• Scientific Name: Osmerus eperlanus
  • Also know as: European Smelt
  • Size: Up to 12ins
  • UK minimum size: 8ins/20cm
  • UK shore caught record: 191 grams
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Found in isolated locations around the UK and Ireland. Known to favour estuaries and can travel far up rivers.
  • Feeds on: Tiny plankton-like sea creatures, very small fish and the fry of other species.
  • Description: Small silvery fish. Elongated, slender body with pointed triangle dorsal fin and deeply forked tail. Back and upper flanks are green to dark grey in colour with lower flanks silvery, sometimes with a pinkish tinge. Tail and fins can be translucent.

Smelt is a small fish that is found in certain areas around the UK and Ireland. It is not usually targeted by anglers or commercial fishermen in the UK, meaning little attention is paid to its distribution and life cycle. Smelt generally live close to the shore and can swim far inland. In certain parts of Europe, especially in Germany, there are populations of smelt that have adapted to be freshwater tolerant and live in land-locked lakes. Smelt feed on larger types of plankton and krill, but will also hunt down very small fish, usually the fry and larvae of other species of fish. Smelt spawn in the spring as the waters start to warm, laying eggs in shallow, sandy water, often in estuaries or rivers. Two closely related species of smelt are also found in UK waters.

Commercial Value

Smelt is an important food fish in many European countries, as the bones are so soft they do not have to be removed before eating and the fish is simply cooked and consumed whole. Smelt is typically fried in butter and is a regional specialty in many parts of Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe. Smelt are generally caught with inshore nets or by small-scale trawling


Smelt on sale in Germany, one of the countries where this species is considered a delicacy.

While there may be some localised threats – such as pollution and overfishing – to smelt numbers in some European waters stocks of this species are generally viewed to be in good condition. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes smelt as a species of Least Concern.

Methods and Techniques to Catch Smelt

A smelt caught on daylights

A smelt caught on daylights.

Smelt are rare and sporadically located around Britain, meaning most smelt are caught inadvertently when using feathers, daylights or other small lures to fish for mackerel. Many anglers are confused about what they have caught, guessing that they have caught an immature bass or an allis shad or herring. However, some anglers specifically target smelt in areas where they are known to be located with small size 4 – 10 hooks dressed with feathers, as full sized mackerel feathers of daylights with size 1 or 1/0 hooks may be too big for the small-mouthed smelt. Alternatively a drop net can be placed in shallow water with bait such as a gutted mackerel, squid or herring in it. Smelt will gather and being to feed on the bait and retrieving it rapidly will see them caught inside it. Live smelt are excellent to use as a live bait for bass and other large predatory species, especially from deep water rock marks and piers where they can be lowered down into the sea and do not need to be cast out. Some anglers keep smelt alive in a large bucket which is fitted with a battery powered aeration device. Bizarrely, the smelt has a strange cucumber-like smell when freshly caught.

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