresistible.

Experiment with different types of bait, such as wax worms, spikes, or small pieces of shrimp. Each body of water may have a different preference, so don't be afraid to try new things. Keep your bait fresh, clean and lively to improve your chances of catching smelt.

Safety and Conservation

Ice fishing requires respect for the environment and an awareness of safety. Always check the ice thickness before venturing out, and never fish alone. A minimum of four inches of solid ice is generally considered safe if you are on foot. If you are using an ATV or other vehicle, then ice thickness should be a min of 7 inches.

When it comes to conservation, practice catch and release when possible, and be mindful of the average size and limits for smelt in your area. Keeping only what you can use ensures that the smelt population remains healthy for future generations.

FAQ Section

What is the best time of day for smelt ice fishing?

The best time of day for smelt ice fishing is typically in the evening when smelts are most active and feeding.

Can you catch smelt all winter long?

While smelt can be caught throughout the winter, the best time is usually during the smelt run, which occurs in early winter or mid-season.

Do I need a special license for smelt ice fishing?

Fishing regulations vary by location, so checking with local authorities is important. A standard fishing license is sufficient for smelt ice fishing in many places.

Are smelts good for ice fishing?

Smelts are a popular fish for ice fishing. They are small, silvery fish that are easy to catch. They are not only tasty but also make great bait for larger fish like trout or walleye.

What kind of fish is smelt?

Smelt is a small, silvery fish that belongs to the family Osmeridae. They are found in both freshwater and saltwater and are known for their mild, sweet flavor.

Is smelt a good fish to eat?

Yes, smelt is a good fish to eat. They are low in fat and high in protein, making them a healthy choice. Smelt has a mild, sweet flavor and can be cooked in various ways, including frying, baking, and grilling.

How do you rig a smelt for ice fishing?

To rig a smelt for ice fishing, use a small jigging rod and reel with 2-4 lb test line. Bait your line with a minnow, small piece of worm, or other small baitfish. Set the hook about 1 inch below the fish’s mouth and let them run with the end of the line before reeling in.

Final Thoughts

Smelt ice fishing is a rewarding winter activity that offers a unique combination of challenge and enjoyment.

By equipping yourself with the right gear, understanding the best times and locations for fishing, mastering the techniques involved, selecting the right bait, and prioritizing safety and conservation, you'll be well on your way to a successful smelt fishing adventure.