Chapter 2. Cucumber Fish, Smelt – Silveries
The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing by Allan Burgess
Better known in Canterbury as a silvery, this little fish has a distinct cucumber smell when freshly caught. It measures around 8 to 13cm in length and it’s lower 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. Smelt enter rivers and estuaries from the sea and have a life-cycle very similar to galaxiids (whitebait). It migrates from the sea into river estuaries to spawn, and in lakes make a similar migration to feeder streams to spawn. There is also a very similar species called Stokell’s smelt – Stokellia anisodon. They both have the same distinct cucumber smell.
Common smelt are caught in whitebait nets mostly as an unwanted bi-catch. They are more numerous towards the end of the whitebait season during November. Although most whitebaiters toss them back they are very good to eat. Dipped in flower and cooked in butter they are delicious.
The small bones soften when cooked. Gut and head them with your thumbnail before coating in flour. There have been attempts made in the past to catch large numbers of smelt on a commercial scale and dry them in the sun.
Common smelt were successfully introduced into New Zealand inland lakes by acclimatization societies many decades ago as a forage fish for brown and rainbow trout. These released smelt 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 are 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.
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.
Smelt can also be used as live or dead-baits. This was a quite common way to fish for sea-run trout over thirty years ago when fishing lures were much more expensive than they are now. I remember several decades ago a few knowledgeable experienced trout anglers fishing the Waimakariri River just downstream from the old highway bridge would use lip hooked smelt as a live-bait to very good effect. A couple of dozen silveries in a bucket make a good supply for an evening’s fishing. From memory I think the bag limit back then was 6 trout per day.
Almost any whitebaiter you talk to will willingly give you a couple of handfuls of silveries if you ask nicely!
The smelt were lip hooked and allowed to drift down a riffle over the drop-off into deeper water where they would be readily taken by the bright silver coloured sea-run brown trout particularly at night. You can still fish this method today. I’m sure that bait fishing in the lower Waimakariri River is still permitted between 1 October to 30 April. You are no longer permitted to baitfish for the rainbow trout that would move downstream over winter. The rainbows were targeted at that time of year with shrimps as there are no smelt around during winter.
A more modern smelt pattern for trout is the Silicon Smelt tied with pearl Mylar. It has also become quite common nowadays for anglers to fish with soft-baits that closely resemble smelt.
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.
In fact, some of the recently released soft-plastics look and feel very much like the real smelt! Soft-plastics can also be cast and allowed to drift down with the current. They are probably best fished this way rather than being wound in flat-out like a spinner.
If you observe smelt swimming upstream you will note that they tend to swim in a sort of stop-start motion. Trout will often sit behind a rock, or some other obstruction on the bottom, that breaks the current allowing them to use less energy to hold their position. They then need only to wait for something edible to swim past. Hence natural smelt baits, or soft-plastic lures designed to imitate them, will always be more effective fished close to the bottom rather than up near the surface.
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. Popular with anglers in Canterbury is the Silvery Hopes, and a host of other Canterbury smelt patterns. These patterns are best tied with a round torpedo-like shape that best imitates the smelt. Smaller versions work better for sea-runs when the river is low and clear.
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. Perhaps the smelt attempt to “school” with the artificial, get too close and become hooked.
I remember many years ago one of the older anglers we fished within the Waimakariri River showing me how he would rub a silvery on his feathered lure to impart the cucumber scent. He would do this whenever one of us accidentally caught a smelt.
I am astounded at just how many of these little fish return to enter our rivers from the sea every spring. Vast numbers are taken by terns, gulls and other birds. Kahawai mob them at river mouths; as many other fish must do at sea. Migratory brown trout consume them in enormous numbers. At times I have dipped a whitebait net in the water and caught half a bucket of silveries in just a few minutes. Trout can eat a lot of silveries. I have often caught trout that are packed full of them. This bountiful high protein diet allows the trout to pile on weight and condition very quickly. I suspect this is the reason the bigger sea-runs are caught after Christmas as they have had at least several months to “pack on the pounds.” It is a tough life being a smelt.