The Smelt

Order: Salmoniformes
Family: Osmeridae
Genus and species: Osmerus eperlanus

The Fish Shop Salmoniformes Osmeridae

William Yarrell (1836) in "A History of British Fishes":



Osmerus eperlanus, Smelt, Flem. Brit. An. p. 181, sp. 48.
" " Cuvier, Règne An. t. ii. p. 305.
Eperlanus Rondeletii, Willughby, p. 202.
" Schonfeldii, " Willighby, tab. N. 6, fig. 4.
Salmo eperlanus, Linnæus. Bloch, Pt. i. pl. 28. 2.
" " " Penn. Brit. Zool. vol. iii. p. 416, pl. 72.
" " " Don. Brit. Fish. pl. 48.

Generic Characters. - Body elongated, covered with small scales : two dorsal fins, the first with rays, the second fleshy, without rays ventral fins in a vertical line under the commencement of the first dorsal fin : teeth on the jaws and tongue very long, two distinct rows on each palatine bone, none on the vomer except at the most anterior part ; branchiostegous rays 8.

THE SMELT, as a British fish, appears to be almost exclusively confined to the eastern and western coasts of Great Britain. I am not aware of any good authority for the appearance of the true Smelt between Dover and the Land's End.* The fish called Smelt and Sandsmelt along the extended line of our southern coast is in reality the Atherine, as stated in the account of that fish, volume i. page 214: but the Atherine, though furnished with two dorsal fins, and otherwise something like the Smelt, is immediately distinguished from it by the numerous rays supporting the second dorsal fin ; which fin in the true Smelt is without any rays whatever, like the adipose fin of the species of the genus Salmo last described.
On the eastern side of our island, the Smelt occurs in the Tay, in the Frith of Forth, in the Ure on the Yorkshire coast ; it is taken in abundance in the Humber, and on the Lincolnshire coast; in the Thames, and the Medway. On the western side, the Smelt is taken in the Solway Firth, and may be traced as far south as the parallel line formed by the Mersey, the Dee, the Conway, and Dublin Bay.
The Smelt inhabits fresh water from August to May. After spawning in March or the beginning of April, they return to the sea. The ova are small and yellowish in colour. The fry are found about three inches long, swimming near the surface in shoals in the rivers in the month of August, ascending and descending with the tide, when the adult fish are again visiting the fresh water. Their food is small fish, with crustaceous and testaceous animals : Dr. Fleming says, the principal food of the Smelt in the Tay is the shrimp.
Two modes of fishing for Smelts are in practice ; one on the sandy shallow shores of the sea, on the eastern coast, particularly Lincolnshire, where large quantities are taken in spring; the other is the river-fishing within the tide-way. The excellence of the Smelts of the Medway is well known. The Thames and Medway fishing with small-meshed nets for Smelts is permitted, under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor of London, from the 28th of August (St. Augustine) till Good-Friday. Formerly, the Thames from Wandsworth to Putney-bridge, and from thence upwards to the situation of the present suspension-bridge at Hammersmith, produced abundance of Smelts, and from thirty to forty boats might then be seen working together; but very few are now to be taken, the state of the water, it is believed, preventing the fish advancing so high up. The particu-lar, cucumber-like smell of this fish is well known ; and it is very considerably more powerful when they are first taken out of the water.
The Smelt is generally in great request from its delicate and peculiar flavour. This quality, coupled with the circumstance of the fish passing six or seven months of the year in fresh water, has induced two or three experiments to retain it in ponds, one of which was attended with complete success, and the attempts might be multiplied with advantage. Colonel Meynell, of Yarm in Yorkshire, kept Smelts for four years in a fresh-water pond having no com-munication with the sea they continued to thrive, and propagated abundantly. They were not affected by freezing, as the whole pond, which covered about three acres, was so frozen over as to admit of skating. When the pond was drawn, the fishermen of the Tees considered that they had never seen a finer lot of Smelts. There was no loss of flavour or quality.
From the point of the lower jaw to the end of the gill--cover, the length is, as compared to the body alone, as one to three ; the depth of the body not equal to the length of the head : the dorsal fin commences half-way between the point of the nose and the end of the fleshy portion of the tail, the first ray of this fin less than half the length of the second, which is as long as the third ; the second and third are the longest rays in the fin, nearly as high as the body of the fish is deep, and as long again as the base of the fin ; the two first rays simple, all the others branched: the anterior edge of the adipose fin is half-way between the base of the last ray of the dorsal fin and the end of the fleshy portion of the tail, and in a vertical line over the middle of the anal fin; pectoral fins long and narrow; the ventral fins commence on the same plane as the dorsal fin : the base of the anal fin long, commencing half-way between the origin of the ventral fins and the end of the fleshy portion of the tail ; the third ray the longest, but not so long as the base of the fin ; the other rays diminish in length gradually: the tail slender and deeply forked. The fin-rays are -

