Historical Fishery

The rainbow smelt is a prized table fish with cultural, ecological, and economic importance along its native range from Virginia to the Canadian Maritimes. Smelt fisheries were prominent in numerous coastal communities on the east coast of the United States until the latter half of the twentieth century. Southern populations from Virginia through Rhode Island have gradually declined and appear to have been recently extirpated. Massachusetts supports the southernmost viable population.

Historical Fisheries and Present Condition

Mid-Atlantic States

Small, historical fisheries have disappeared

Historically, smelt were found as far south as Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, but limited information is available regarding fisheries in those states. In 1833, smelt were plentiful in New Jersey with “wagonloads” of smelt harvested in Newark Bay. Yet by 1849, the New Jersey populations were noticeably declining; the last regular commercial catch of smelt was reported in 1921. The once prominent smelt fishery of New York was no longer considered commercially viable as early as 1887; the last regular commercial catch of smelt was in 1962. Survey efforts conducted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation last found smelt in New York waters in the 1980s.

New England

Declining populations, limited fisheries, strong cultural identity

Connecticut: The peak catch of smelt in Connecticut was 27,000 pounds in 1880. Smelt harvest in the state steadily declined with limited harvest since 1930. In 2003, a survey by the University of Connecticut in Long Island Sound and Connecticut rivers found few smelt. Since 2008, the smelt has been listed as endangered in the state.

Rhode Island: Smelt harvests in Rhode Island have steadily declined since 1880. Since 1965, there has been nearly zero harvest recorded.

Massachusetts: In Massachusetts, commercial smelt harvests have declined for at least the past 90 years. Researchers from the University of Connecticut summarized federal commercial catch rates and noted three peaks in the Massachusetts harvest: 35,000 pounds in 1879, 39,000 pounds in 1919, and 25,000 pounds in 1938. Today in Massachusetts there is limited recreational catch and trace commercial harvest.

New Hampshire: Peak commercial catch of smelt in New Hampshire was between 1940-1945, with an estimated 150,000 pounds per year harvested. Commercial harvests in New Hampshire have tapered off since 1987, but an active recreational smelt fishery remains.

Maine: Like New Hampshire, Maine had a prominent commercial smelt fishery, but as early as 1869 it was evident that the smelt populations were declining. In the late 1800s, annual catch rates for Maine were over a million pounds per year, but after the 1940s commercial catch for smelt dropped off abruptly. Today limited commercial catch is recorded with a total of 3,803 pounds harvested over four-year period (2006-2009), according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Recreational smelt fishing remains very popular and is an important part of the recreational fishing economy. A small but robust commercial fishery occurs every year in late winter on the Pleasant and Narraguagus Rivers in eastern Maine.


Saltwater Smelt Fishing Regulations

New Hampshire: Possession limit 10 quarts, head and tail must remain intact. Hook and line fishing open all year. Harvest permit required for dip net or bow net; permits are available at no cost from NHDFG. Net fishing for smelt is closed from March 1 to December 15 north of the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth.

Maine: Methods of take allowed are hook and line and dip net. Bag limit: From July 1 to March 14, no  limit, personal use only unless harvester holds commercial fishing license. From March 15 to June 30: 2-quart limit regardless of method of take.

Massachusetts: Open season June 16 to March 14, no size limit, limit of 50 fish per day. Rod and reel only, with the exception of the Weweantic dip net fishery.

Recreational fishing for smelt.

Creel Surveys

In order to maintain current information about the smelt fishery in New England, the states of New Hampshire and Maine conduct annual creel surveys during the winter smelt fishing months.  Biologists collect data such as gender and length from the smelt caught, and they ask anglers to provide information about their fishing efforts. Anglers’ cooperation with this survey is a true public service as it increases everyone’s understanding of the smelt population’s current status.

Guides to Smelt Fishing

These external links provide information on where and how to fish for rainbow smelt:

Ice fishing in Maine.