Common Smelt – Retropinna-retropinna – in Canterbury as a silvery

A freshly caught Common Smelt is almost transparent.

Common Smelt (or silveries) – Retropinna-retropinna

The Maori name for smelt is pōrohe or paraki.

Common Smelt Retropinna retropinna measures 90 to 100 mm. There is also a second species Stockell’s Smelt – Stokellia Anisodon that is found only in Canterbury. They are difficult to tell apart in the field. The Stockell’s Smelt is on average about 15-20 mm shorter.  

Better known in Canterbury as a silvery, smelt have a distinctive cucumber smell when freshly caught. The body is almost transparent while the sides are silver and the upper body is darker in colour. They are found all around New Zealand’s coastline.

During spring and early summer, enormous numbers of smelt enter most New Zealand rivers. They arrive at about the same time as whitebait and are often caught as, a mostly unwanted, by-catch as you can see in this video filmed near the old road and rail bridges, about 5km upstream from the sea. Sea-run brown trout gorge themselves on the silveries as the little fish shoal on their way upstream. I have often caught sea-run trout that are packed full of silveries. At the rate this lady was catching them in her whitebait net, it shows that at times there must be a phenomenal number of smelt present in some rivers.    

They enter rivers and estuaries from the sea; and have a life cycle similar to galaxiids (whitebait). It migrates from the sea into river estuaries to spawn. In lakes, the smelt makes a similar migration to feeder streams to spawn. There is also a very similar species called Stokell’s smelt – Stokellia anisodon. The two species are difficult to tell apart in the field.

They both have the same distinct cucumber smell. Common smelt is caught in whitebait nets as, a usually unwanted, bi-catch. They are more prevalent towards the end of the whitebait season during November. Note, that the whitebait season in mainland New Zealand now runs from the beginning of September to the end of October.

Dipped in flour and cooked in butter smelt makes for very good eating. There have been unsuccessful attempts made in the past to catch large numbers of smelt and dry them in the sun for commercial sale.

Gulls chasing and feeding on smelt in the lower Rakaia River.

Common smelt was successfully introduced into New Zealand inland lakes by acclimatization societies many decades ago as a forage fish for brown and rainbow trout. These released smelts have formed self-sustaining populations and provide a significant food source for trout in some New Zealand lakes, most notably Lake Taupo. However, records of such releases are poor so it is difficult to tell which lakes have natural populations of smelt and which lakes have introduced smelt.

According to the late Ron McDowall, in Gamekeepers for the Nation, “It is probably only in the lakes of the central North Island that smelt is abundant enough to constitute an important food for trout.” He also stated that “smelt are arguably the main food source of the trout fisheries of the central North Island, which would probably be only a shadow of their present value without them.”

However, it is certain that there are landlocked populations of smelt in lakes the length of New Zealand, such as Lake Omapere, near Kaitaia to Lake Manapouri, in Fiordland.

Smelt are found well up New Zealand rivers from North Auckland down to the bottom of the South Island’s West Coast. When river and lake fishing from shore it is not unusual to see large shoals of smelt swimming past. About smelt on the Department of Conservation website.

Top the Common Smelt and below it a Hopes Silvery trout lure.

The old-time Maori were very fond of smelt. They would dry them in the sun and store them for later use as food. The Maori name for smelt is pōrohe or paraki.

This is the method used for fishing live smelt for sea-run brown trout. I’m sure an unweighted soft bait would work fished by this method as well. The fish pictured is not a smelt. It is a Bleak Alburnus alburnus (a freshwater species found in Europe and Asia), but the lip-hooking method shown is exactly the same as that used by several very successful anglers I have fished with in the Waimakariri River, near Christchurch. Live baits fished this way in the evenings and after dark would catch as many sea-run brown trout as streamer flies. 

Smelt as Live Baits for Sea-run Trout

You don’t see it much nowadays but I remember several decades ago sea-run trout anglers in the lower Waimakariri River would use lip-hooked smelt as live bait to very good effect.

A couple of dozen silveries, as they are almost always called in Canterbury, kept in a bucket, make a good supply for an evening’s fishing. They were lip hooked and allowed to drift down a riffle over the drop-off into deeper water where they would be taken readily by the bright silver-coloured sea-run brown trout.

A more modern smelt fly pattern for trout is the Silicon Smelt tied with pearl Mylar.

Silveries that were taken as by-catch in a whitebaiter’s net.

For those anglers unwilling to resort to using real smelt as trout bait there are various artificial trout flies (also called lures) that are tied to imitate them. The Hopes Silvery is popular with anglers in Canterbury and a host of other Canterbury Silvery patterns.

It is not unusual to “spear” a smelt when retrieving your lure or fly when fishing for sea-run trout in the lower reaches of rivers. At least one old-time angler I knew and fished with when I was much younger would advise me to rub my feathered lure on the sides of a foul-hooked silvery in order to impart my flies with their cucumber smell so as to attract sea-run brown trout to my lure. Whether this actually worked or not I can’t say! 

This post was last modified on 06/10/2023 1:57 am

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