Introduced to Michigan's inland waters as food for stocked salmon in the 1900s, this small ocean fish soon escaped to Lake Michigan. By 1930, the rapidly growing smelt population had expanded into Lake Superior.
In the lower Great Lakes, rainbow smelt were at first regarded as a nuisance, hordes of them invading and becoming entangled in fish nets. In Lake Superior, however, they were welcomed both as a forage fish and as a recreational target during their spring spawning runs. Systematic harvesting began in 1952, and dip-netting and seining in spawning streams has developed into an avid sport.
In the streams, rainbow smelt display the characteristics that inspired their name, shimmering colorfully. Removed from the water, they quickly fade to a lifeless silvery white and give off the odor of freshly cut cucumbers. These carnivorous fish school in both coastal and central regions of the lake. Sensitive to bright lights and warm temperatures, they are usually found in dark, cool depths offshore.
Smelt are not only processed for animal feeds but are also enjoyed by people, and countries as far away as Japan are interested in importing its meat and roe. Unfortunately, smelt populations fell sharply in the early 1980s and the outlook for them is not clear.