Fishing Lake Simcoe - Rainbow Smelt|
Rainbow smelt were introduced into Lake Simcoe in the early 1960's, and are now well established in the lake. The most popular time of year for smelt angling is during the month of April, when large schools of mature smelt move into rivers, streams and beaches to spawn. Smelt will begin to spawn about one week after ice out when the water temperature reaches 4°C (40-42°F). The smelt generally spawn at night, and this brings scores of smelt fisherman to known streams and beaches along the shores of Lake Simcoe, armed with dip nets, seine nets, buckets, lanterns, generators, square nets on pulley systems, and all types of contraptions.
Docks and beaches can become quite crowded and the annual smelt runs can be a fun social event for anglers and non-anglers alike. Smelt runs were very plentiful in Lake Simcoe in the early 1980's until the mid 1990's, with many anglers filling multiple 10 gallon pails and bushels within a few hours of smelting. I myself have fond memories of fishing on the beaches of Oro, with my dip net and seeing the beach turn black with these fish, there were so many smelt the water was literally boiling with spawning smelt. Although the large runs of Simcoe smelt are now mostly in the past, smelt runs still occur sporadically. Generally a good catch of smelt now a days is about ½ bucket. The theories as to why the Lake Simcoe smelt population crashed are many, although the most likely candidate is the introduction of the invasive zebra mussel. These mussels feed on the same food as smelt, plankton, and the increased competition for this forage may have a detrimental effect on the smelt population. Other theories include overfishing and the natural effects of population dynamics. Over fishing has been suggested, since smelt runs are still reported in off shore locations on shallow shoals and near islands, and the well known traditional spawning areas in streams and beaches have experienced poor runs.
The theory is that heavy fishing of shoreline spawning smelt has shifted the genetics of the Lake Simcoe smelt to favour fish which spawn off shore in deeper water. In recent years, many anglers have observed huge schools of smelt while ice fishing, as well, both Lake Trout and Whitefish caught during the winter have been found to be full of smelt. These observations seem to suggest the smelt population is still quite healthy in Lake Simcoe, although their spawning habits may have changed. Furthermore, the majority of smelt removed from the digestive system of predatory fish have been small smelt, which supports the later theory of increased competition for forage by other species. Generally in all watersheds, when a new species is introduced, it may initially go through a population explosion as it fills a niche in the lake and once the forage in this niche is depleted, it's population falls to a more balanced level. The actual cause of the fluctuating smelt population in Lake Simcoe is most likely caused by a combination of these factors. Abundance of smelt, or not, anglers still make the trek to Lake Simcoe rivers, streams and beaches on warm nights in April to try their luck at catching these tasty fish.
Recently anglers have found a new method to catch these fish, ice fishing for smelt. Many anglers fishing for Lake Trout and Whitefish have observed schools of these fish under the ice, and even incidentally hooked a few with spoons and jigs. Targeting smelt through the ice can be very productive. Once a large school is located, usually observed as a large mass on the fish finder, near the top of the water column, jigging small spoons above the schools can entice some of the larger fish to bite. Tiny spoons, tear drop jigs and single maggots on small hooks are all effective at catching smelt. A plain hook with a small piece of orange or red yarn tied to the hook can be deadly, not only do smelt get hooked, but some bite the yarn, and their tiny teeth can get caught up in the threads, allowing you pull fish out without even being hooked. What ever your method of choice for catching these fish, smelt will always be a sure sign of spring and nothing beats, freshly caught, lightly battered, fried smelt.