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Excerpt: "Smelt"

Smelt (Order Osmeriformes)

Smelts are circumpolar fish restricted to the Northern Hemisphere. These slender, silvery, mostly small fish occur in temperate and cold coastal areas. Some spend their entire lives at sea, some are marine but enter fresh water to spawn, and some are strictly freshwater inhabitants. They occur in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans and their drainages.

Four genera and species occur in Canadian fresh waters: the pond smelt (Hypomesus olidus), the rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax), the eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) and the longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys).

The family is complex, and there is still uncertainty concerning the identity of some of its parts. Dr. Don McAllister's highly respected A Revision of the Smelt Family, Osmeridae, published in 1963 by the National Museum of Canada, has helped to clarify the status of some populations, however, and in this respect is the document still most frequently consulted.

Smelt are schooling fish. In spring, huge numbers move from their marine or freshwater habitat to small streams to spawn. The anadromous Pacific longfin smelt is an exception; it spawns during late fall and early winter. All smelt species spawn at night.

Both the pond smelt (Hypomesus olidus) and rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) are excellent food fish. Anglers have a high regard for rainbow smelts in many parts of their eastern Canadian range, especially the Great Lakes. Many are taken during the winter by dip-netting or seining through the ice. Scott and Crossman write that "smelt is the only fish, other than bait fishes, that can legally be taken from Ontario waters at night by means other than angling."

The rich, oily Pacific eulachon has a long tradition - particularly among native peoples - as a food, as a source of cooking oil and for curative purposes. The longfin smelt, although it also occurs in great numbers along the British Columbia coast, has no value as a food or sports fish. Just as some people claim Arctic grayling smells of wild thyme or cucumber, some say smelts smell like cucumber. One writer, however, describes the smell as "putrid cucumber."