D. 11 : P. 11 : V. 8 : A. 15 : C. 19.

The lower jaw much longer than the upper; the gape deeper than wide : the teeth long, and curving inwards ; those on the anterior parts of the tongue and palatine bones are the longest : the breadth of the eye about one-fifth of the whole length of the head, the irides silvery white ; the gill-cover triangular; the upper part of the head flat ; the nape and back rising ; the form of the body elongated and slender ; the dorsal and abdominal lines slightly convex : the colour of the upper part of the body pale ash green ; all the lower parts, cheeks, and gill-covers, brilliant silvery white : the scales oval, small, and deciduous : all the fins pale yellowish white ; the ends of the caudal rays tipped with black.
The specimen described measured seven inches in length. Occasionally Smelts may be seen in the London markets ten and eleven inches long, but this is an unusually large size. Pennant mentions having seen one that was thirteen inches and weighed eight ounces.

* Mr. Salter, in his Angler's Guide, page 169, says he has caught very fine Smelts by angling in Portsmouth harbour ; but there is very little doubt that the Sandsmelt, or Atherine, which is there abundant, is the fish alluded to.

Alwyne Wheeler (1969) in "The Fishes of the British Isles and North West Europe":

Smelt [Sparling]

Osmerus eperlanus (Linnaeus, 1758)

NAMES Fr. Éperlan; Du. Spierling, Spiering; Ge. Stint; Da. Smelt; Nor. Nors.

IDENTIFICATION Body long and slim, head rather pointed, scaleless; an adipose fin near the tail. The jaws are large, extending well past the level of the rear edge of the eye; the lower jaw protrudes slightly in front. The teeth are large in the lower jaw, smaller in the upper, but there are large teeth in the roof of the mouth and on the tongue. The eye and scales are relatively small, the scales well attached. The dorsal fin is set far back, its origin behind the base of the pelvic fins. The back is a light olive green, the sides have a fairly pronounced silvery stripe running from head to tail; ventrally it is creamy white. Fresh smelts, particularly those with damaged tissues, have a strong smell of cucumber.
D. 9-12; A. 12-16; lateral line 60-6; vertebrae 55-62.

BIOLOGY An inshore fish of very restricted distribution, smelt, even adults, are rarely found far from shore. Some may spend all their lives in larger estuaries, and the young are not infrequently found between tide levels. The adults appear to congregate around river mouths in winter and enter the rivers in early spring (February to April), at which time the males have numerous small tubercles on their scales. Spawning occurs within this period, or immediately after, in estuarine waters and even in only slightly brackish water. After spawning the adults return to the sea, but the young stay in the estuary for the remainder of the summer.
The eggs are minute (about 1.2 mm in diameter) and adhesive. They sink to the bottom and hatch in from eight to twenty-seven days according to temperature. The length of the young by the end of their first summer is 2-2¾ in (5-7 cm).
Smelt are active predacious fishes, eating a wide range of fishes, including young sprats, herring, young gadoid fishes, such as whiting, and gobies, chiefly Pomatoschistus minutes and P. microps. Crustaceans, brown shrimps, Corophium, and Gammarus chiefly, are also important, but various isopods and copepods also figure in their diet. The young eat principally copepods and young fish. They also take worms but not often.
Owing to its tolerance of low salinities the smelt is capable of adapting to life in fresh water, and certain landlocked populations are known both in Europe and America. These are most common in the northern parts of its range, and freshwater populations are known from Jutland, parts of southern Norway, Sweden and Finland. A unique population in Rostherne Mere, Cheshire, seems to have become extinct since the 1920s.
Smelt are delicious to eat, although their strong smell makes them rather an acquired taste. In America a related smelt is highly regarded as an angler’s fish, but the European form is not so favoured, although there is no reason why a sport fishery should not succeed, particularly on the southern North Sea coasts.